Parenting is hard.
For anyone who regularly works with youth, this should come as no surprise, as many of the things we do as educators is mirrored in the work of being a parent and caregiver. The importance of positive and supportive relationships is vital in the context of a child’s growth and development. The way in which we engage young people, the conduct that we model, and the values that we impart, are all critically important to a child’s social and emotional health. For those of us who work in a school setting, a great deal of the work we do with our students in based on the concept of educating ‘the whole child’. Our work is no longer singularly focused on improving academic proficiency (though that is an incredibly important and necessary focus), but also on how we increase our student’s healthy coping skills, respectful communication, effective problem-solving, and ability to navigate various interpersonal conflicts.
As I reflect on the deliberateness of this work in my school, and those that I get to hear about through teacher leaders across the country via social media, I’m struck with how important it is that we continue to develop SEL in all of our children. Admittedly, I am not nearly as intentional in furthering this development in my own kids. Often times, I feel like have emptied my educational energy tank by the time that I get home. I have sadly and incorrectly settled at times with the idea that there are infinite days to focus on these things with them. A never-ending. ‘I’ll get to it tomorrow’ mentality. I’ve been so accustomed to trying to do this work with my students, that I have not been deliberate in how I was going to educate my own children and develop their social and emotional learning and skills. It is with that realization, that I have set out to create a plan for myself as a father of three (6 year-old twins and a 4 year-old) with the same focus and intention that I aspire to impart as an educational leader.
While I am sure that this list will grow and evolve in the weeks, months, and years ahead, the following 5 domains of parenting social and emotional growth include the steps that I pledge to make as a father. While much of this will no doubt be transferable to non-parents, educators, and mentors of all types and situations, my hope is that this will resonate particularly with fathers, who play such a significant and critical role in the development of their children.
For many people, the largest and sometimes only role of being a good father centers on your ability to provide physical safety and financial provision for your family. While I agree that providing tangible safety for your children and spouse are good and commendable goals, the security that fathers provide extends well beyond being able to protect your kids from the dangers of crime and violence. The best fathers, those that instill a foundation of security and safety within their family, focus far more of their efforts on providing emotional security. Creating an atmosphere in your family and household that fosters a supportive and non-threatening response to all issues will elicit the same level of emotional stability in your children. Emotionally secure environments are more likely than not to lessen a child’s anxiety by establishing safe and predictable outcomes. Emotionally secure fathers enhance their child’s happiness by connecting them to an adult who fosters selflessness above selfishness; those who value togetherness over isolation.
In the same way that real estate agents know the importance of location, location, location, fathers must know that the best parenting all derives from relationships, relationships, relationships. The questions is not on the ‘why’ of good relationships, but the ‘how’. There is no magic bullet in the development of healthy relationships with kids, but there is a consistent recipe. With equal parts empathy, active listening, positivity, and commitment, building a relationship that fosters a loving and trusting bond between you and your child is worth the time and effort that it takes to create. The social and emotional learning that we hope our children gain from us is not only based on the relationships that we have with them, but also those that they witness us having with others. We must model positive communication, mutual respect, and the extension of grace to others. Having our sons and daughters witness us treating others the way with which we want them to treat their peers, their teachers, and strangers in the grocery store, is the simplest way in which we can impart these important traits to them. Modeling these behaviors with our spouses/partners in our homes not only builds the atmosphere of emotional security referenced above, but is the most consistent and regular social emotional teaching that we can deliver.
One of my biggest struggles to date as a father, albeit only a few years into the process, is helping my children to become resilient in the face of adversity. I do need to completely recognize and make clear that the adversity I speak of here in this context is extremely low-stakes and not remotely close to the grim realities that some of my students may face each day. My kids are not faced with the toxic stress of food scarcity, parental incarceration, generational poverty, or familial drug addiction. The day to day tasks and issues that I am speaking of here are more focused on the disappointment associated with a negative peer interaction, my son struggling to complete a puzzle, or my daughter’s inability to complete a specific move in her dance class. While these do seem insignificant at times in the grand scheme of their emotional development, the fact remains that regardless of the scope of the struggle, one of a father’s most important roles is helping guide their child through any and all adversity that comes their way. It is less about preparing the path for them, but preparing them for the path. Teaching your children that failure is not just ok, but an incredibly powerful tool for learning is a life lesson that is transferable regardless of age, location, and circumstance. Teaching them to persevere by getting out of their comfort zone and challenging themselves can be a potent tool that stretches their patience and grit, simultaneously increasing independence and autonomy.
As children, many of us heard the age-old comment, “Wait until your father gets home!”. While that anxiety-producing sentiment certainly instilled a sense of temporary panic, the reality is that providing healthy and positive discipline should be a joint effort amongst parents and caregivers. While punishment hinges on the infliction of some type of penalty for an offense or poor-decision, discipline focuses on the teaching of skills, strategies, and awareness in an effort to effect change in children (and helping them to change themselves). It is important distinction and one that cannot be lost on fathers who hope to instill the behavior in their children that will help them be productive members of society. Discipline must take on a restorative lens; one that repairs the harm that the offense created and creates empathy and perspective in the offender. When my four-year pushes her sister to the ground causing her to hit her head, my response must first focus on helping her understand the hurt she has caused. Sending her to her room for 10 minutes does not naturally create feelings of empathy. Having her check in on her sister and get her an ice-pack for her head will start to build an awareness of how her her actions impact others, and lends itself to a greater degree of perspective-taking than a punishment could ever impart. The goal of restorative discipline, especially when it comes from a father-figure, is that might does not make right. We are teaching our children that we do not make decisions because we are in a position of authority. We are teaching our children that we are less concerned with control and compliance, and more focused on connection and concern for others. By responding to issues in this way, we show our children that even when we have the power to impose our will, we’re more interested in empowering them to make positive decisions for themselves that are also helpful and supportive to others in our life.
5. FINDING JOY
This may be the most obvious role of any parent or caregiver, but one that I struggle greatly at times to practice. Find joy in the everyday tasks and daily routines that you and your children do. Look for ways to brighten their day with your enthusiasm and love for them. Smile or make a funny face for no reason. Mark your paths with laughter. Telling jokes (especially corny Dad jokes) to make your child belly laugh while brushing their teeth should not underrated. Leading your life in this manner will reap immediate benefits. Your children will learn to be inspired by the mundane and take an optimistic outlook in their life; even through their struggles. And that is where the magic is- the struggles will most certainly come. One of the best gifts that a father can give to his child is in how he views the problems that he faces in life. By taking a deliberate approach and shifting our mindset to one that finds joy throughout all of what we experience, we can show our children how to view life as a blessing and not a burden. One of the best ways in which we can do this is by bringing joy to others. A servant spirit that attempts to make others feel more engaged, more passionate, and more connected after interacting with you, is the best way to spread the positivity and joy that we hope to instill in our children. Even on your worse days as a Dad, try to find the joy in what you do with, for, and in-front of your children. They will thank you greatly for it somewhere down the line.
This is a promise not just to myself, but to my children. I aspire to put these 5 principles in practice every single day. I strive to lead my family in a way that provides for their physical and emotional security, builds meaningful relationships with each of them and others, and finds ways to bring joy and happiness to those around me. My kids aren’t the only ones who deserve to have their social and emotional development be taken care of, they’re just the ones that I can have the most positive and direct influence on.