A Father's Wish
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
What do you want your children to say about you in the future?
Oftentimes, fathers confronted with difficult parenting decisions ask me how to proceed. I usually respond with the following: “Think about what the relationship with your children will look like 15 years from now. How do you want your children to view you and your relationship with them? The answer to that question should be the basis of your decision right now.” In one qualitative fatherhood research study conducted through Adelphi University in 2017, I asked 30 fathers a very similar question. I asked them, “If your children were asked in the future to describe their experience with their father growing up, what do you think they would say?” Many fathers rephrased the question by adding with a chuckle, “What do I think they would say, or what do I hope they would say?”
The fathers’ responses to this question were sweet, simple, and quite predictable. Most participants (90%) acknowledged that in the future, they would want their children to remember them as being emotionally attentive fathers, and that the children felt secure and supported by them.
Here are three participant responses to illustrate:
“I would want them to say that they felt safe and loved. I was never a fan of a father being a friend; a parent being a friend to a kid. But I would like them to feel some of those same positive feelings. I want them to feel secure. I want them to feel like that they had someone that they could talk to and someone who they were always able to rely on for support if they needed help.”
“I would want my son to remember that I took time to spend with him. I want him to remember that I gave of my time to be there for his emotions. For example, sometimes he hears a noise and wants me to hold him. I want him to remember that I was there for him. And I want him to know that he was a very important part of my life. My day is centered around him.”
“I’d like them to say that their father provided them with an emotionally stable and a physically safe environment, but at the same time, he was able to have fun with us and give us guidance on life and raise us to be contributing members of society and stand-up human beings, with the right values.”
In general, fathers want their children to grow up feeling safe, protected, loved, and supported and for their children to acknowledge that their fathers had a part in creating that. This seems like a such a simple and genuine desire. They are not asking for them to be the most successful, the best athlete, or the most brilliant scientist. So how do they accomplish this basic goal?
A well-known psychologist, Dr. Diana Baumrind, together with subsequent researchers, Drs. Maccoby and Martin, identified four main parenting styles that can help outline predictors in child development and future relationships with one’s parents. These four main parenting styles include:
The first style, authoritarian, is characterized by a strong sense of authority, control, strictness, and expectations in the parent-child relationship. Permissive, or indulgent parenting can be viewed as the opposite of authoritarian, in which parents are warmer, more supportive, set fewer rules, and promote high levels of autonomy. Authoritative is a balance between authoritarian and permissive styles; promoting both high levels of structure and expectations with equally high levels of warmth, support, and autonomy. Lastly, neglectful parenting is characterized by an absence of the above variables. These parents show little care or concern for their children, providing them with limited structure, support, or warmth.
It is helpful to view these four parenting styles using a combination of two dimensions: (1) control and (2) warmth. Parents with high levels of both control and warmth will be considered authoritative. A parent with high levels of control and low levels of warmth will fall under the authoritarian style. A parent with low control but high warmth will be categorized as permissive. Those with both low levels of control and low levels of warmth will be classified as neglectful.
Several decades of longitudinal research conducted through the U.S. Department of Education, Temple University, Stanford University, the Family Socialization and Developmental Competence program, The Pittsburgh Youth Study, and others consistently demonstrate how children of authoritative parents acquire the most favorable developmental outcomes; these youth exhibit high levels of self-esteem, social competence, resilience, optimism, maturation, emotional intelligence, and academic achievement. Children of authoritarian parents tend to have more negative developmental outcomes that include higher levels of aggression, delinquent behavior, somatic complaints, depersonalization, and anxiety. Permissive parenting styles are also associated with negative developmental outcomes for children, including higher levels of anxiety, depression, withdrawn behavior, somatic complaints, school misconduct, and delinquency, in addition to lower levels of social skills, self-confidence, self-understanding, and active problem solving. The poorest developmental outcomes have been linked to children of neglectful parents, which include a lack of self-regulation and social responsibility, poor self-reliance and social competence, poor academic achievement, and increased levels of antisocial behavior, delinquency, anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints. These children tend to experience more trauma and other adverse childhood experiences than others.
Authoritative parenting is clearly the goal. The children most successful later in life are those who were provided structure, control, and expectations together with warmth, support, and autonomy. However, further research demonstrates that parents nowadays are likely to exhibit permissive, or indulgent parenting more than any of the other four parenting styles. Fathers are no exception to this current trend. When assessing parenting styles and attitudes of fathers on self-report psychological assessments, my participants scored very high on levels of warmth but low on levels of strictness, which most similarly reflects permissive parenting styles. However, during semi-structured interviews, they viewed themselves more as authoritative parents. Upon further questioning it became clear that these fathers were comparing themselves to their own fathers and their experiences with their own fathers when they were growing up. Many viewed their own fathers as being authoritarian (high on control and expectations, but low on warmth), whereas they viewed themselves as being much more emotionally attentive and responsive to their own children.
