How Dads Positively Influence their Child’s Development

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert. Dr. Hallowell discusses how dads positively influence their children’s growth and development.

Episode 13: The Father’s Day Special: Why Dads Matter

Kyle: It’s a very wise mother who keeps her mouth shut while her husband learns how to handle this baby’s body, because if she really wants a partner, she can’t insist that he do it her way, because he can’t any more than she can do it his way.

DR. HALLOWELL: Hi, there. I’m Dr. Ned Hallowell, and welcome to Distraction. You just heard the voice of the writer Kyle Pruett, who we’ll hear from in just a minute. With Father’s Day approaching, we decided to dedicate this week’s show to dads.

Being the father of three children myself, it’s without a doubt the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I remember when my first child, Lucy, was born 26 years ago, almost 27 years ago, and then followed by Jack, and then Tucker. Sue and I have just loved being parents more than anything either one of us has ever done.

Being a father, being a mother, if you get the opportunity to do that, there’s nothing in human life that, in my opinion, comes close. I think the feelings between parent and child are the single strongest emotion in all of human existence. If you look at the world’s great literature, that’s mostly what it’s about, parents and children, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, families. We sometimes dress it up in Hallmark card language, and make it seem sort of superficial, but it is really the spinal column of life, the bond between parents and children. It’s really the very heart of life.

Dr. Kyle Pruett on the Importance of Fathers Involvement in Children’s Lives

My first guest today has written extensively about the important role fathers play in their children’s lives. In fact, he argues that the care children receive from their father is just as important as the care they receive from their mother. Dr. Kyle Pruett is a world-renowned child psychologist and a clinical professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. He’s contributed to the New York Times and has appeared on Good Morning America, Oprah, and NPR. Kyle, thank you so much for joining us.

Kyle: Happy to be with you, Ned.

DR. HALLOWELL: You were just telling me about your research on the importance of fathers. Do you want to pick that up?

Kyle: Sure. We were talking about an invitation from the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention to follow up on some ideas that I had been writing about for, gosh, decades about the value of engaging dads early in the lives of their children as a way to reduce rates of abuse, and neglect, and domestic violence in families. There were some hints in the literature and the research literature, but it was certainly something I’d seen in my practice. I work with a lot of at-risk families with very young children in the New Haven urban area. We just noticed that when dads were really positively engaged with their children that a lot of things settled down in their own lives, and they became much more interested in their own health, not to mention the well-being of the baby.

DR. HALLOWELL: Didn’t Patrick Moynihan call attention to this decades ago?

Kyle: He gave it a go, but because he was busy talking only about at-risk families, the cry kind of went unheeded, and a matter of fact, he was thought to be of a bleeding heart about it. That wonderful sociologic research that he did wound up not moving any needle, and we’re now aware in some of the replications we’re doing in California, it’s not just true in at-risk families. It’s true in the middle class and working class families as well, that when you positively engage fathers in the well-being of their children, it strengthens marriages, it strengthens the father’s health, because it turns out that what fathers bring to the table is quite different than what mothers bring to the table.

DR. HALLOWELL: What is it that they get specifically from dads, and what did I do right, or what should a dad listening be sure to do?

Kyle: I suppose to really answer that question we should call your kids up.

DR. HALLOWELL: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

Dads Positively Influence Their Children

Kyle: Yeah. If you think for a minute, the mother’s connection is about comfort, and security, and enveloping the child in that sense. The father’s is about we’re here together. We’re going to see what’s going on in the world, come on along for the ride. Another difference, when children are struggling to accomplish something, get their food in their mouth, trying to walk, learning how to tie shoes, you’ll see mothers predictably kind of tilting the playing field in the direction of success. They’ll finish the knot, or they’ll make it seem like the kid really did take a step without much help.

Dads you’ll see backing off a little bit more. They’ll let the child’s frustration tend to build a little bit, often to the discomfort of the moms, but you ask the dads what they’re doing they’ll say, “Look, you can’t cut all these corners for him the rest of his life. He’s going to have to learn how to do it for himself, and we’re the people to help him manage the frustration.” The mother said, “Oh, why didn’t you just make it easy for him?” The fathers will say, “It’s part of our job to help him realize he can do it himself.”

