Different Pages

iStock_000008328252XSmall

The Nurturing Fathers program is a parenting curriculum that runs parallel to Nurturing Parenting (about which I have written often). Its intended audience is men with children in their care—not only fathers, but uncles, grandfathers, teachers, mentors. It recognizes the importance to children of nurturing by adult males.

Sadly, many men in our society don’t realize the importance of this, and often don’t understand how to use their role to guide, love and nurture families. I am lucky that the place I work, at which I was for several years the only male employee, now has four. One of them is now in a therapeutic preschool classroom, and the benefits of a positive male role model can be clearly seen in reports from parents and from the look of joy on the children themselves when he greets them each day.

In addition, we are now able to facilitate a support group for fathers (Dads United was my generic but impressive sounding title). We work with men whose children may be home, or in foster care, or in the care of other family members. Some have adult children; some have been out of contact with them for years. We emphasize that all of them have the power of nurturance within them, and that their children need—and will thrive with—anything they can offer.

You are probably familiar with the “traditional” role of fathers in our society. We are most comfortable with, or at least most responsive to, the role of provider. We work, we bring money and resources back to the home. The work of nurturing—recognizing and expressing feelings, fostering relationships and communication, modeling acceptance and forgiveness, expressing love with words and safe touch—is relegated to the mother, grandmother, or female caregiver.

There is at least one good reason for this, and it is that those traits especially are more common to females. Let me qualify this: many of these things come at least as much from socialization and environment as from genetic disposition. As our Nurturing Parenting trainer is fond of saying, “The nature vs. nurture debate is over” (it’s about 30/70, in case you were wondering). Regardless, this territory is not commonly accepted as the province of males.

The fact is that there are many qualities of nurturing that are shared by males and females: things like expressing love, encouragement, listening, and setting limits. But males have their own particular ways of nurturing that can be forgotten, or even discounted, in our culture; even, unfortunately, in the realms of childhood education and parenting programs.

How do men nurture? We tend to be focused on doing rather than being: practicing skills, solving problems, performing and fixing. Putting things together and taking them apart. There is a focus on boundaries and structure, and also on notions of fairness, justice, and a sense of what the “rules” are. We tend to foster independence and risk-taking. Again, many of these traits come from the way we were raised as boys. But as even the most progressive, gender-neutral parents may learn to their surprise, little boys will be interested in trucks and tractors just as surely girls will discover their inner princess. Wherever these things come from, there they are. And to be clear, these are tendencies: all of us contain within us both masculine and feminine traits.

These male forms of nurturing are important to children, and should be recognized as such. I realized in the course of my recent training in Nurturing Fathers that I may have been too hasty in insisting that parents be on the “same page” about matters of parenting. The fact is, there are different pages. A father may have very different ideas about how to go about raising a child, from how to behave at the table or in public to how to deal with a crying child with a skinned knee. And they are valid, and valuable, when directed with intention toward the love and growth of a child.

After all, kids need more than one page. They need the whole book.