There are a few possible explanations to this phenomenon. It is possible that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction; fathers used to be more authoritarian and now they are more permissive. It is also possible that the perception of one’s own parenting style compared to one’s parent’s style is what makes the difference. Perhaps these fathers are just as permissive or as authoritarian as their own fathers were. As grown men, however, these fathers view themselves as more emotionally attentive and warm to their own children but had viewed their own fathers as controlling and distant in their youth. It is common for individuals to parent their own children in the opposite manner in which they believe they were parented, if they view their childhood negatively. Since they may have perceived their parents to be authoritarian, they may attempt to respond to their children in more permissive ways. This, however, may not necessarily reflect the perception of their children. It is also possible that fathers are inconsistent with their parenting behaviors and oscillate from authoritarian to permissive. Their children may simply view them as permissive in some instances, but authoritarian in other instances.
This brings us back to the question that I ask fathers – how they want their children to remember them in the future. They want their children to recall the love, warmth, safety, and support that they provide and not any “negative” experiences, but are unsure how to deliver. Therefore, fathers may still parent in an authoritarian style in certain situations since these fathers are mimicking their own fathers, while it’s possible that they also provide an abundance of autonomy and freedom in other situations, resulting in permissive patterns. The results can be confusing for children and may paint their childhood years in a negative light. We need to be able to bridge these two forces together when we consider all parenting decisions and behaviors, and we need to demonstrate consistency in our parenting behaviors and opinions. Authoritative parenting is the goal; to consistently provide high levels of both control and warmth to our children throughout their experiences in order for them to be most successful in life.
How can we increase authoritative parenting behaviors as dads? The number 1 concept that I emphasize to parents is validation. Validation is the process of recognizing or affirming that a person’s thoughts, opinions, and/or emotions are worthwhile and understandable. The key to success in any relationship is validation, especially when trying to nurture and parent children. Dr. John Gottman, a well-known psychologist and relationship expert, refers to this as being an emotional coach to your children. We want our children to know that we understand what they are experiencing emotionally and cognitively. Children need to know that we “get them” and that their experiences are valid. This is providing warmth and support, the first key dimension. The next step is providing the structure and expectations, the second dimension. Once children feel validated and understood, they are much more likely to listen and acquiesce to our demands, than if they are just told what to do without any validation of experience.
Let’s use a typical example to illustrate. You are supposed to be at work at a certain time, and you have to bring your child to school or the babysitter on your way in to work. Your child is very busy playing with a toy that you bought her months ago and in which she displayed very little interest, up until this very morning. You politely say, “Ok sweetie, we need to go to school now.” No response. You then try to reason with her and explain that both of you will be late and that you need to leave now. She continues playing or tells you, “No.” This frustrates you. Now you are feeling the pressure of arriving late for work. Ultimately, you decide that you tried several times to be nice and patient, but enough is enough. You grab the toy out of her hand and sweep her up off of her feet. You place her in her car seat, and as she cries and cries you wonder, “What did I do wrong? I tried so hard to be nice, but it didn’t help!”
What actually went wrong? You were trying not to be authoritarian and did not demand that she listen to you right away. You thought you were being nice! The key ingredient that was missing was – validation. You forgot to validate her experience. Let’s try to enter her mind to see what was going on. She was sitting here playing with a fascinating toy and this was her only concern in the world. She does not have the concept of time or being late. She needs you to be able to come down to her level and validate her experience. For example, you might say, “Sweetie, wow, that is such a cool toy that you found, can you show it to me?” After she shows it to you and is clearly proud of herself you can say, “This toy really makes you happy and feel good. You probably want to play with it all day. I would also want to play with this toy all day since it is so cool.” This was all validating her experience and emotions. Then you can say, “How about we place this toy down now, so it can rest, and then when we come home from school we can play with it again?” Or you can say, “I know it’s very difficult to keep this toy at home, but right now we need to go to school so we can get smart and play with our friends.” This conversation would combine the warmth, validation, and support, together with the limit setting and expectations of what is required from the child. If we can use these types of interventions in the beginning of episodes like these when we are still feeling “nice and calm,” everyone will feel much better with the outcome. This is also how we will create those positive, warm feelings for our children to remember in the future.
I understand that this may hypothetically seem simple, but can be difficult in application. This is a constant responsibility – to provide both support and structure. However, when we ask ourselves again, how do we want our children to remember their relationship with us growing up, we need to recognize that providing both warmth and control is what will allow our children to have positive memories in the future. We need to ask ourselves, “Are we validating their emotions and experiences while providing them with expectations and structure, or are we trying to be ‘nice’ and end up becoming frustrated and overwhelmed?” Obviously, allowing our children to be provided solely with freedom and indulgent behaviors will not provide them with ultimate success in life. We must combine the validation and autonomy with healthy levels of structure and expectations in order for them to feel loved as a child and to remember these experiences as positive, warm, and nurturing as they grow older.