How vitally important their relationships are with their children. A lot of men spend a lot of time saying, “The most important thing I can do is support her. Most important thing I can do is keep the roof from leaking, bring home the bacon,” all that stuff. “That’s what my kid really needs from me.”

dads positively influence

You do not hear that from children. What you hear from kids, very directly, is that I need you in my life dad because you’re not mom. I need to learn from you about the way you see the world. I need to know where the limits are. What do you think is okay? What is not? You see children not only happier, but living longer and so are the men. It changes men, too. One of the things I think that’s happened in the research that, it wasn’t going on when I first started looking at these questions, but we now have exquisite detail about what’s going on in the brain and the hormonal systems of men when they are falling in love with their children.

The Relationship Hormone

There’s this incredible oxytocin hormone called the relationship hormone. There are very high levels when women become mothers. We didn’t think it would be even present in men, but we were wrong. We found it by mistake when we were looking at thyroid function, that it is just astronomically high when men are becoming fathers. It sets them up to be aware of their children’s presence, their smell, their cries, the movement of their bodies, the closeness that they seek out when we’re having skin-to-skin contact. That is, you’re on your way to becoming a bit of a junkie for your child, which is absolutely a good thing for that kid.

DR. HALLOWELL: It’s a crazy love, and why do you think fathers sometimes don’t embrace it?

Kyle: Often they don’t understand a thing about it. They didn’t see that happen to their dad. They are uncertain about what it really means.

DR. HALLOWELL: But your “everyday father” out there, it sounds like you’re saying, is more important than you may have believed.

Kyle: And that the time that you have with your child, again a lot of dads working two jobs, gone 12 hours a day, often feel like what could I possibly contribute, and yet the intensity of your connection to your child when you’re really emotionally present, whether you’re reading a book to them, or playing with them, or just teasing and roughhousing, that’s all the stuff that makes them feel that you know them and care for them, and that your connection to them is just as important as theirs to you.

Don’t use the excuse that I’m gone, or I’m just not there, or I’ll wait ’til they can really throw a ball. The brain is set up in exactly the opposite direction. All the growth happens at the beginning. It’s very important to hold, and touch, and bathe, and learn how to dress, and learn how to feed very early on.

What Can a Single Mom Do?

DR. HALLOWELL: What about those folks who don’t have a father, for whatever reason? Is there anything a single mom can do to fill the gap, an uncle, or a coach, or a teacher?

Kyle: Sure. The mother’s attitude toward a male presence in the life of the child is incredibly important into making it work. If she has people that she’s close to, even if she’s in a same-sex relationship herself with her partner, boys and girls are intrigued and fascinated by gender difference. That’s not a political issue, it’s a biological issue. We are wise to support those women in encouraging the father or male presence in their lives by not only sort of… Bring in your father, or your brother, or men that you trust into that child’s life around play events, around school events, and say, “We do really believe that there is room in this world for all of these experiences and in your life, so I do want you to have a sense of how they matter to you and how they’re different from me.”

DR. HALLOWELL: Right. Well, this is wonderful. What great work you’ve done. You’ve changed practices, and you’ve done this outstanding research. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s an honor to have the chance to interview you, and again, I just salute you for your work.

Kyle: Thank you, Ned. As I do you for yours. It’s a big needle and it’s a privilege to be part of trying to move it in a good direction for our children. Thanks for the chance.

DR. HALLOWELL: Exactly. Thanks so much, take care.

Kyle: Happy Father’s Day to you, Ned.

DR. HALLOWELL: Thank you. Same to you, Kyle.

Kyle: Okay. Bye-bye.

DR. HALLOWELL: Okay. Bye-bye.

DR. HALLOWELL: I completely agree with Dr. Pruett that dads are just as important as moms. I didn’t know there was a competition actually. I suppose in folklore moms are played up a little bit more, but dads, and particularly these days where fathers can be so absent, having a present father is hugely important in the development of a child.

Societal Pressures on Men and Fatherhood

Now, I want to open the conversation up a little bit further and talk about how societal pressures have affected men and the way they father their children. Traditional manhood, let’s hope, is a thing of the past. The old notion that you should be silent, not show feelings, not kiss, not hug, not cry, the macho. The dad who all he does is discipline and never shows softness or tenderness, hopefully that’s a thing of the past, because it certainly should be. It’s as a much a gift to the dad as to the child for the man to be fully human and not some stereotype of a traditional man.

The norms are changing, thank goodness, but many men still do struggle with how to express themselves. Joining me now is Mark Greene. He’s written extensively on this subject for the website The Good Men Project. Hi, so nice to meet you.

Mark: Nice to meet you.

DR. HALLOWELL: What would you quickly off the top of your head define as a good man?

