Because what our kids hear us say is as important as what we say to them.
As parents, we’re constantly doling out information to our kids. Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t put that in your mouth. No hitting. But we’re constantly passing along information indirectly, too, which is something that every parent should use to their advantage. Just as there are things all fathers should be sure to say to their kids, there are things that fathers should be certain that their kids overhear them say.
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With sons, the main subject of these indirect lessons is often about being able to ask for help and show empathy. For girls, those apply, but your daughter is going to have to navigate a world that’s not usually built for her. She’ll be marginalized and judged on her looks. She’ll be expected to apologize a lot. She’ll be forced to find a balance between assertive and not bitchy, a game that’s hard to win. So there need to be more specific lessons.
Part of a father’s job, then, is to talk. Even if your daughter isn’t in the room, you should extol women athletes, talk about the viability of a female presidential candidate, and apologize for interrupting. But part of your job is to act. You need to watch Katie Ledecky swim and show up in your daughter’s first grade classroom. This is Modeling 101. “Kids do what we do. They don’t do what we say to do,” says Dr. Jill A. Stoddard, licensed psychologist in San Diego, California and author of Be Mighty.
No, you alone will not reduce the playing field. But through direct and indirect lessons, you can help build a foundation of what she can — and should — expect. She’ll likely still contend with overbearing colleagues and people who think her time isn’t as important, but she’ll know what’s possible, because she saw evidence of what one guy, maybe the most important guy to her, actually has done. Here, then, are eight things daughters need to hear their fathers say — and express — at home.
1. Making Arrangements
It could be saying, “I’ll find the doctor,” “I’ll set up the lessons,” or, “I’ll organize the play date.” Either way, such overt involvement so very important as it demonstrates that tasks are not meant only for one parent or gender. This comes down to invisible labor, Stoddard says, the behind-the-scenes stuff that needs to be coordinated and often falls on Mom. So, it’s good, then, to have a planning conversation where you divide up the tasks within ear shot of the kids. The kids hear the negotiating and eventually understand that everybody’s time is equally important. This, per Stoddard, sends a clear message: “This is how the house works.”
2. School Volunteering
This is closely tied with making arrangements or any such work that falls under the umbrella of “invisible labor.” There’s often time to help out at school and, in many households, Mom is often the one finding the time to do it — even if she also has a job. There’s nothing that says that you couldn’t do the same juggling act, Stoddard says. It’s important, then for men to say, “I’ll go into her class. I’d love to.” By doing so, you’re respecting your partner’s schedule and also shaking the traditional gender roles. Sure, you can be a soccer and basketball coach. You can also be a classroom reader.
3. Positive Responses to Big Shows of Emotion
It’s often easy to toss off such phrases as “drama queen” and “too emotional” when listening to strong opinions voiced by women. This tells girls that expressing their emotions is wrong. “The message is ‘Pipe down,’” per Stoddard. Say you’re talking back to the screen during the election. Anything from, “Well said,” to “I don’t agree, but I respect how much she cares,” helps hold both men and women to the same standard. It also lets it be known that they’re both allowed to have a position and express it.
4. Enthusiasm About Female Athletes
Say to no one in particular, “I gotta catch the tennis match. Serena is playing,” or “The Mercury are on. Diana Taurasi is amazing.” (Actually, if you have a son, say this to him so your daughter hears it.) It’s good to mention great female athletes when you talk about athletes, but you also want to make it a point to use your free time and watch them, says Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. You send that message to both your daughter and son that good competition and things to appreciate come from anywhere and everyone, and it’s good to seek them out.
5. Praise For Being Assertive
Your wife gets off the phone. She was mad but stayed calm and firm. It’s great to say something along the lines of, “You’re badass. Way to handle that.” The subtext here is that it’s all right to be assertive, that it’s good to not accept poor treatment. And you, as the dad, had no need have to rush in and fix the problem, because the solution was in capable hands, Stoddard says.
6. Stories About Your Friends
Kids like hearing your history. It fills in the holes, but it can also give lessons. You want to talk about what your good friends are like, but you also want to talk about friends that you separated from and why. It could be because they were angry or were selfish; whatever it was, it became too much. Listening to you speak truthfully about this, your daughter will have an example that you can walk away if you’re not being treated well, Beresin says.
7. Apologies For Interrupting
Interrupting is an easy habit to fall into, especially for men. Whether or not this is the case, interruption comes down to presumed dominance. So, if you accidentally interrupt someone during a family discussion or on the phone, say, “I’m sorry. I cut you off. Please continue.” This is just good manners. But, it’s also important because your daughter will eventually go into meetings and get the implicit message that she should talk less, and that it’s all right if other people, i.e. male co-workers, talk over her. When you show an awareness and let somebody finish, she gets the encouragement of deserving her say.
8. The Right Kind of Comments About Appearances
No, you don’t want to make comments about the bodies of women on television or Instagram, and you don’t even want to make them about your spouse in front of the kids. Instead, you want to talk about how women are persistent and talented. If your wife happens to ask, “How do my arms look?” and the kids are in earshot, you say, “Strong. You’ve really worked hard at that.” It’s a new kind of loaded comment. “It’s about what your body does and not how it looks,” Stoddard says.
This article was originally published on Aug. 20, 2020