About a year and a half ago, my boss called me to tell me this was my last day with the company. My position had been eliminated. This unexpected news was quite a shock, not just because it was unexpected and not just because I had worked there for 11 years. Getting laid off threatened a big piece of the core of my identity. Why? Because for the past 22 years, I've been a dad.
Dads are providers. We work our tails off, often at thankless jobs that steal away not just our health, but our dreams, and we do it willingly. Why? Because that is what dads do. After the shock of the news wore off, I realized that nothing had changed except my circumstances. I may be unemployed at the moment, but I will continue to provide for my family, even if I have to get 3 jobs to do it. This got me thinking about other attributes of my dad identity.
Dads are protectors. Most of us have never been burgled, but that doesn't stop us from investigating every strange noise in the middle of the night. And if one of those strange noises is actually a burglar, there is no question where us dads will be standing: in the gap between our family and the threat, ready to lay down our life if need be. It is so engrained in who we are, that we wouldn't even stop to think about it. When something threatens our family, we act.
Dads are coaches. I've never coached a little league team - I leave that to dads more skilled in sports than I am - but I taught every one of my kids to ride a bicycle. I'm also the sole instructor of Dad's White Knuckle School of Driving, with 4 graduates thus far. I tutored my kids in math, and stayed up late editing countless English papers. I've run lines, rehearsed scenes, and practiced solos with my drama kids, and built a trebuchet with my science kid.
Dads are boosters. We grit our teeth and clap enthusiastically for the 1st grade music class recital of Frère Jacques on the recorder. We cheer from the sidelines at countless games, and buy ice cream afterwards to celebrate or console as needed. We brag about our kids' accomplishments to anyone that will listen. In these and countless other ways we make sure they know that we believe they can accomplish anything.
Dads are advocates. When we found out our kid hasn't turned in any homework for the past 3 weeks, we help them talk to the teacher and negotiate a second chance to make up the work. When we see how discouraged our kid is getting about spending twice as much time on the bench as the other kids, we have a quiet word with the coach about the importance of including all the kids. I cannot count the boxes of Girl Scout cookies I've bought at the office from other dads selling for their little girls.
As I considered how best to sum up all these roles, one word stood out to me: Champion. Not the modern usage of the word to refer to winners of competitive events. I am thinking of the medieval usage, where a champion would step forth to do battle on behalf of another. Dads are champions. We fight, defend, support and advocate for our children, and we don't do it for gain, but out of love.
It is love that makes dads champions for their children.
Eight years ago, my family welcomed two foster boys, and seven years ago, we adopted them. We knew nothing then about complex developmental trauma, or the effects of early childhood trauma on the developing brain, on their core beliefs, or on their ability to function in relationships. I quickly discovered that parenting kids from hard places was nothing like parenting my bio kids. My dad skills needed some serious overhauling. Along the way, I discovered that my bio kids also needed me to be a better dad; I just hadn't recognized it.
I found the answers I needed in teachers such as Karyn Purvis and David Cross (Trust Based Relational Intervention), Ross Greene (The Explosive Child), Gordon Neufeld (Power to Parent), Laura Markham (Aha Parenting), and many more. They all show how to put relationship above compliance, resulting in kids who obey out of trust and love rather than fear. The Facebook group that I help moderate calls it Parenting with Connection.
Parenting with connection takes being a dad to a whole new level. It is still all about providing, protecting, coaching, boosting, and advocating for your kids. The big difference is that where all the championing examples I gave above are about what we do for our kids, parenting with connection is about who we become.
Our kids still need us dads to be their champions, but they need us to become their champions in a whole new way. This is true of all kids, but it is most apparent in our kids with early childhood trauma, because their needs are so great and the effects of their trauma comes out in ways that don't make sense if you haven't learned about trauma.
Our kids are telling us what they need. The problem is that we dads often aren’t listening, or we interpret their behavior using flawed translations. Parenting with connection is seeing that our kid's behavior, including misbehavior, is communication. We need to learn how to listen and interpret what their behavior is telling us, because the behaviors that look like selfish manipulation, stubborn rebellion, and sullen defiance are really the desperate cries for help from struggling children that don't know how to appropriately negotiate their needs.
Are you ready to be the champion of your kids at this new level? Are you ready to become this new kind of champion? If so, then you have made the first step towards Parenting with Connection. This perspective can take some adjustment, but I believe you are going to like what you find.
Mark Vatsaas is a connected parenting coach, TBRI® Practitioner, speaker, trainer, and father of 6. You can learn more about him on his website.