by Pete Codella:
I recently heard about Keith Zafren and his quest to inspire and empower fathers to become great dads. He has a book aptly titled: How to Be a Great Dad.
I don’t know a father who wouldn’t buy-in to Keith’s message:
It doesn’t matter what kind of father you had, only what kind of father you choose to be, and through developing and fostering three core fathering practices: affirmation, acceptance and affection, fathers can become great dads.Keith’s book focuses on the present but also deals with the past to teach, as Keith puts it, how to heal a father wound.
I recommend and encourage fathers and mothers alike to read Keith’s book.
After I finished the book I reached out to thank him for his efforts with The Great Dads Project. This question and answer article is the result of my email exchange with How to Be a Great Dad author Keith Zafren.
My Question: The difference between a parent’s approval and giving affirmation seems tricky. How do you prove to your kid you still love them, while letting them know that their behavior isn’t something you approve?
Keith’s Answer: This distinction is as tricky as it is important. The problem is that when most parents, and particularly dads, think they are expressing disapproval their children often experience rejection. That is, the child takes the disapproval personally. So even though a dad may think he is telling his daughter he doesn’t approve of something she is wearing, she may experience a feeling of rejection, believing that she (not her shirt) is not acceptable. This is why this distinction is so radically important for parents to understand and then make clear when they express disapproval.
Here’s the key: it’s fully expected and acceptable for a parent to disapprove of some behavior, choice, action, belief, style choice, preference, you name it. What is not okay is rejecting the child. It’s a fine line that many parents miss, to the detriment of the relationship and often the pain of the child. We have to make it clear to our children that we disapprove of something they’ve said or done, but we still love and accept them always, no matter what.
Why is this so important? Because this is how our children develop a sense of belonging and security. And it’s a huge way they develop a strong self-esteem, believing that even if they do something wrong, make a mistake, even a serious one, or fail in some way, they are still okay, they are not failures, and the future can still be bright.
Let me give you two examples of how this works.
First, an example from my own life:
A while back one of my sons spoke an obvious lie. When I confronted him I looked at him with disapproval, spoke in a calm but serious tone and said, “Son, when you lie to me, it breaks our trust. I find it more difficult to trust what you say. Lying is something I definitely disapprove of and will not tolerate.” I then asked him to look me in the eyes and said, “Son, lying is not okay—but you are. I want you to be a truth teller, not a liar. And I know you have the character to tell the truth even when it’s difficult, painful, or may get you in trouble. I also want you to know that you are my son, you belong with me, and I will always love you, no matter what. Do you understand this?”
He looked at me sheepishly and simply said, “Yes. Thanks, Dad.”
Some fathers think that’s letting the boy off too easy or giving him license to lie again. I disagree. Studies and statistics reveal just the opposite. When a child is believed in like this, they tend to rise to what their parents believe and say. And that works negatively as well. Kids lower themselves to what they believe their parents expect. Let’s raise them up by reminding them constantly of the good we believe in and for them.
Here’s a second example from a man I coached to become a great dad:
When he learned his 16-year-old daughter was pregnant, he held his tongue and before he blew up at her, he called me. His emotions were hot, especially because he had already told his daughter to stop seeing the boy she was dating. The dad felt worried they were progressing sexually and he was afraid of this very outcome—that she might become pregnant. He did not believe in abortion as an option, and neither did his daughter, but she was terrified of what the pregnancy would meant for her future. He was livid, angry with her and with himself for not stepping in more forcefully sooner. We talked about how devastating an angry reaction could be to his relationship with her.
We talked this painful situation through. I calmed him down as we spoke and he practiced what he wanted to say to her. After several rounds of role-playing this dreaded conversation with his daughter, he went to her and spoke: “Honey, I’m devastated that you have made choices so contrary to what mom and dad believe and the way we’ve taught you to live. It breaks our hearts to realize how radically your life is going to change now. I also realize you must be very scared and my heart goes out to you. You know we don’t approve of anything about this situation. But you also need to know we love you no matter what and you’ll always have a place with us. So will your baby. We’ll all get through this together and figure out what this means. And we’ll find our way to the blessing on the other side.”
She was crying throughout this conversation, but at this point she burst into sobs as she wrapped her arms around her father and buried her head in his chest. She understood everything he needed her to know—both his temporary disapproval and his enduring love and acceptance.
It is not only possible to express both disapproval and acceptance at the same time, it is essential if we want our children to feel loved, secure and hope for the future. When we are not abundantly (and sometimes overly) clear that even though we disapprove of something they’ve done or said we still accept and love them no matter what, we leave open the likelihood that they will experience the disapproval as personal rejection. It’s then so many children, and particularly teens, leave (emotionally if not physically) to find their belonging elsewhere—in their peer group, in the arms of another teen, or perhaps in a cult or a gang. The pattern is unmistakable and avoidable.
Q: I wish I could help my kids improve their self-esteem. How does a dad (or parent) help kids see their own worth and capabilities even though outside forces (and there seem to be many) make them feel less capable?