Mark: What I write a lot about is the impact of our culture’s ideas about traditional manhood and how that affects us. A lot of men live inside this idea of traditional masculinity, which really is extremely limiting on the choices they have for how to express themselves, so they tend to rely on aggression, anger, force of will, dominance, all of those things, which can become extremely damaging.

DR. HALLOWELL: But you see it more as societally conditioned than genetically inborn?

Mark: Absolutely. Oh, absolutely, and I have a lot of data to back that up.

DR. HALLOWELL: Sure, and do you have sons of your own?

Mark: I do. I have a 10-year-old son.

DR. HALLOWELL: It’s quite an adventure raising boys.

Mark: It is. It is.

DR. HALLOWELL: Not to mention raising girls.

Mark: I have never and will never raise a girl, but I hope to help create a world where the difference between boys and girls isn’t so stark.

DR. HALLOWELL: Yes. Give me more of a feel for how you’re giving men permission to expand their repertoire.

The Man Box

Mark: I’d like to talk for a minute about a concept called the “Man Box,” which a lot of people have been talking about over the last five to 10 years.

DR. HALLOWELL: Yes, please do.

Mark: The Man Box is essentially a set of rules for how to behave as a man, at least from the standpoint of what is traditionally viewed a man in America. The first rule of the Man Box is that men don’t show their emotions, except that they can express anger. Any other emotions, especially emotions which may be viewed as weak or feminine, vulnerability, sadness, grief, those emotions are kept in check and hidden. We have all been living in a culture of extremely aggressive, bullying, badgering.

DR. HALLOWELL: The Man Box is like a little prison that you’re put in?

Mark: It is, but the Man Box becomes the Man Box when every other man is then policed and bullied into conforming to these rules.

One of the things I talk about sometimes is a simple test. If you can imagine yourself as a young man in high school walking down the hallway, and you had a geography book, and you carried it against your hip versus if you carried it up across your chest, what would the result be? We all know the answer. If you imagine a large open space where let’s say a one or two-year-old boy has all this flowing, creative emotional energy. If a one or two-year-old boy cries, nobody tells him to man up. They pick him up. They comfort him. If he laughs, everybody laughs with him.

boy scraped knees

They don’t suppress the emotional expression of a boy that age, but sometime around four or five years of age, boys begin to move out into the social world, at the park, whatever, and God help us, whether we like it or not as parents, we begin to say to our sons, “Look, don’t cry out there when you scrape your knee. Come on. Shake it off. You’re all right. Come on. Get back out there.” I think it’s because we know intuitively that if our son shows weakness out there too much, he’s going to become the target of that small social circle. You’ll see it, you know, “Don’t be a girl. Stop being a crybaby.” Those other boys will begin to say those kinds of things, so by the time they’re seven or eight, we’re not holding them when they cry, we’re putting them in karate class.

Break Out of the Box

DR. HALLOWELL: Right, so how does a grown man or a young man break out of the Box?

Mark: I moved out of that space dramatically when my son was born and I was fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home dad. I home officed and so I was home with him all the time. I was able to form the kind of relationship with him that mothers have been forming with children for forever.

What I discovered for the first time was that what it was like to have this emotional connection and this care giving connection, which men aren’t often allowed to have. I discovered confidences that I never knew I could grow inside of myself, and an emotional capacity that I didn’t know I had. It was the first relationship of my life where I expressed and felt love, and held, and comforted, and cared for someone that was not in a relationship with a woman, that was not a sexual relationship. It was a platonic, affectionate relationship and it changed my life.

DR. HALLOWELL: So it’s the gift your son, your baby gave to you?

Mark: Yes, and he continues to give it to me.

DR. HALLOWELL: My three kids absolutely give it to me. I think emotional toughness means being tough enough to show emotion.

Mark: Absolutely. This idea of emotional fluency, or literacy, this ability to express emotion and understand it, is something I work with my son on all the time, because I want him to have that power. I would go so far as to say that one of the biggest challenges we have culturally right now is that so many men have grown up hiding their emotions that they don’t have the ability to connect in that way, and so many of us are cut off from that.

DR. HALLOWELL: Oh, you put it so beautiful. The whole point of this podcast is to promote connection. So many men, as you so rightly say, are cut off from it. They feel no internal or societal permission to develop it.

Mark: Yeah. It’s a learned act of personal empowerment, but we talk about how boys between the ages of one and 10, you can have the kinds of age-appropriate conversations with them where you teach them to see, and interpret, and not collapse into emotions, other people’s emotions. Once they gain these skills, they can express emotion without shame. They can engage other people emotionally in ways that make those people feel seen and heard. This stuff’s extremely powerful, and it’s just a question of modeling it as their parents.

