by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
A growing number of researchers and professionals recognize the importance of family history as they seek to better understand human behavior. When I speak to groups of dads, I often bring up generational family issues to try to help men gain a better perspective on their own challenges. I ask a series of questions to bring these issues to the surface.
Recently, I added a new set of questions that explore the darker side of their fathering heritage:
- Was your father largely absent while you were growing up?
- Did your father abuse you or another family member?
- Did your father have addictive behavior?
- Was your father sexually involved with someone other than your mother?
- Did your father commit illegal acts?
These questions drew silent, sober stares. As we discussed how to process those “dark” issues, I presented my original five questions, which now seemed much more redemptive and hopeful:
- Have you resolved your feelings toward your father?
- Do you have a close friend or small group that supports and holds you accountable?
- Are you seeking to improve your fathering skills?
- Do you interact with other fathering role models whom you respect?
- Are you involved and connected to a faith community?
After the session, a young dad who had pondered these questions approached me and said, “My father was like the rock of Gibraltar in our family. He was a poised landmark that we could count on. Then we found out about his hidden life, and one by one each of us kids drifted and struggled. For me it took two decades to get back on track.”
He continued, “But after working through this, I’ve got a new picture for my own fathering. The rock of Gibraltar is going to be pounded and processed into gravel and that gravel will be the foundation for a new road I’m going to build in our family—a road which leads from my heart to my children’s hearts.” With a new perspective and an inspiring word picture, this father committed to take a different course than his father had taken.
- How did you fair on the question inventory? As you reflect on the issues raised by the first group of questions, share your responses with your wife or another dad.
- Discuss your childhood with another family member that you’ll be seeing over the holidays. Ask if he/she had the same experience that you did.
- Make a point to share a word of thanks for those positive influences in your family heritage.
- Use a word picture to describe how you feel about your fathering and share it with another man (e.g., “I feel like a dachshund dog running in deep snow,” or, “…a warm summer breeze.”)