A: Expressing the kind of unconditional and unending acceptance we just considered is essential. It’s one of the three core fathering practices I teach in my workshops, write about in my book and coach men to practice when I work individually or in small groups with them.
The other two core fathering practices are affirmation and affection. Practiced together, these three core fathering skills (affirmation, acceptance and affection) are like the three legs of a stool—all equally essential to support the weight of great parenting.
Affirmation refers to verbal and written words of specific praise regarding our children’s character, decision-making and treatment of others beyond their appearance, achievement or performance. A father’s written and verbal affirmation helps a child believe they are smart, capable and able to achieve whatever they set their mind to.
I encourage dads and moms to seek out things to affirm and then to speak and write those affirmations for their children daily. You literally cannot overdo it, especially because, as you note, outside forces are constantly working to bring our children’s view of themselves down.
Acceptance speaks to our unconditional and unending embrace of our children no matter what they do, how they fail, what they choose to value, believe or pursue, or who they choose to associate with. A father’s unconditional and unending acceptance communicates to children that they belong. It helps them know and feel they are ours, we want them, and we’ll never, ever turn them away.
Affection applies to both spoken and physical expressions of love, tenderness, warmth and care. A father’s affection helps children know they are loved and lovable and worthy of good, healthy, fulfilling relationships in the future.
These three skills together support the weight of great parenting. And our kids will experience what they need from us in order to develop a healthy, positive, strong and enduring view of themselves. What a gift we can give our kids.
Q: You shared some ideas and advice about celebrating milestones with your kids, particularly puberty. I know some parents who are so uncomfortable with changes brought on by puberty, that they don’t talk openly about it with their kids. Any advice for parents who are less than forthright in this area?
A: Those parents need to get over it. Seriously, when we withhold good and needed parenting because we ourselves are uncomfortable with a topic, whatever that topic is, it’s like not watering a plant because we’re afraid of water.
We really do need to work toward more comfort ourselves for our children’s sake. They need us. Better they hear it from us than from their peers, or from a teacher, or another adult who may not share our values, faith or hopes for our children.
We may need to read more, seek counseling ourselves, or talk with another adult or friend who does not share our discomfort so we can get beyond ours.
I posted a helpful article on my Facebook page from the Mayo clinic regarding talking about sex with your children. It’s worth reading.
Q: My wife and I frequently talk about how things were pretty different for us as kids, and how they’re different for our children. My only growing up experience was mine, not hers, not my kids’. Sometimes it’s difficult relating to what your kids are going through because your experience was so different. How do you think parents can best coach their children through something that seems so different and sometimes foreign to them?
A: Grow themselves and get familiar with the new territory. Period.
Technology and entertainment have radically shaped the world in which our children are growing up, and continues to do so every year. Cultural values have massively shifted making many things public we never heard of as children.
It’s a significantly different and in many ways more challenging world today. It can be frightening to children. If we are passive as parents, if we sit back, hope for the best, and simply wish things were different, we may be inadvertently offering our children up to the lions.
We must learn by reading and experiencing their culture with (and in some case for) them. It’s the only way to be a knowledgeable guide for them, if that’s what we hope to be.
I often watch movies with my boys I would never want to watch on my own because those movies shape the way they think and the dreams and desires they create. They shape their view of life. I want to help shape them too, but I’d be lost as to how to do so if I didn’t know for myself the books they’re reading or listening to, the movies they’re watching, the games they’re playing, the Internet browsing they’re doing, the activities they explore, etc.
It’s exhausting at times for me, and sometimes not very fulfilling, but I want to be an engaged dad who speaks with contemporary knowledge my kids respect. If I’m out of touch, or seem to be to them, they’ll lose respect for me, my opinions and what I have to say won’t matter much.
Remember how you used to think of your parents when you were young and the world was new to you? Enough said?
Q: Sometimes, I think it’s better not to dwell on the past, but to live in the present with an eye toward the future. We can read good books, attend counseling and support groups, talk about and visualize the future and the positive influence we want to be, despite our own experience. What do you think is the best way to break a cycle (whether it be a negative behavior or characteristic, or a history of bad dads) and become the great dad (or parent) that deep-down you want to be?
A: Nearly half my book (How to Be a Great Dad—No Matter What Kind of Father You Had) is about this very issue. Dwelling on the past is not a problem; getting stuck there is.
We actually must dwell on the past for some time, and perhaps seek some help in moving through it, in order to live in the present and move with more freedom, maturity and love into the future. Praying, meditating and visualizing the future we wish to create are part of that process for sure.
This is my story and I tell it pretty openly in my book how I moved from being a wounded son to becoming a bewildered new father (because I had no real model for how to be one), to eventually becoming an effective and deeply fulfilled dad.
Alcoholics Anonymous says the only way to the other side of grief is through it. You can’t go around it or avoid it. We must move through whatever it is from our past that may be hindering or blocking us from becoming the dad or mom we want to be. The freedom and love on the other side is so worth it. And our kids deserve it.
