by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.

According to the old clichés, “Real men don’t eat quiche,” and “Real men don’t ask directions.” Those are punch lines, and mostly harmless. But there are other, similar messages—like: “Big boys don’t cry,” “Guys don’t have feelings,” or “Men don’t nurture”—that aren’t funny, but potentially harmful to impressionable boys who would be men, and men who would be effective fathers.

Men do feel, and we do nurture. Our children do benefit from the masculine approach to parenting that a father brings, yet many of us could stand to adjust our approach to include more emotion and sensitivity, qualities which have traditionally been considered “feminine.”

We can and must become nurturing dads through giving affection, affirmation, and attention to our children. We do this with our arms, words, eyes and ears.

Affection – “Arms Are For Hugging”

In a best-case situation, you establish fatherly nurturing habits when your children are small, when hugging and holding them is natural and spontaneous. For many dads, physical affection comes easier when it is associated with play. Flipping little Janie up over your head or piling on Johnnie and wrestling him on the floor—that’s one of the things a dad does best! But this rough-and-tumble play is also a great opportunity for your children to learn about risk-taking and problem-solving in a safe environment.

Later, as your children grow up, you will want to maintain contact—by touch!—as often and as meaningfully as possible. Many dads are squeamish about affection with older children, so they specialize in small, elusive, “incidental” shows of affection—a squeeze on the shoulder, a pat on the back, a tousle of the hair. Those are meaningful, but don’t stop there. Try deliberate physical contact that is open for all to see and feel and smile about. Such loving displays are essential to your kids’ self-esteem and emotional stability. Teens may protest and feign embarrassment, but secretly, they thrive on their father’s touch.

Boys and girls both need their father’s affection, but with boys it may be harder to show openly. Too many fathers only touch their sons when they’re disciplining them, yet young boys need the warmth and security from a loving father to develop positive self-esteem. Studies indicate that sons of sensitive, affectionate fathers score higher on intelligence tests and do better at school than sons of colder, authoritarian fathers.

As with a boy becoming a man, a woman’s sense of worth as a woman is largely influenced by her relationship with Dad. It may seem more natural to cuddle cute little girls than boys. Yet before you know it, she has become more than cute—more like a woman—and nurturing her isn’t so easy, more like scary. She’s trying to figure out men, and you’re her closest and best example of one. That’s why your healthy affection is so important. Instead of withdrawing from her because of your discomfort—where she may think Dad doesn’t care or There must be something wrong with me—you can show her what proper male affection sounds and feels like. By making her feel accepted and loved, you’ll also remove her need to look for it elsewhere—in all the wrong places.

A purposeful touch between a father and his child creates a psychological bond. We can “say” things through physical touch that we can’t say with words, and our children receive benefits that they probably can’t comprehend, much less put into words. Nothing quite reassures them of our affirmation as the intentional use of our arms for hugging.

Have you hugged your child today?

Affirmation – “Words Are Not Cheap”

You know the value of the carefully chosen word. We try to use just the right words anytime we craft résumés, give performance reviews, or sell anything.

For better or for worse, our kids feed on our every word. A nurturing father uses words to convey support, protection, comfort, encouragement, sympathy, tenderness, and caring. The way we interact verbally with our children has a lasting impact, determining their level of security and their ability to empathize. If a boy’s father screams at him, slams the door and stays away for hours, the boy will grow up believing it’s okay to handle conflicts with anger and the “silent treatment.” On the other hand, if this dad can admit when he’s wrong and ask for forgiveness, the son is nurtured with an entirely different view of manhood.

Many children grow up never hearing the words “I love you” from their fathers. All they hear are high expectations: “If you work a little harder, you can turn that B into an A.” “If you keep practicing, maybe next year you’ll win first place.” These fathers may mean well, but they convey a not-so-subtle message: You’re not good enough. How different are the words of a father who says to his daughter, “Honey, I want you to know, you do not have to perform for me. I love you because of who you are, not because of what you do.”

Unfortunately, our real concerns, not our good intentions, are revealed in situations with kids. Under pressure, our words become swords, cutting to the heart, adding insult to injury. When we say: “Oh, son, you struck out. How could you let your team down?” what he hears is, “I’m embarrassed to be your father.”

How different it would be if we all could say to our kids, “Atta boy!” or “That’s my girl” just because we’re proud to be their dad.

Attention – “Ears to Hear” and “Eyes to See”

All too often, our kids lose out in competing for our attention. They get shoved aside for the TV, phone or computer, work project or hobby. “Wait until I’m done with this one thing,” we say, and the child plods away. After all, we are preoccupied with important stuff, aren’t we? And our children usually aren’t talking about things all that important, are they?

Sometimes they prattle on about the fun-filled Saturday you’ve planned, or the story-line of a book they’re reading, or the local sports scores, or who’s dating whom, or who-knows-what. At times it can even be annoying. But what is your child really saying? If you have “ears to hear” and “eyes to see,” you’ll notice that your child is simply wanting to be with you. To him, it’s the telling that’s important, not so much the content of what he’s saying. By patiently listening—with eyes and ears—you can be alert to these times of “show and tell.”

Our eyes and our ears show and tell much about us, too, revealing whether our children deserve our attention when they’re talking. Of course Amanda and Sam are worth being known and understood, but have you told them with your eyes and ears, giving them the attention they deserve? (Eyes and ears rarely lie like empty words can.)

Children learn very quickly whether or not we are willing to listen to them. They may learn that when Dad’s in his office, he’s unavailable; better go ask Mom. Their concerns may be minor ones, and Mom may handle the situation quite effectively. But one day your teenager will face bigger decisions—about a weekend party or the character of a new friend. If you’ve never really been around to listen to her in the past, it will be much more challenging to get her to open up now, when she may really need your wise counsel.

When your child is talking, tune out all the distractions and give him or her your full attention. Maintain eye contact, and do your best to clear your mind. If our children are worth nurturing—and we all know they are—then these listening skills are worth practicing.

Becoming a Man of Nurture

Unless you’re particularly fortunate, affection probably wasn’t your father’s strong suit. Consequently, you don’t have his legacy of warmth and affection to draw upon in becoming a nurturing dad yourself. But you can learn from—and “practice on”—others. In a group of other dads, you can watch and meet with other men who model healthy emotional expression, share each other’s struggles and celebrate each other’s progress. Your wife can also be a big help. Tuning your eyes, ears, and mind to her—since she’s probably a “natural” at nurturing—can help to open up your emotional side, not to mention strengthen your marriage. Even if nurturing wasn’t a strength for your dad, you can learn from others, and pass it on to your kids.

Men do feel, and we do nurture. Let’s just do it … now! With our arms, words, eyes and ears, we can give our kids the physical and verbal affirmation that lasts a lifetime. It’s one of the best legacies we can leave them.

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For more on nurturing and other key areas of fathering, see Ken’s book The Heart of a Father.

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