INTERVIEW

‘Smaller families can make fathers more disconnected, because demands are not as great. Mom can handle one child.'

STEPHAN POULTER, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, AUTHOR OF THE FATHER FACTOR AND DAD TO A 12-YEAR-OLD GIRL,

KENNETH WHYTE May 1 2006
INTERVIEW

‘Smaller families can make fathers more disconnected, because demands are not as great. Mom can handle one child.'

STEPHAN POULTER, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, AUTHOR OF THE FATHER FACTOR AND DAD TO A 12-YEAR-OLD GIRL,

KENNETH WHYTE May 1 2006

‘Smaller families can make fathers more disconnected, because demands are not as great. Mom can handle one child.'

INTERVIEW

STEPHAN POULTER, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, AUTHOR OF THE FATHER FACTOR AND DAD TO A 12-YEAR-OLD GIRL,

KENNETH WHYTE

QThe word “family” seems to mean a lot of different things today. Some kids have fathers, stepfathers, absent fathers, no fathers. Some experts say a loving parent or parental arrangement is all that is necessary. You insist that fathers are naturally, psychologically and socially essential to a well-balanced child.

A: Absolutely. Regardless of marital status, fathers play a huge role in their children’s development. We tend to think mothers shape children’s lives. It’s almost like dads are disposable. I’m not an anti-feminist when I say this, but fathers have an enormous impact on their children, particularly in the work arena. I talk in the book about the emotional bond we all have with our father. He’s the first man that ever loved you. He’s the first man you ever loved. So it follows that that relationship is a template for how you relate to men later in life. If a father is not present or responsive it sets up a sense of rejection in us.

Q: You talk about emotionally connected, responsive fathers. What does that mean in practice? Once a week you take them to the park? Does it mean you can never say, when they’re upset, “Wait ’til after the game”?

A: All that, plus you’re involved in their lives. Start with changing diapers, helping them pick out clothes, going to preschool, meeting their kindergarten teacher. You’re a constant presence in their life.

Q: What’s constant? Like, how often? Twice

a day? Once a week? Public holidays?

A: No, it’s more the emotional quality, not quantity. You’re able to read your child, you’re focused on your child. You’re not always on your cellphone or reading your emails or preoccupied with something else. You see your role, your first job, as being with your children; your second job is bringing money home, not the other way around.

Q: It’s not enough to be a breadwinner, a provider, establish a stable household, and so on?

A: I think the larger part—not that that isn’t an important part—but the bigger part is the emotional atmosphere/climate.

Q: We’ve seen in a lot of literature about women and work/life balance that, well, frankly, everyone’s having problems getting it right. I’m sure every father out there wants to be a presence in his child’s life. They want to meet the teacher, go to the games, the recitals, be a shoidder to cry on, a mentor, what have you. But they have a lot of other things to do. Work takes time, life takes time. So how do you know when you’re doing enough?

A: Well, I think you know when you’re not doing enough.

Q: How?

A: By whether or not your child is functioning at school, for instance. Or, if you spend time together, apart from the child’s mother. Pragmatically, is that one hour a day, or five hours a week? Saying an hour a day may seem like a lot Monday through Friday, but there’s time on the weekends, or maybe you’re driving in the car, or doing homework with them

at night. If you’re focusing on your children when you’re with them they will sense your presence, and that is enough. Sometimes fathers are gone for a week on business, but they talk to their children on the phone every night, and they have a great discussion. I try not to take cellphone calls when I’m with my kids. I’m not with them that much but when I’m with them I really want to be with them.

Q: What’s the biggest problem with your average North American boomer-aged father?

A: Too passive. It’s not a whole lot different than 1950s Ozzie and Harriet, the Robert Young Father Knows Best style. Today’s father may be a little more upwardly mobile, or more financially solvent, but in terms of really getting in their kids’ lives, connecting with them, understanding their emotions, I think a lot of dads stay on the periphery.

Q: Is this an argument for a father-as-bestfriend role model?

A: Kids don’t need you as a best friend. They’ve got friends at school. They need a parent. In good parenting, I think the watermark is the ability to say no. The passive father doesn’t say no. He’ll avoid it, acquiesce, or move the boundaries, or say no but then say yes later. And that’s why a lot of kids are out of control—emotionally, mentally. We see it in this incident at Duke University right now, the behaviour of the lacrosse team. No one’s ever said no to those guys. The kids grow up with a sense of entitlement, “If I want it, it’s mine.”

Q: Let’s talk about daughters a bit. I think

there’s a general acknowledgment that the mother-daughter relationship is a little more intense than the father-daughter relationship, but you say that, especially in terms of engaging with the world and the workplace, a father’s influence is predominant.

A Yes. And it’s not that mothers aren’t important, but the workplaceright, wrong or indifferent—tends to be a masculine model, in how it works. It’s been that way forever. Daughters coming into it are confronted with questions like, “What are the rules for the jungle, here?” Or, “How do I relate to men without it being sexual?” Or, “How do I deal with men who discount me because I’m a woman?” If a daughter feels that her father supported her, believes in her, she’s going to be able to go out in the workplace and function with men. If she never had a close relationship with her dad, it’s going to be difficult for her to feel as competent as she may be.

