I Became a Better Dad When I Stopped Worrying About Being 'Manly'

The first warning sign was when one of my six-year-old son’s friends compared me to Captain von Trapp. He was watching The Sound of Music with his parents one evening and Christopher Plummer appeared on the screen for the first time as “the Captain,” glaring at his happy children, blowing that stupid whistle, and looking generally like a miserable brute. That’s when my son’s friend said, “Hey, Dad. It’s Ross!”

My wife and I and the kid’s parents had a good laugh about it over dinner when the anecdote was relayed to us. Ha, Captain von Trapp. Because of the look! (Do the look, honey!)

20th Century Fox

The look is that tight expression that we do when our kids are “misbehaving” in public—at a birthday party, say. You don’t want to yell. No, that would only call attention, so you laser-beam what you think is a discreet look that harnesses the expressive power of your eyes and your mouth, compressing them into one pinched, terrifying mega-feature that says . . . I am not happy, and I want you, a small child, to telepathically feel the brunt of my misery and displeasure. I will silently destroy your misbehavior.

It took being compared to a notorious movie jerk for me to begin understanding the effect I might be having on my son. That planted the seed. Over a few months, I would catch myself doing the look and feel a pang of regret even as the look brought on the behavioral results I wanted. My wife must have sensed I was softening, because she started to point out times when I’d let my displeasure with my kids get the better of me. Around our friends, it was the look. At home, it was a stern tone of voice—an almost yell that was somehow more emphatic than a full-on yell. I began to have a vague awareness that there might be a problem, and then earlier this year, she dropped a bomb: “You don’t want to be a joyless father.”

It took being compared to a movie jerk to understand the effect I might be having on my son.

Joyless. Was that what I was becoming? I didn’t grow up with my father around—my parents split when I was a few months old—so I didn’t really have a model for what a father was supposed to do. What I thought I missed most from my childhood was someone who would show me how to fix cars and split wood and take risks and practice discipline. I thought that my childhood was somehow deficient for not having an authoritative yet capable father around. When my son was born, I began to unconsciously adopt “manly” postures: stoicism, discipline, courage.

The problem is if you don’t balance all that out with wackiness and fun, then those virtues will manifest as one thing: asshole. The look I would give my son wasn’t the look of a dad but of a bully.

After this realization, I did what any American who wants to transform his life does: I went on Amazon, typed in an incredibly specific search term (“why am I mean to my kids”), and bought the best-reviewed book. A couple days later, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, by Laura Markham, M.D., arrived. I read it in two days. I marked up almost every page with notes and underlines. I texted passages to my wife. I absorbed it.

The book is not really about parenting. It’s about being a kid. It’s about seeing life from a child’s point of view. It’s about understanding that children don’t want to misbehave. They want to figure out what the limits are. And they misbehave because certain needs aren’t being met. Now, the need might be a snack. The need also might be love and support. (Good parenting pretty much comes down to snacks and hugs.)

There are dozens of memorable lines in the book, but the one that got me was this: “Remind yourself:  . . . A child needs my love most when he least deserves it.” Well, whatever dark emotional engine makes my face twist up hasn’t been working as well since I read those words, which rightly emphasize the desperate need children have for parental love above anything else—especially when they’re feeling their most vulnerable. I’m a better father to my son now, not because I figured out how to be a dad but because I figured out how to be a friend.

Am I still the Captain every now and then? Sure. But it only takes a few bars of “Edelweiss” to snap me right out of it.

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