DR. HALLOWELL: Yes. Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to have a squash game with my best friend. We’ve been playing squash on Tuesdays for 35 years, and after the game we go out for a beer and tell each other all our problems, and laugh and cry together. That does more for my mental health than just about anything.

Don’t Be Afraid to Express Love to Those You Care For

Mark: Absolutely. Do you use the word “love” with him?

DR. HALLOWELL: Oh, absolutely. I sign my emails “Love, Ned.”

Mark: Fantastic.

DR. HALLOWELL: I know a lot of men would wince at that. They would feel, “What? You don’t love me.”

Mark: As I spent the last years of my father’s life with him, as I spent time with him, it became quite evident to me that I love some of the men in my life so much that if I do not tell them, I am doing myself a huge disservice. When the end of my life comes, I do not want to look back on a lifetime of being afraid to express how important these people are, because when it’s all said and done, that was it. That was life.

DR. HALLOWELL: Exactly, and to get over that fear allows you to grow into the ability openly and fully to love.

Mark: There’s a wonderful quote, I forget the name of the author, but she said, “The choice to have a child is to have a large piece of your heart walking around outside your body.”

DR. HALLOWELL: Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful.

Mark: Yeah, and you feel it. You feel both the anxiety and the joy of it all the time.

DR. HALLOWELL: Yes. Yes. I just admire what you’re doing tremendously. You’re doing a favor for mankind and womankind. Just remention your website the goodmenproject.com, and remakingmanhood.com, and your book Remaking Manhood. Really a treat talking to you. I just want to jump through the microphone and give you a hug.

Mark: Next time you’re in New York or I’m up in Connecticut we’ll get that beer, all right?

DR. HALLOWELL: All right. I look forward to it, Mark.

father and son

A Conversation about Being a Father in the Age of Distraction

DR. HALLOWELL: All right, so when we were planning this show, I knew I had to have a dad join me in the studio to talk about being a father in the age of distraction. Of course, dads have always been an integral part of their children’s lives, but many dads today see the role much differently than their fathers did. I’m joined in the studio now by Rob, a father of three kids, who’s graciously agreed to talk with me today. Thanks so much for being here, Rob.

Rob: Hi.

DR. HALLOWELL: Are you a father?

Rob: Yeah. A father of three.

DR. HALLOWELL: Tell me how that happened.

Rob: Well, my oldest is actually my stepdaughter, but I still call her my daughter. Then I have two more that are a little bit younger.

DR. HALLOWELL: What are their ages?

Rob: 18, 12, and 10.

DR. HALLOWELL: The younger two are boys or girls?

Rob: The two older are girls, and the younger is a boy.

DR. HALLOWELL: Tell me about it. What is it like being a dad? What does it mean to you?

Rob: I think it’s fun. It’s obviously a lot of hard work, and you don’t get to sit down very much, but I have a great time. We just play.

DR. HALLOWELL: A lot of people who don’t have children say, “I’m too selfish to be a parent.” Did you find when you had kids you suddenly became less selfish?

Rob: Yeah, so when I met my wife she already had a daughter, so she was in that selfless phase, and I was selfish. It was all about me. We were young. We were 23. All I had was my career, my partying, my weekends, my friends, my sports, and there was that clash where I was still somewhat a child and she was grown, so I was going to play rugby and soccer, and she’s like, “What are you playing? You’re a full grown man. What are you playing? Do something like an adult does.” I wanted children. She clearly had a child, so when it came time to commit on a real level, I mean we dated for a good amount of time, and then it was time to commit and move forward or move on. I always wanted kids, but we didn’t have the official talk…

DR. HALLOWELL: Do you want children?

Rob: Yeah, do you want children, do you not want children? We just took it step by step.

DR. HALLOWELL: Was it hard to bond with your stepdaughter or did that happen pretty easily?

Rob: We were different, so I irritated her a lot.

DR. HALLOWELL: You were this outdoorsy, wanting to be active, and she was more the quiet daydreamer.

Rob: Yeah, very cerebral. Loved her books, loved her play toys.

DR. HALLOWELL: Introverted.

Rob: Yeah. She liked to think things through, and I was…

DR. HALLOWELL: Action oriented.

Rob: Yeah, manic and just all over the place, but at the time I didn’t know how to be a dad. I didn’t have that feeling of just natural instinct, and had to adjust. I was stubborn. I wanted her to be more outdoorsy. She clearly didn’t like that stuff, but we’re better because of it. We’re tight. I can actually talk to her now. I’ve realized that I’m not going to get her to do those things, so I realized sometimes I just got to sit down and talk.

