I’ve spent the past year interviewing men about their experiences as fathers, and one question consistently looms large for almost every dad. How can a man pass on the good lessons his father taught him, and also improve on the areas where his father came up short?
And what if his father came up way short, leaving little or no template for how to be a good man, stay emotionally engaged, and raise kids who feel loved by their mother and their father? It isn’t always an easy task.
Here are three candid tips from men who have faced that challenge, offering key insight into how to be a good father, even if you may not have had one yourself.
Deal With Your Dad’s Drama
Seattle radio DJ John Richards endured a distant and difficult relationship with his father for years, and he ultimately watched his dad pass away following multiple battles with cancer. His father was an alcoholic and sometimes emotionally or physically abusive, and he once played with Richards in a father-son tournament after a series of swigs from a jar of vodka in the parking lot.
It’s often hard for a son to think about his father’s shortcomings and how they can fracture a relationship, but Richards says that process was essential for him to develop a healthy relationship with his two sons.
“We need to see those flaws and learn from them,” Richards says.
“Talking about it frankly hopefully allows other fathers to face what happened to them, or face the relationship that was or wasn’t there. It’s important you do that. Otherwise you may take it out on your kids. And you may have some guilt that you don’t want to take into your relationship with your kids. I certainly don’t.”
Complete What Your Father Couldn’t
Massachusetts-based psychoanalyst Jason Smith has devoted his professional career to the teachings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who wrote and spoke regularly about the relationship between children and their parents.
One of Jung’s concepts sounds simple enough, but it’s no easy task, even for Jungian experts such as Smith. Jung once said that the task of each person’s life is to complete the job his or her ancestors were unable to do.
That’s often the challenge and the goal for every man — to take what his father did well and improve on it with his own kids, moving the ball down the field little by little, generation by generation.
“I appreciate the distance that my father was able to get from his alcoholic father. He broke out of that, which gave me an opportunity to go a little bit further for myself,” Smith says.
“And if I had made a different choice and not been able to find my back into a fully present existence in my marriage or as a father, it would have been kind of repeating that cycle. And it would have left my kids that task.”
Learn How to Receive Love
Leading psychologist and bestselling author Michael G. Thompson grew up with a successful but emotionally elusive father in New York City, leaving him without much of a template for how to show affection to his kids. And that isn’t uncommon for men, who learn at an early age to bottle up emotion and affection, in part because their fathers never knew what to do with the love offered to them in their lives.
“It’s not enough to just be the world’s most activity driven dad, who coaches your kids,” Thompson says.
“You also have to be able to receive the tender feelings that your children offer you, which are sometimes something you never had. It isn’t just a matter of men being unable to give love to their children. Very often they don’t know how to receive it. And love is a two-way street.”