“Our children give us the opportunity to become the parents we’d always wish we had.”
– Dr. Louise Hart, American psychologist, speaker, and writer
My own father entered the foster care system very early in his life. He was one of many children, who were separated from each other for most of their childhood. My father often bounced from one unhealthy home environment to another. Often, he was used as a cheap form of labor and regularly experienced physical/emotional abuse. Eventually, he landed in a good home with a loving foster family. These are the people that I now call grandpa and grandma. Though the story “ends” well for him, my father had mixed messages about what it was like to be a father, as many of the examples that he had received were horrid. As a result, he had a lot of self exploration to do before he would become the man that he is now. The process was not only burdensome for himself, but my siblings and I had received much of the collateral effects that came with my father’s journey toward a healthy parenting style. Now, I find myself as the third generation of this cyclical pattern. As you well know, I am a parent myself, and I have the responsibility to decide how I am going to parent in light of what I have been shown. This is a challenge that each of us men must face.
Some of us grew up in homes that were loving, where dad was present and involved, and where we felt safe at all times. For others, this is not the case. However, the truth is, due to the simple fact that each of us has or had a father (whether we know/knew him or not) we have been given a message about what a father is and does. We then must choose if we will continue this message to the next generation or if we will initiate a new one. Whether we believe it or not, we do have the ability to choose. Let me put this as succinctly as possible- regardless of the example that our father was for us, we have the responsibility and capability to be the fathers that our children need us to be.
So, how do we determine what we want to keep and what is worth discarding? To answer this question completely and accurately for each person is impossible. However, there are some general guidelines that we can follow that may get us closer to the vision that we have for our own parenting style. These guidelines are simply that, guidelines. They are not an inflexible rule that we must stick to in order to care for our children properly. Take what you need from the information provided and make it your own. The optimum we hope to achieve here is for our home to be loving, safe, educational, and constant.
With this in mind, here are our guidelines:
1) Primum non nocere: This is Latin phrase given to us by Hippocrates that translates, “first, do no harm.” If our actions are meant to hurt our family, then we are off course. We must always seek to build up those we care about, not to tear them down or cause them unnecessary pain. Examples of this might be: verbal, sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. Unlike the other guidelines, this is a hard rule with little, if any, flexibility.
2) Others before self: The desire to put ourselves first is within all of us. Daily, we must fight the desire to feed our own well being at the expense of our family. This is not to say that parenting should be a practice of constant suffering, but it does require us to have the discipline to say “no” to ourselves in order to meet the needs of our family.
3) Follow through: Canadian author, Matshona Dhliwayo, said, “Never make a promise you can’t keep.” If we say we are going to do something, whether it is a punishment or a reward, we need to do it. If we don’t, we teach our children that we cannot be trusted or that there will be no consequence for misbehavior. All of us say things without giving thought. Sometimes our words just seem to slip out of our mouths. When this happens, we need to apologize and explain that we misspoke. This needs to happen right away, not when our children are asking us to pay up.
4) Stay consistent: It would be unwise for us to stay stagnant in our growth as parents. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”- Albert Einstein. We have to adapt as we gather new information. However, we must also keep in mind that too much change leaves our children uncertain about how we will respond to a situation and may lead to anxiety. We can combat this by letting the expectations and plans be known. Then, go back to guideline number 3.
5) Create a safe learning environment: Kids need to explore. They require a safe place where they can put things to the test. They tinker, manipulate, destroy, and build. This is crucial to their early development. Teenagers don’t play in the mud anymore (kind of), but they need to explore as well. We create a safe environment for this by setting clear boundaries with room for adventure and mistakes to be made.
Changing the path that has been laid before us is no easy task. It will require dedication on our part, wise input from others, and access to the resources we may need. Keep in mind that if your relationship with your father was healthy or at least partially healthy, you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Use what worked for your family, but do so with an open mind. Times change and people are unique. It’s okay to carry on traditions and its just as okay to start new ones. Get feedback from your family. With humility and a willingness to change, you can be the father you hope to be. I believe in you!