DR. HALLOWELL: Then the next two, they’re more your style?

Your Children Challenge You in the Best Ways

Rob: Yeah. I mean, my 12-year-old girl, she’s in that phase. She still plays sports. She’s still very active. She’s chatty now, and I have to listen better, but she’s great. She catches me all the time. She was asking me all sorts of questions this morning about Muhammad Ali.

DR. HALLOWELL: Oh, really?

Rob: His religion, and why is he so important? She was comparing him to Prince, believe it or not.

DR. HALLOWELL: Oh, wow.

Rob: Which was kind of cool. It’s great that their questions challenge you to just think about real things. She’s like, “I know one’s an athlete and one’s a musician.”

DR. HALLOWELL: Then your youngest, what’s that one like?

Rob: He’s cool. He’s my little buddy. We have a good time together. He never stops. Never sits still. Always has something going on. He’s a lacrosse kid. In the lacrosse world they call it stringing your own stick, which almost nobody does. You just kind of buy it, but he learned how to string his own sticks. He wanted to make custom pockets.

DR. HALLOWELL: Wow. At age 10?

Rob: Yeah. He just watched YouTube videos and played it and paused it.

DR. HALLOWELL: That’s really impressive. How did you feel as a dad? Were you proud?

Rob: I’m proud. Yeah. Absolutely proud, because when he brings his stick to the game, he shows the kids the pocket that he made, it’s called the pocket, the pocket that he made, and all the kids want that pocket. Now he’s, “Oh, I’ll string one for you.” The dads are all saying, “See! If he can learn it, you can learn it,” so I stand there like a proud dad.

DR. HALLOWELL: That’s very impressive. You’ve got three kids and they’re all different and that’s always the way it is. I’m so pleased that you’re loving being a father. It’s the best thing. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

Rob: You feel a sense that you’re doing something bigger than you every day.

DR. HALLOWELL: You are.

Rob: It’s a cool feeling. You wake up and you have a better sense of meaning, better sense of purpose. When they’re this age they’re just fun.

DR. HALLOWELL: Thank you for sharing your story, and your fatherhood, and let’s hear it for fathers everywhere.

Rob: Yeah. Thank you.

Closing Statements

DR. HALLOWELL: That’s it for today. Father’s Day, being a father of course, it means a lot to me, but honestly every day is Father’s Day, just like every day is Mother’s Day. If you are a mother or a father, every day, for the rest of your life, it’s Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Celebrate it, internally, externally, revel in it. You’ve had this marvelous chance to bring a child along and what a wonderful, wonderful chance it is indeed. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, especially my wife’s dad, Bill George, who recently passed away. He was just a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful dad, and I want to send him a message up in heaven where he most certainly is. Bill, we all love you, and you were a great, great dad.

The show is starting to build some momentum, so if you haven’t done so yet, please, please take a moment to leave the show a review. We really appreciate it and it helps us a lot. Thanks so much for listening. Distraction is produced by Collisions, the podcast division of CRN International. Collisions, podcasts for curious people. We’ll leave you with the sounds of some of our listeners talking about their own dads.

Some of Our Listeners Talk About Their Dads

Speaker 5: My dad was not around a lot when we were very young. He was going to school full-time and working full-time, so he wasn’t around, but the one thing I do remember is the time we went to Disney World as a family for a week. I actually said it to my mom afterwards, I said, “Wow. Daddy’s really a lot of fun,” because I hadn’t seen him. He went to work, and then he went to school. We were in bed by the time he got home, so that’s what I remember about him.

Speaker 6: A memory about my dad would probably have to be him coaching me in baseball when I was younger, and just talking about baseball and sports with him. Yeah, and he went to my games. Just something that just bonded us and something that we had in common that we liked, because it was special for me to be involved with that with my dad.

Speaker 7: Try to get us to sing. I’m like, “Dad, I can’t sing. I don’t want to sing.” He was like, “Come on, with this keyboard.” He’s crazy, but crazy good, like I said.

Speaker 8: Thoughts of my dad? My dad is one of the funniest, most social people I’ve ever met. As I say, he runs a room. He’s somebody you want to hang out with. He’s a lot of fun to be around, and I’m glad that he’s around and I get to see him as often as I do.

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “The Father’s Day Special: Why Dads Matter.” Distraction is available on iTunes.

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