Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bring back the tough dad? Did he ever leave?

Originally uploaded by dmealiffe
My lovely wife recently passed along a Wall Street Journal piece by Kevin Helliker called "A Father's Tough Love." In it, Helliker writes about how his father's stark, tough treatment of himself and his four brothers looks from a distance. Helliker's father as he describes him was pretty manly — a butcher who also firmly ran a newspaper delivery business before and after long hours of cleaving meat — and he embodied the distant Midwestern father of the times. Helliker writes, "It was a style that placed Dad at a certain distance, that required him to scoff at scraped knees and hurt feelings, that often cast him in the role of bad guy."

This style has (more or less) become less acceptable, and Helliker collects reasons why that might not be a good thing:
"The whole culture needs the father back," says Lila Kalinich, a Columbia University psychiatrist who served as senior editor for the book [The Dead Father: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry]. "Fathers substantiate law and order. Fathers can create a sense of womanliness in daughters and bring the male children into manhood."
Hmm. I'm not sure what Kalinich means by "womanliness" or "manhood," and I do wonder how Helliker's father would have treated a daughter. (As I understand it, tough dads of this sort had deeply distinct double standards for parenting girls and boys, and girls were treated so differently because they were believed to be so much weaker and more vulnerable than boys on just about every score.)

Compare Helliker's sentiment with that expressed in a Father's Day speech by the current Democratic nominee for president. Here's Obama speaking of fathers' duties:
The first is setting an example of excellence for our children – because if we want to set high expectations for them, we’ve got to set high expectations for ourselves. It’s great if you have a job; it’s even better if you have a college degree. It’s a wonderful thing if you are married and living in a home with your children, but don’t just sit in the house and watch “SportsCenter” all weekend long. That’s why so many children are growing up in front of the television. As fathers and parents, we’ve got to spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the video game or the remote control with a book once in awhile. That’s how we build that foundation...

It’s up to us – as fathers and parents – to instill this ethic of excellence in our children. It’s up to us to say to our daughters, don’t ever let images on TV tell you what you are worth, because I expect you to dream without limit and reach for those goals. It’s up to us to tell our sons, those songs on the radio may glorify violence, but in my house we glorify achievement, self respect, and hard work. It’s up to us to set these high expectations. And that means meeting those expectations ourselves. That means setting examples of excellence in our own lives.

The second thing we need to do as fathers is pass along the value of empathy to our children. Not sympathy, but empathy – the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes; to look at the world through their eyes. Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in “us,” that we forget about our obligations to one another. There’s a culture in our society that says remembering these obligations is somehow soft – that we can’t show weakness, and so therefore we can’t show kindness.

But our young boys and girls see that. They see when you are ignoring or mistreating your wife. They see when you are inconsiderate at home; or when you are distant; or when you are thinking only of yourself. And so it’s no surprise when we see that behavior in our schools or on our streets. That’s why we pass on the values of empathy and kindness to our children by living them. We need to show our kids that you’re not strong by putting other people down – you’re strong by lifting them up. That’s our responsibility as fathers.
(You can read the whole thing here or watch him deliver the entire speech here.)

My own father was from the older school (punishment wise and all), but I didn't live in fear of him. Which is to say that toughness isn't synonymous with gruffness, and kindness isn't tantamount to weakness. And toughness has never gone out of fashion, just its expression. I'd like to think that my wife and I teach Q and The Boy strength not through physical intimidation (of either our children or others) but rather in our expectations of ourselves and of others.

We'll see how well we did, I suppose, when they look back.

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