February 09, 2011

Parent perspective: Dads teach through play

Much ado is made about mothers, the current controversy over "tiger moms" being a perfect case in point. But what about the dads? Mike Hall, Founder and President of Strong Father-Strong Families, contends that a strong fatherly presence is crucial to healthy child development. Not only that, playtime with dad has benefits that go far beyond mere entertainment. Here's Mike: 

Play is perhaps the primary method of learning that children use to encounter the outside world in their early years. Research and observation has shown us that, because of their masculine nature, fathers interact with their children in more playful ways. They tend to encourage children to explore. From the time their children are very small, fathers want to do something with their child. The father-child interaction is exactly that—interactive. It is active, engaged involvement between two people.

Fathers tend to engage and activate a child through play even at young ages. As the child grows and the father gains caregiving competencies, play becomes a little rougher and more unpredictable. This rough-and-tumble play is not only a way for children and fathers to make deep personal connections, but it also teaches children about their own abilities and about what the child will someday be able to do. When children “win” or “conquer” the dad in physical play, they gain confidence. When children “lose” or “falter” against the old man, they can also develop the idea that, as capable as they are, they still need more skills and help.

Fathers need to balance the amount of success and frustration children must handle in any given “teachable moment.” These moments may include pulling themselves up on the couch, walking across the room, riding their bike solo for the first time, or even conquering quadratic formulas. Through play, fathers can better control the laboratory that helps children learn to deal with the frustration and anxiety that accompany true learning. While not the only way fathers engage their children, play interaction helps set expectations. A father who expects his child to be physically and emotionally resilient will allow a child to take certain risks and play in this rougher manner while also providing the guidance and support needed along the way.

In many of my educational workshops, I describe a scenario in which a child is running across the front yard and trips and skins his or her knee on the sidewalk. I ask the participants what would happen if only the mother were in the yard at the time. They respond that surely the mother would run (or sprint like the Six Million Dollar Man) to respond to and care for the child. I then describe to many folks who are nodding their heads that moms typically not only respond to the child but clean the wound, apply antibacterial spray and a cartoon character bandage, and then apply a kiss and an ice cream bar. Once all this is done, the child stops crying because he or she is comforted.

I then describe the same scenario with the same child skinning the same knee, but this time the father is in the yard. Participants inevitably respond that the father would respond by encouraging the child thus: “Get up! You're fine!” Because fathers expect their child will be a resilient adult, they expect that same child can and should be resilient right now! I reassure the workshop participants that fathers will attend to a child’s needs but may not necessarily use anti-bacterial ointment (unless you count WD-40) or a bandage (unless you count duct tape). Instead, fathers will many times use humor to diffuse the child’s anxiety and pain. Mothers would often think this is cruel, except for the fact that most children will respond to it if the father has already been engaged with the child.

The point is that children need to be nurtured and cared for by either the mother or father when they experience physical and emotional pain, and sometimes they need to be encouraged to endure it. Fathers are much more likely than mothers to help the child endure minor pains. For children to be resilient in an academic setting that can be painful both physically (remember dodgeball?) and emotionally (remember junior high?), the father needs to play with his child and view that play as an optimal teaching opportunity.

My experience as a middle school principal taught me that fathers who did not interact (through play or caregiving) with their child at an early age often did not have enough connection with their child to help them navigate math class, reading problems, lunchroom traumas, or most of the trials and tribulations that come with pre-adolescence and the teen years.

Too often, the child who has not been taught by the father through play does not know how to deal with adverse conditions that often accompany gaining an education in a building of 400 or 500 other children. And just as importantly, the father who has not played with his children will find himself at a loss when they face minor and major adversities.

Mike Hall has been a special education teacher, a teacher of the gifted and talented, and an intermediate and middle school principal. After realizing that he was spending more time raising other people's children than his own, he left the principalship and became an advocate for stronger parent and father involvement in public education.

Join Mike Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 15 for a free online workshop on The Value of Dad's Play. Register now!

parent perspective, parents, father, parenting