A Father is in Control but Not Controlling

In our class at the church house last week, we had a great discussion about parenting. One of the strengths of our little worship community is that there is an abundance of young parents in our similar stage of life as well as a great number of willing mentors who have been where we are now.  I learn so much from my peers about how to be a good father that I cannot imagine not having this resource available to me.  Anyway, the discussion came to a point where it was mentioned multiple times that the norm in our society is that there is a chronic lack of discipline within the family setting and that it has bled out and is now affecting society at large.

We’ve heard this before, right? There is a giant cross-section of people, in fact, most of a couple of generations, who will recount stories of their childhood where they will glowingly talk about how their parents wouldn’t hesitate to just beat the mess out of them. We’ll hear testimonies about how they never would have gotten away with things kids are allowed to get away with now because “Dad would have whipped my behind”. We hear these legends about how, as children, they were made to walk to a certain tree in the backyard and choose which branch Mom or Dad would use to work them over. These are stories of punishment that would be hastily labeled as abuse in our “modern sensibilities”. This is the kind of thing a lot of people mean when they bemoan the “lack of discipline” in families today.

And get this, I don’t think they’re wrong.

But I also don’t think they’re right.

The problem modern fathers face is not that we are no longer able to come off the top ropes  on our little ones, it is that it has become nearly impossible for us to exercise control of the family entrusted to our care. I think this is what folks are really saying when they refer to the widespread “lack of discipline”. Seeing a father in charge of his own family is such a foreign idea to us because we have been conditioned to think of dad as a buffoon to mock instead of an authoritative leader to respect. Every dad is assumed to be Homer Simpson and if he doesn’t fit the bumbling idiot role, well, then he must be a tyrant.

My contention is that a father can be, and must be, in control without being controlling. This is such an important point to me that it comprises an entire section of the book I’ve been writing.  I’d love for you guys to read the whole thing but I’ll give a little more detail here about what I think control looks like. And I think it will be a little different than what you expect.

Control

When we hear about someone being in control, the connotation automatically puts us in a defensive position. But, it should not. It should be the most natural thing in the world because when a father is in control, the whole family benefits.  It doesn’t mean he doesn’t fail.  It doesn’t mean his children don’t go crazy and do things that no sane person would do.  It certainly doesn’t mean things are easy.  It means he takes responsibility for the field placed before him.  It means that he understands that there is no one else to blame.  The buck cannot be passed and it stops with him as President Truman would say.  There are some characteristic markers of a father in control but not controlling.

1. Father being in control is never to the exclusion of his partner. It is to her exaltation.  There exists this understanding…this feeling…this underlying belief that for a dad to be in charge and in control of his family, mom has to take a subservient role.    Call it patriarchy or traditional male dominance or whatever label our sociologist friends want to try to stick on it, but the notion is pretty pervasive. The truth is that parental leadership is never a zero-sum game. When dad exerts control, it does not preclude Mom from the same. To the contrary,  when dad is in control, his partner’s authority and leadership is supported. When a father is in control, a mother finds herself cherished and supported in her mothering. If his children give her grief, it does not escape his ear and he responds swiftly. He fathers in defense of her authority and guarantees respect is given to her.

2. Father being in control is more about self-control than anything else. Anger and frustration are the twin monkeys constantly on the back of every father I know.  In every community where Dads seek advice from other Dads, how to deal with anger is always one of the most common asks. We deal with it and we know we deal with it. A father who is in control understands that control of himself comes first. For me, and I don’t think I’m alone, this will be a lifelong, minute by minute, hour by hour battle.  Every man learns his own tactics for self-control and that control is an imperative for stability in each Dad’s home. Listen, man, I know. The struggle to manage that temper is a Herculean task even on the calm days. But the reality is that my 8 year old can act like an 8 year old and I don’t have the luxury of responding like another 8 year old. Being a father means you lay siege to the anger and frustration, and you maintain control of yourself. Angry words from dad are some of the most poisonous and memorable darts to a daughter. A man who can’t exercise self control can never expect to wield control in his family because everyone in his family knows he can’t be trusted with the responsibility.

3. Father being in control fills the leadership vacuum and paves the way for the entire family to be happier and healthier.  There is a natural place of leadership in every home. When parents don’t fill that place of leadership, there is a vacuum left and children instinctively fill leadership vacuums. They just don’t know how not to. Have you ever known someone whose kid just owns them? Dad, if we aren’t willing to be in control, our kids will set themselves up on that throne…and kids make terrible kings. But they were never meant to fill that role and it is a burden too heavy for them. However, your shoulders were made for this weight. When dad is in control, he removes the burden of being in charge from his kids so they are free to actually be kids.

 

Dad being in control certainly does not mean he is never wrong or never makes mistakes. On the contrary, we are all just trying to be the best we can. A father in control says “I don’t have all the answers but go with me while we figure this thing out”. Take control. You’ve been great today. You can be great again tomorrow.

