Who would have thought that the greatest piece of parenting advice would come from the never-respected Rodney Dangerfield: “The best thing about kids…is making them.” I may not remember when I made mine, but since he was born, fatherhood has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced—but one that brings me joy.
When my son was born, his cries were like gale-force winds tearing through our apartment, his squirms like a baby octopus trying to slip out of a straightjacket—damn you, burrito-style swaddle! And because human beings are born with a hierarchy of attachment, his mother was style No. 1 and I was a distant No. 2, cleaning up his number two.
There were plenty of times I paced the floor holding my infant son, wondering if something was wrong with him, resorting to tactics that worked for my wife but somehow failed me. I went so far as to record her voice singing his favorite lullaby: Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.”
My feelings of ineptitude gave way to despair, then anger. But knowing when to fold ’em isn’t an option for a dad. Instead, I had to double-down and rethink my role as a nurturer and open up to emotional vulnerability and discomfort—his and mine.
Understand the struggle
Between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old, toddlers are like mini MMA fighters. They hit, kick, and push their way through situations that obstruct their needs and wants.
Instead of meeting this seemingly aggressive but absolutely normal behavior with forced apologies, empty threats, or, worse, physical punishment, try to grasp the emotional needs that are driving this behavior and you’ll create positive conditions that will help your child thrive at every age and stage.
This can be tough because, according to child psychologist Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids and founder of the lifesaving website Aha! Parenting, dads tend to shut down their emotions. “They’re often scared by feelings because they don’t know if they can calm them.”
Her mission: coaching fathers to tolerate these feelings. “You say to your child, ‘You wish Mom were here? I miss her, too. But I’m here. I’m your dad. I’m going to care for you because that’s what daddies do. Cry as much as you want; show me how upset you are. I’ve got this. I’ve got you. You’re OK.’ ”
And in situations where your toddler grabs, pushes, or doesn’t use words, it’s important to understand “that young children have limitations in self-regulation and in reasoning,” Markham says.
If you, as a father-nurturer, meet your kid’s needs with empathy and understand the developmental stages he or she will go through from the get-go, you’ll be impacting this father–child relationship for a lifetime.
Understanding your child’s development will foster building a lifetime bond of his feeling comfortable coming to you for advice and help.
Be the hero, not the villain
Understanding a child’s limitations doesn’t give that child a free pass to behave in ways that can hurt another child, but it does give us insight into how to coach kids through social challenges and set limits that foster greater cooperation in the long run.
Taking on the role of an authoritarian and enforcer rather than our child’s champion erodes that relationship. Ultimately, Markham points out, “you are your child’s protector, and your child doesn’t deserve to be shamed.” This includes actions like punishing a child on the playground (for example, the poor use of time-outs) for the sake of satisfying other parents’ expectations.
“It’s often hard to get a strong-willed child into a time-out without a power struggle. The cost to your relationship is so huge. That’s when you find kids acting out over and over again.”
We’ve all heard the term “acting out”—when repressed emotions bust through and manifest in undesirable behavior. But here’s the kicker: Kids stop acting out only if their underlying feelings are validated. During a time-out, Markham says, a child isn’t befriending those feelings and learning to manage them. Instead, she suggests, engaging your son or daughter in physical play before heading off to the playground to release tension through laughter, which increases endorphins that trigger positive feelings in the body.
The kind of rough-and-tumble play that dads typically engage in has long-term benefits. In his comprehensive report, Fathering and Mothering with Boys and Girls—the Example of Fathers’ Physical Play, researcher Richard Fletcher states physical play lets boys “manage aggressive impulses,” as opposed to “being punished for transgressions” because “the father provides safety for his son to explore his physical power.” This benefits girls too, as physical play helps them become more active and can influence their self-image.
The power of nuturing
My son’s now a whip-smart 5-year-old who loves Star Wars, leaping from the highest point of the playground and building with Legos. Sure, he looks to me for wrestling and roughhousing, but I know that the foundation of our relationship rests on his confidence that he can come to me for comfort.
Interestingly, this also impacts my relationship with my wife.
“A protector isn’t just fierce, he’s also nurturing,” says Markham. “When a woman sees that in a man, that’s who she wants to father her children. Every woman who watches a man nurturing a child says, ‘Oh, that’s a man I want to be with.’”
Conceiving my son was probably fun, but it’s the countless memories I’ve made with him, by forging a relationship since birth, that I cherish the most.