Q: So how does a father show approval and encouragement without saying yes all the tune?

A: Take an interest in his daughter. Like, I have a 12-year-old...

Q: So do I.

A: God bless you!

Q: Thanks, I need it!

A: Listen, I am currently talking to you as a distressed father! My 12-year-old, Madison, is in the 6th grade. What I find at this age, they’re starting to notice boys, they’re starting to notice the world’s getting bigger. The thing my daughter needs from me most is a backboard, something she can lean against. I want to help her feel competent and capable. I ask, “Honey, what do you see yourself doing? How does this feel, how does that feel?” Because if we win the war at 12, we’re going to do much better at 14,15 and 16.

Q: What is “winning the war”?

A: Winning the war is staying connected. A lot of times at that age kids will take a step back from their parents, they won’t talk, and many times the parents will let the communication die. They can be rude, moody, aggressive. We have to set boundaries. That’s when it’s really important to say, “No, that’s unacceptable. That tone of voice doesn’t work. That’s not how you talk to me. Let’s talk later when you feel better.” Because their hormones are raging, they don’t know if they’re coming or going. But that’s exactly when fathers need to be involved, otherwise their daughters may become prematurely sexually active, or start experimenting with drugs at 14, and it’s much too soon.

Q: You say in the book that almost any kind of dysfunction you see in the workplace,

whether it’s somebody being under-motivated, or unfocused, or overly stressed or overly demanding—almost any sort of workplace pathology can be traced to the fatherchild relationship.

A: At the end of the day, all work gets back to relationships and, again, the fatherdaughter or father-son relationship is the template. Often you see an underachieving individual and you’ll say, “He’s just lazy,” and you come to find out that their dad ran a company, wasn’t around much. I’ve seen this happen many times. The kid’s going, “I don’t want to be like him,” so they go in the other direction. It’s a way of rebelling. I have a client, she’s 42. At 12 years of age her dad told her that she could never really be successful in business, but now she works at Dreamworks, and she’s not married and she’s really motivated, but it’s trying to prove her dad wrong. And it’s kind of caught up with her in her career because everyone finds her very aggressive and too hard.

Q: Was this something that her father told her every day, or was it a one-time comment?

A: No, no, I think it’s ongoing. You and I can blow it on a given day, miss the mark by a hundred miles, but it’s the everyday message you send your daughter that matters most. If she knows you believe in her, you’re on the right track. All parents want that, but often issues get in the way. For instance, many fathers, all of a sudden their daughter starts developing physically, they don’t know what to do with her. Suddenly, she’s a woman, and she’s attractive and what not. A lot of dads take a step away from their daughters. And the daughter feels rejected, and that sets up a whole host of problems.

Q: I was interested in what you wrote about how a parent’s approach to the world is absorbed by the child, whether they talk about it or not.

A: It’s like fluorides in the water: you can’t really taste it, but long-term, you see the benefits of it. If a father cares a lot about appearances and performance, even though dad may never say “I want you to look a certain way,” kids intuitively pick it up.

Q: You say in your book that fatherless sons and daughters tend to be angry people. That’s a bit of a controversial statement, isn’t it?

A: It’s because of the neglect. One thing that gang members all have in common is they’re fatherless boys. Generally speaking, people who are really angry, angry personalities, there’s been a huge neglect or absence in their life. And I know it’s a strong statement, but personally and professionally that’s what I’ve seen.

Q: What about a father’s relationship with the child’s mother, how important is that?

A: Indispensable. It’s marital tension that

messes up children, not marital status. There was a time when divorce was considered paralyzing for children, but we’ve realized down the road it’s parents who chronically fight and don’t get along, or hate each other, that do more damage to children. Kids who live in a family, divorced or not, where the parents get along are more likely to thrive.

Q: A lot of families are smaller now than they were a generation or two ago. Doesn’t that help fathers to become more involved and better connected with their children? Does that breed closeness, or does that...

A: No. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be blunt but what’s happening is that smaller families can actually lead to more disconnected fathers, because the needs are not as demanding. Mom can handle one child.

Q: A small family makes it even easier to be a part-time father.

'One thing that gang members all have in common is they're fatherless boys’

A: Right. You can be gone more often. With one or two kids, dad can sneak out and play golf all weekend. With five kids, you can’t.

Q: So somebody, a father like me, comes up to you and says, “What’s the best piece of practical advice you can give me about being connected with your child’s life?” Is it what you mentioned about turning off the cellphone, or more hours at home? More bowling?

A: I think it’s the mindset that you’re going to stay involved, no matter what, especially in the teen years. That’s my best advice: whatever you do, stay close to your children, emotionally, mentally, physically.

Q :And turn off the cellphone.

A: Turn off the cellphone, exactly. M