The Bookends of Daddy Yearning

“Fathers & Children Benefit from Mutual Enrichment”

by Allan Shedlin

(Distributed by The New York Times/Hearst News Service, 6/12/11)  © 2011 Hearst Newspapers

From the young father in a remote Southwestern city who was so poor that his family had to use a tumbleweed for their Christmas tree, to the older father in a major Northeastern city who was so rich that his internationally recognized art collection was housed in a museum built for it, the great equalizer in their lives is the bookends of daddy yearning.

During the last decade, the large majority of the 120 dads, granddads, and even some great granddads I’ve interviewed in three countries have told me they wish their father was or had been more engaged in their life and they wish that they were more engaged in their own child’s life. I call these dual longings the bookends of daddy yearning. Often expressed as a soulful sadness, it leaves too many kids with holes in their hearts the shape of their fathers and too many dads with holes in their hearts the shape of their children.

 It does not have to be that way! And it is often less daunting to prevent these father and child heart holes from forming than might be expected.

During the 28 “daddying” focus groups I conducted with 162 children throughout the United States and abroad, 17 desired daddying qualities were cited. The top five qualities kids desired from their dads were:

  • Be there!

  • Take us as seriously as we take ourselves.

  • Be a passionate advocate for us.

  • Show us you love us and be affectionate.

  • Provide us with security and protection.

 

Not surprisingly, fathers told me that these qualities were the qualities they most want to cultivate. And these are the very same qualities child development experts believe kids need in order to flourish and lead fulfilled lives.

While there are volumes of data to support the positive impact parents can have on their children’s lives, there is little discussion and insufficient attention paid to the positive impact children can have on their parents. Research studies abound that document the dramatic salutary outcomes in children’s academic, emotional, and behavioral functioning when their fathers are positively involved in their children’s lives and the negative consequences when fathers are physically or psychologically absent.

Finding research that documents the important positive influences that children can have on parents is much more challenging – especially research to support the positive impact children can have on their fathers. In my own in depth qualitative research I learned that one hundred percent of the fathers and grandfathers I interviewed told me that being a dad enriches them. They told me that being a dad:

  • Reminds them of what is really important, of what needs are fundamental.

  • Humanizes them by exposing them to a new, deeper kind of love.

  • Positively diminishes their self-absorption.

  • Broadens their way of looking at issues, situations, and possibilities.

  • Teaches them the value of vulnerability.

  • Demonstrates the value of asking good questions.

  • Helps them appreciate the responsibilities and obligations of power.

  • Reminds them of the value of childlike qualities like playfulness, flexibility, and fills their lives with humor, imagination, enthusiasm, willingness to make mistakes, and a sense of wonder.

  • Makes them laugh.

  • Gives many of them greater appreciation for their parenting partner.

 

As a dad and granddad, I have learned for myself what many dads shared: being a parent teaches me to be strong and sensitive at the same time; it releases a tenderness that men don’t much speak about; it takes love to a new level. And for me, the zenith of parenting has been discovering that nurturing my children and grandchildren nourishes me.

Simply put, dads matter to kids, kids matter to dads, and families and communities are better off when fathers and children are positively engaged in each other’s lives.

Being a dad is not something you are, it is something you do – Father’s Day provides a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that!                                                                        

 

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Allan Shedlin is the father of four and grandfather of seven. He is the Founder & President of REEL FATHERS and of DADS Unlimited. REEL FATHERS concentrates most of its programs in New Mexico and DADS Unlimited focuses its work in Maryland, where Shedlin lives. He is the former Executive Director of the National Elementary School Center and former principal of the Ethical Culture School in NYC. His writing has appeared widely in the popular and professional press.

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