For Fathers Day, here’s my advice to dads about the three situations that regularly bring out the worst behavior from dads of boys at child-care programs. Providers ask me about these at nearly every boys workshop I present.
For dads of boys when… (from a dad of two boys)
…your son wears “fancy” or “girly” dress-up clothes at daycare. Don’t worry. It’s normal. It can’t “make him” gay any more than dressing up for Halloween makes him a ghost. Dress-up play is one way boys grow their brains and make sense of their world. It helps them experience and understand what other people think and feel. In fact, boys are more likely to be confused if they DON’T get to play dress-up.
Resist the urge to disapprove or tell him “boys don’t dress like that.” In his little mind all that would do is make him feel like Dad is upset and there’s something wrong with him for playing and having fun. It can also send the message that women are inferior and anyone who does certain jobs or roles doesn’t deserve as much respect. Ironically, when we teach children not to fully respect others, they end up thinking they don’t deserve respect themselves.
…you’re temped to tell him it’s okay to “hit back” to stand up for himself. Give him more credit. Soldiers and martial arts experts know it takes more strength and skill to solve conflicts without force. “The strong survive” only works for wild animals. Human evolution actually favors the males who learn to make friends, get along and solve problems. Even bullies respect the kid who knows how to make friends. Living by the sword only ends well in movies. In real life, there are better ways to feel capable, safe, strong, and win a fight.
If your son gets physically assaulted by another child, he doesn’t need you to give him boxing lessons. Rather, he needs you to let him know there’s no shame and you still respect him. Teach him that you both have skills to handle what comes without regressing cave-man status. True strength and authentic manhood can start young, and Dad is the one who gets to model it. Giving-in to violence is a cop-out that makes more problems than it solves.
I know first hand how emotionally charged and difficult these situations can be when you’re in the middle of them. Send me an e-mail if you’re seeing red and want a set of fresh eyes.
…you want to tell him to stop crying and take it like a man. Be careful. Crying is the body’s normal, automatic expression of emotional processing and release. (It can also be a way children try to manipulate and control adults, but that’s a different story.) In the first case, telling him to “man-up” and stop the crying makes emotions even more confusing and sends the message that men and boys should be ashamed of something that’s normal. Living in an emotional straight jacket causes all sorts of problems, but to understand and manage our emotional landscape has huge benefits.
My son and I have discovered a counter-intuitive formula that is healthy and actually seems to help tears end sooner. I call it C.A.P. Connect. Acknowledge. Protect.
Connect: For boys, this is most often done non-verbally through physical proximity. To just stand or sit near him is often enough. Sometimes an arm around the shoulder or hug for the little guys helps. Don’t get too close if he’s not ready.
Acknowledge: A short phrase. Usually something like: “You seem sad, angry, upset (fill in the blank).” “That was pretty tough.” “Do you feel? I can understand if you do.” The key is to recognize that he has emotion and give it a name if possible.
Protect: Let him know he is safe with you (from ridicule, judgement, shame) and protect him from embarrassment. When necessary or possible, find some privacy for him.
In many cases, this whole process only takes us a manner of seconds, but you don’t want to rush it. The counter-intuitive part is that it usually helps him stop crying in a few seconds. That’s not the goal, but it usually works that way. Which makes sense, when you think about it, because it helps to process the emotion. Once the emotion is processed, crying is unnecessary.