Q: From about the time I was 12 until I was in my mid-20s, I kept a daily journal. Many entries, particularly from my 16-18 year-old years, include a fair amount of angst towards my dad. Maybe it’s natural for teenage boys to be judgmental of their dads, or perhaps that was my way of dealing with father wounds? What do you think of encouraging our children to keep journals, and even as parents, frequently recording our thoughts, experiences and accomplishments?
A: I have also kept a journaling practice for many, many years and still write every day in a way that helps me process my heart, my thoughts and the life I want to create. I, like many others, find it an incredibly valuable tool.
If it’s something a parent or child finds useful, I encourage it. Others don’t find writing a helpful way to think or feel. For some it’s laborious and detracts from the intended outcome.
It’s a tool well worth exploring, embracing if one finds it useful, and searching elsewhere for other tools if one does not.
As for your experience of angst with your father during your teen years, I love the quote attributed (perhaps falsely) to Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
Q: Your story of six frogs who sat on a lily pad, with one who decided to jump off, and the question of how many are left, reminds me of the Nike slogan, to just do it. Put another way: Thinking or saying is way easier than doing. How do you motivate fathers to move from an idea to action, from wanting to be a great dad to actually doing the difficult things that need to be done and working to become the husbands and fathers they want to be?
A: With every dad I coach personally and each dad to whom I speak in my workshops, I explain to them and then encourage them to embrace and practice something I created and call The Great Dad Challenge™.
I always invite men who are willing to accept this specific challenge. This challenge is for dads to spend time each day for the next 15 days with their children, individually, and to affirm them while demonstrating acceptance and showing affection.
For those who express their desire to embrace the challenge by standing and responding with a verbal commitment, I provide a black silicon wristband that has written on it: THE GREAT DAD CHALLENGE.
I wear mine all the time. In fact, on an airplane last week, the mom sitting next to me asked me what my wristband represented. When I told her, she told me all about her husband, his wounded psyche from his father, and the great dad he’s trying to be to their six-year-old girl.
I ask dads who accept this challenge to wear their wristband for the duration of time they’re living out their commitment to the challenge. Then if they want to keep it on afterward as a reminder, as I do, that’s their choice.
The Great Dad Challenge – Phase 1: The High Five
Dads accept the challenge to spend five minutes each day with each child for the next five days. For dads who have more than three children, it’s fine to focus on three kids at a time. For instance, if a man has five children, focus on three kids for fifteen days, then the other two for fifteen days.
The dad’s daily task is only to listen to whatever his kids want to talk about, without critique or evaluation but with active engagement. Near the end of the five minutes, the dad is to share a verbal affirmation of his child including some form of physical affection while expressing his acceptance.
Dads can use a phrase like, “I think you’re terrific, and I’m so glad you’re mine. I’ll love you forever, no matter what.” Or they can create their own.
If a dad misses a day, he’s to remove the wristband and transfer it to the other wrist, then start The High Five over.
Once successful—he’s spent five minutes each day with each child for five consecutive days affectionately affirming and accepting—he should take his kids out to celebrate in some way. It can be any size celebration that schedule and finances allow. It should be something to mark the accomplishment and the growing relationships.
Phase Two: The Hang Ten
For the next ten days, spend ten minutes each day with each of your children doing the same thing: listening actively without critique or evaluation, then affirming with affection and acceptance.
The same rule about consecutive days is in play. If you miss a day, transfer your wristband to the other wrist and start The Hang Ten over. After successfully completing this second phase of the challenge, go out for a celebration.
My boys are the ones who added the celebration aspect to the challenge. When I first created the challenge, I told them why I was wearing my GREAT DAD CHALLENGE wristband. They said, “That’s pretty cool, Dad, but you need to tell the dads to take their kids out to celebrate when they get it right.” They were absolutely right. Go ahead and celebrate.
If you already are a part of some sort of small support group, I encourage you to share in your group before you begin your Great Dad Challenge experience what you’re about to do and why. Then share along the way for encouragement, support and accountability.
I ask dads, at the end of fifteen days, to report back to their small groups what happened. I celebrate with them after the challenge is completed successfully and post their results to The Great Dads Project site (Community of Dads Forum). You’ll find encouraging stories there from other dads about how The Great Dad Challenge worked for them and their children.
Pete Codella: I've lived in New York, Texas, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. I've traveled to four continents, shopped in Fez, parasailed in Tunisia, eaten caviar in Moscow and would love to visit my namesake and great-grandfather's stomping grounds in Italy. I was married in the Salt Lake LDS Temple four years after graduating from BYU, so you could argue at one point I was a ‘menace to the community.’ I'm a former singing gondolier at The Venetian in Las Vegas and BYU Young Ambassador. I work in digital public relations and travel to consult and speak about corporate communications and social media. I graduated in 2013 from the University of Utah's Executive MBA program. My awesome wife and I have two great kids, currently twelve and eight and full of life. Twitter: @codella.
Image credit: The Great Dads Project.