In Praise of Tough Dads

My kids' dad is not a softie. Lucky for them.



I'm like every other mother I know: I get distinctly uncomfortable when the wrestling between my husband and the boys reaches a certain level. I worry that they might get hurt - sometimes not even physically hurt, but that their feelings might get hurt; that they might feel powerless.


I'm like every other mother I know: When my kids have to endure tough criticism of a job poorly done, of a skill insufficiently executed, I want to come up behind them and shower them with enough praise to drown any voice of insufficiency.


I'm like every other mother I know: I want to protect my kids from pain, from fear, from anything that may threaten to invade this atmosphere of peace and harmony and smiles and hugs that I try so hard to nurture. And sometimes, that means that I want to protect them from the toughness of The Dad.


I began thinking about this very hard last month when my three-year-old started purposefully peeing and pooping in every room of the house. It was a baffling regression, and I went down the list of every possible reason and enlisted the counsel of my mom, my mother-in-law, my neighbor, the pediatrician. I tried every suggestion and every strategy. I tried coming down hard, I tried giving more individual attention and affection. Nothing made a dent in the behavior. Until The Dad stepped in.


It only took one time for The Dad to catch him in the act. It hasn't happened since. And the craziest part was this: after the harsh confrontation between them, my three-year-old couldn't get enough of The Dad. He followed him all around the house and begged to be able to work alongside of him.

That's when it first dawned on me that a "good dad" is not the same thing as a mom with a lower voice and more body hair.

I recently listened to an interview with Warren Farrell, author of the book The Boy Crisis. He went down the list of typical traits of fathers that cause mothers discomfort. Things like offering more direct criticism of the child's abilities, rough play, pushing them out of their comfort zone and testing their limits. It's my instinct to nurture; It's his instinct to push them out of the comfort of the nest and teach them to fly. Here's the thing, though: although our instincts sometimes seem in conflict, it takes both halves to shape the whole.


Another recent read that concretized this notion of the importance of the tough dad was Larry Elder's new book A Lot Like Me. He tells the story of returning to the father he hadn't seen in years, ready to confront him about what a mean, scary, critical dad he'd been. And after talking for eight hours, Larry realized that although his dad's methods had been very unpleasant for a child to stomach, they had been effective in making him the man he'd become. He'd gained grit, and as soon as he realized the correlation between his dad's toughness and his own grit, Larry discovered in his father a friend and mentor he was now glad to have.


Knowing that The Dad's contribution to the parenting combination is necessarily going to look very different than mine doesn't take away my feelings of discomfort when his style trends opposite mine. But it at least gives me a rational place gain an emotional toehold. If I can remind myself in those moments when I want to put out my hand and say,"Stop! Not so rough! Can't you just be a little more nurturing?" that this energy The Dad is bringing is the yin to my yang, then I find a can take a deep breath, can chose to walk away until this scene is over.

It allows me the possibility of holding two truths in my head at once: that my kids need someone who is soft and nurturing...that my kids need someone who is tough and demanding.

In other posts, I'll have plenty to say about the stereotypical tenderness of a mother, about her careful attention to her child's feelings, about the psychic way she can read his moods and her ability to accommodate him. But right now, I'm singing the praises of the stereotypical tough dad. Because its from that relationship that resilience, honor, meaningful self-worth, and grit all take root and blossom.

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