by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
Steve and his teenage son were almost always at odds. He criticized his son’s schoolwork, his clothes, and his overall attitude. Steve’s business was at a turning point, so that added to his daily stress levels and the frustration he felt toward his son.
One night, an intense verbal exchange turned physical. Steve grabbed his son, pulled him to the floor and held him down while yelling directives. Then, in a move that Steve mistakenly thought was healthy “tough love,” he laid down the law: “Son, it’s my way or the highway.”
That was seven years ago. Steve tearfully confesses that he hasn’t seen or heard from his son in over five years. “It feels like he’s dead,” Steve said. “I hope and pray that someday I’ll get another chance.”
Steve learned the hard way about a fathering quality that we all need to develop—calmness. Though Steve’s story may be extreme, none of us can claim to always be under control when relating to our children. Many of us have busy schedules, high expectations, and high stress levels. Whether it’s at a child’s sports event, at the grocery store, or in our own homes, it’s a real challenge to keep a level head with our kids.
If you have a teenager, a special-needs child, or a child who is facing other unusual challenges, your ability to remain calm will be tested most often. But all children will test their father’s patience. Every child needs a dad who’s approachable and accepting, who listens to his children’s concerns and remains open to their ideas, who’s slow to anger and who seldom overreacts. A calm father makes his children feel comfortable and secure, and increases the opportunities to experience the real joys and rewards of fatherhood.
The “Calmness Factor”
While studying qualities displayed by effective fathers, I noticed a trend in the data that I never purposefully looked for, but it was obvious nonetheless. I call it “the calmness factor,” and through statistical modeling, I’ve developed an acronym to explain the components of this factor—four ways that calm dads distinguish themselves—using the letters C.A.L.M.:
First, CALM dads are Consistent. They don’t change like the weather; they are predictable and steady in their moods and behavior. Their word can be counted on, and their children know what to expect from them. They also respond positively and calmly during crises or other stressful times.
CALM dads are guided by a strong Awareness of their children’s developmental issues, desires and needs, and are alert to circumstances their children are facing. They know when a child is upset or has had a tough day, they have reasonable expectations of their children, and they act on their awareness by giving each child individual time and attention.
CALM fathers are skillful Listeners and important sounding boards for their children’s daily concerns. They listen without interrupting, and they give their children plenty of freedom to express themselves. They listen carefully, they don’t lose it when a child says something off-the-wall, and they’re patient with mistakes.
CALM fathers are mature Models. Their personal lifestyle demonstrates behaviors they hope their children will emulate, including a willingness to be humble and seek forgiveness for any wrongdoing. They also point out mature, praiseworthy conduct in others.
A Daily Challenge
One Saturday morning not long ago, I was at a local hardware store picking up some supplies for a household project. Up the aisle came a dad with two small children. He and the older one, a boy of about three, were arguing back and forth in loud, irritating tones: “Yes!” “No!” “Yes!” “No!” “Yes!” “No!” On and on they went. This dad didn’t miss a beat!
I noticed several customers leaving for other parts of the store, and after a few more uncomfortable moments, I ventured over to engage the father in conversation and try to help settle them down. But when I got close and saw what was really happening, I was embarrassed and ashamed. The boy had Down’s syndrome, the father was actually very calm, and neither one was upset in any way. They were having fun! Apparently, this dad had discovered a unique way to connect with his son. I smiled, nodded and walked away with a memorable lesson about calm fathering.
The more I research calmness, the more I’m convinced of its importance for fathers. Does this mean a father should be a pushover? Is there ever a place for expressing outrage or other strong emotions to your children? Certainly, but only if you’re sure that your emotion has a higher purpose, and it isn’t an impulse reaction. We mustn’t mistake calmness with leniency. Calm dads can still have high expectations and discipline their children, but it’s much more likely that they’ll be able to keep their cool, and they’ll take the time to handle conflicts in a way that truly benefits the children instead of simply trying to restore order to the household.
My friend Steve learned the hard way that when we lose our temper and yell at our kids, slam doors, curse, or discipline them too harshly, we’re doing damage that’s hard to overcome. We may see our error, muster up our courage and apologize, and our children may forgive us. But it takes time to truly forget—for our kids and for us.
Keep your cool, dad. Take steps now to monitor your stress level and find specific strategies to help you remain calm. Make “calmness” one of your goals, and find ways to remind yourself of that commitment every day. Realize that your family will occasionally put you on some emotional roller coasters. You’re going to be tested! But don’t go ballistic when you talk to your kids. Demonstrate a life of self-control. Be a calm father.