I meet a lot of dads or soon to be dads who are very worried they don’t have what it takes to be a “good father” because their dad wasn’t one. They’re not sure how to start parenting differently from how they were parented. It’s not uncommon to feel stuck in a way of doing something because it’s the only way you’ve known, but wanting to make a change and being aware of an unwanted model is the first step.
Become Aware of Your “Normal”
When people talk about what feels natural it’s often what feels most comfortable or the norm for their experience. It doesn’t automatically mean it’s right or wrong, it’s just what you’re used to; it’s what you’ve known.
It’s like when you’re a kid and you spend your first night at a friend’s house. Wait, these people pray before dinner—we don’t? They do their homework with the radio on? They put the toothpaste on the toothbrush before they run it under water?
Suddenly these people are weird—they’re not doing it the right way!
We get more used to this by having a college roommate, living with four friends after school, and living with a partner. We learn that “normal” is very, very relative.
So when it comes time to be a father, you can begin to see how deeply ingrained those “normal’s” are. And if you’re parenting with a partner you have two sets of those.
Becoming aware of all of this gives you choices and allows you to begin parenting differently. You can see why your way really is the best/most efficient/least anxiety provoking, or you learn a way that you like better.
The first step, though, in not getting mired in one way, in your parent’s way, is to be aware that it really is one way of many.
Accepting the Whole of Who Your Parents Were
Many guys want to be just like their dad or the exact opposite of their dad when it comes to their parenting. Any of this kind of either/or extreme thinking is going to lead to inner (and outer) conflict. There’s a myth that in therapy you learn to hate your parents. That, too, is an extreme. If you are talking about your parents the goal is to have balance in understanding who your parents are so they’re not on a pedestal or in the dumpster. You accept whoever they are and not let that have a complete hold on you.
A large portion of my clients are coming to me because they don’t want to parent the way their father did. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean their father was a complete schmuck. He might have been, of course, but it’s still worth looking for the strengths in their dad as well.
Because when we get too focused on what we don’t want to do and what we didn’t like that our parents did, we may automatically do the opposite.
And that can lead to a negative outcome as well.
Be the Parent Your Child Needs
If you didn’t like how your father raised you, then parenting differently doesn’t automatically mean you’re parenting well. It not just a matter of parenting the way a particular guru says is the best way to provide discipline, it’s a matter of knowing your individual child and what he or she needs.
This is what’s so challenging because the best book, the most advanced research, the most informative blog post has never met your child. A parenting intervention that didn’t work for you may work for your child and vice versa. The challenge is to find what aligns with who you are while at the same time takes into consideration what works for who your child is.
Instead of getting stuck in parenting the way your father did, take some time to get to know yourself. Open yourself up to other methods as well, even if they seem not “normal” at first. Become a father who knows himself and his values well enough so that you can also take time to get to know your child as an individual. What motivates him or her? What kind of attention does she or he need?
If you’d like some individual help along your journey of parenting differently, please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.