Giving My Daughters the Gift of Confidence

We had a 5th birthday party for our middle daughter, Goldilocks, a few weeks ago.  She is a bit of a horse freak so her party was at our local stables where the kiddoes did horse activities like painting horseshoes and then actually rode some of the calm horses for quite a while.  One thing my golden haired daughter has taught me is that, for some people, fear can paralyze and make it impossible to get anything done, but building confidence will banish that fear until it is just a distant memory.  She vividly displayed this at the party when it was time to saddle up.  Her mother got her little helmet situated and then got her placed on the horse she had chosen to ride.  As soon as Goldilocks saw how far above the ground she was, that fear grabbed her and she panicked.  There were tears and wails and pleas for us to put her back on the ground.  When this child gets worked up, it takes a great deal of effort to get her calmed down again.  She was terrified.  But I know this girl.  I know she would stew with regret later if she didn’t ride these horses at her birthday party.  And I know that when she is able to grasp just a little bit of confidence, she possesses a natural boldness that we certainly want to nurture.  So, I walked over to the horse she was on and we had a conversation that lasted longer than I wanted it to, but one that eventually led to a great deal of joy.  I was stern with her as I explained that not riding was not an option.  As I showed her the pommel for her to hold onto, I explained that I would walk beside the horse until she was comfortable.  By the fifth step, that little girl forgot I was there.  Four steps on that horse and her debilitating fear had turned to soaring confidence.

 

Success in most aspects of life is dependent on being able to build confidence.  I’ve seen it over and over and over again in these She-Gables.  From their first wobbly steps to playing on the playground to learning to read to any development in math to Taekwondo…whatever they do, progress requires confidence.  And, dad has a monumental role (I would argue he has the most powerful role) in developing confidence in his young daughter.  A little girl, by her nature, looks to daddy for these building blocks.  If he is lacking here…if he is cold or harsh or absent, his lacking has lasting impact on her ability to build confidence later in life and seems to be an ever-present obstacle to her self-esteem.  However, if he is encouraging and if he makes her progress a priority, he gives her the great gift of being able to build confidence in herself.  This will help her across the spectrum of womanhood.

 

So, practically, how does he do this?  How does a father plant seeds of confidence in the mind of his daughter?

 

  • Engage.  My daughters are constantly using me for testing ideas and thoughts and feelings.  They tell me jokes, see if I laugh, and then ask me “Is that funny, daddy?”.  They tell me stories and gauge my reaction.  They will show me pictures they’ve drawn or painted and then point out each specific part of the picture while watching to see whether I like that piece or not.  They will pick flowers and ask me if they are pretty.  To them, I am a sounding board, comedian, art critic, florist, basically an expert in all things.  In their eyes, if daddy thinks something is funny/pretty/awesome/important, then it is funny/pretty/awesome/important.  Every second of every day, I am teaching about life through my reactions to even the most mundane things.  If I am dismissive, or worse, completely absent, it communicates to them that their thoughts and their jokes and their stories and their accomplishments are unimportant.  It is virtually identical to telling them “You do not matter”.  Dads, we have to engage.  Laugh at her jokes and tell her your own.  Listen to her stories and tell her specifics about which part you liked or which part was silly.  Your detailed attention tells her that she is important and that feeling is the bedrock on which she will build every confidence.
  • Push.  None of my daughters understand the far reaches of their own capabilities.  This is what seems to be a comical opposition to their boy cousins who each carry a delusional belief that they can do far more than reality would dictate or gravity would allow (boys, SMH).  For the She-Gables, regardless of their individual level of development, there are many times none of them think they can do something until they are shown they actually can do it.  Whether it is riding a horse or jumping off the diving board or going into a classroom full of kids they don’t know, fatherhood means that sometimes I have to push them.  One of the hardest parts of being a dad is deciding when to push and how much force to use.  But, every single time I’ve had to push one of them, the end result has been a surge of confidence.  After I pushed Goldilocks to ride that horse, for the next several days, everyone we met would hear her story…”I got to ride a horse all by myself”.  The fact that she completely forgets the part where I had to push her a little, signals to me that it was the perfect amount of force.  She beams with pride when telling her horse story.  Dad, your gentle nudge can sometimes be a necessary pathway to building her confidence and without it, she may never expand her capabilities.
  • Release.  Finding Nemo is one of my favorites because I relate so strongly to Marlin.  The first time I saw the movie, there was one scene that shook me and still gets at me every time we watch it (which is only 3 or 4 times a day…only 7 fewer than Frozen).  Close to the end, Nemo has a plan to save Dory and all the dumb fish caught in a fishing net.  In this scene, Marlin undergoes a pivotal change in an instant and it shifts everything.  Until now, his entire parenting experience has been one big attempt to protect Nemo from danger and pain.  But after crossing the ocean and overcoming obstacle after obstacle, Marlin learns to give up the delusional goal of engineering a hedge of protection around his kid and he has to let go.  At this point, he is able to release which tells Nemo he believes in him.  It is one of the more profound scenes in the Disney vault and it captures reality so vividly.  Listen, dad, there will be times you have to let that little girl do her thing all on her own.  You have to let go of the bike.  You have to walk away from the horse.  You have to release.  She may succeed.  She may bust.  But the truth is that both the victories and the scars will build her confidence.

 

Good parenting is successfully weaving an engage/push/release strategy.  Get after it.  You’ll be great.