Letting Your Children Know You
When I ask dads to describe the kind of relationship they want to have with their children, every dad will say without hesitation that above all, he wants to feel emotionally close and connected with them.
Renowned researcher and author John Gottman, Ph.D., founder of the Relationship Research Institute, has concluded that children with emotionally available dads do better in school, have better peer relationships and relate better with teachers than children whose dads are more emotionally distant. Children with dads who are overly critical or dismissing of emotions are more likely to do poorly in school, fight more with friends and suffer poor health.
The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that the single most protective factor for reducing behavioral risks such as drug and alcohol abuse, early sexual activity, smoking and depression, is children’s connectedness to their parents; fathers were noted as being of particular importance.
Being known means letting down the walls and sharing your life story—having the courage to show your flaws, fears and joys. This is not to say that one should overburden a child with inappropriate revelations; rather, it’s about giving your child the gift of knowing who you are and what you feel on a regular basis.
What was your relationship like with your dad? What were you like as a kid? Children need and want genuine insights into who you were (and are) as a person, not just as their dad, so that they can better understand who they are and where they come from. It means letting kids into your experiences with winning and losing, being embarrassed and feeling anxious, overcoming challenges, and giving up.
What stories are appropriate to share with a child? The short answer is, trust your gut. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, here are a few guidelines:
• Let your stories emerge naturally and in context. When your daughter loses a game: “Did I ever tell you about what my dad used to do when I would lose?”
• Take the lead: “When I was in fifth grade, I was concerned about what other people thought of me. Do you ever feel that way?”
• Share stories about your present, too. “Sometimes I have trouble keeping my mouth shut. I was in this meeting the other day...”
• Include feelings, not just facts. By revealing your feelings, you help children understand their own.
• Be mindful of how a story may boomerang. If you decide to tell your teenage son about your own past substance use, prepare a response in case he uses that information to justify his own actions.
• When telling stories about your father, keep in mind that your children have a relationship with their grandfather and do not divide a child’s loyalties. If your father was abusive, seek professional advice before sharing such stories; maybe talk about how you try to do things differently than your father did. Stories are the lifeblood connecting the generations.