Fathers Forum 2023: Nurturing Connection at Home and at School
By John Lloyd
NYC-Parents in Action’s 2023 Fathers Forum was held March 2nd at the Trinity School. This annual event focuses on fathers and their roles in the lives of their children. In recent years, Fathers Forum has evolved from a “men only” space to welcome mothers and caregivers of all kinds, and also from in-person-only, to online-only during the pandemic, and now to a hybrid model, with an audience in the room joined by others on Zoom. What hasn’t changed, however, is the thoughtful conversation about how dads can be effective parents in an environment that only gets more complex and challenging.
This year’s panel was led by co-moderators: NYC-PIA’s own Charles Harkless and Oscar Bleetstein, who have both been involved with PIA for a long time. Charles said he is “completing my 17th year as a parent of children in these schools. And in that period, I’ve been a participant at pretty much every parent talk that Parents in Action has done for my two boys. And I found it extremely rewarding. As a result of that interest, I became a volunteer and a facilitator several years ago and then got more involved with the organization over time. For those of you who are not familiar with the Parent Talks, they’re very enriching, they’re informative, and they help you be more involved in the development of your children. I would encourage everyone to learn more about it and participate.”
Oscar and Charles led a discussion with three distinguished panelists who are also fathers themselves:
- John Allman, head of The Trinity School
- Jose DeJesus, head of The Dalton School
- Mark Greene, author and host of Remaking Manhood
The topic this year was nurturing connections. Much of the discussion centered around this, although the audience also submitted a wide range of questions, from homework loads to social media to drugs.
Oscar read a question from an audience member about “Post-pandemic socialization deficit. It seems to be hitting upper schoolers and lower and middle schoolers very differently. With regard to upper schoolers, readiness for college and the ability to express themselves without use of intermediary technology and for lower schoolers and middle schoolers, it seems to be more a question of regulating emotions and resolving conflicts.”
John acknowledged that children had lost opportunities to develop some age-appropriate skills. But he was optimistic and confident that kids will close that gap. “There may be some period of transition that may be more difficult than it might have been otherwise, but [kids will] re-engage in the kinds of activities that [they] weren’t able to do earlier. Don’t worry too much about it, I think it will come.”
Jose agreed, but pointed out that there were some kids who missed out on specific phases in their development, and it’s important to acknowledge that. As an example, he asked people to think back to that “awkward seventh grade dance” when kids are figuring out what is appropriate in expressing feelings for other children. Some children who experienced most of middle school online are going through this discovery now in high school, “when the stakes are higher.” He also said it was important to recognize that some kids missed important life moments, such as seniors from the class of 2020 who didn’t get to experience an in-person graduation or a traditional freshman year of college. “There were some people who felt enormous loss as a result of this. Those moments are so crucial.”
But, he said, “I do have hope, and I do agree with John: ultimately a lot of it will be made up.”
Connections and achievement
Jose spoke of an experience at a previous school, which he declined to name, where the administration observed a significant gap between the lowest 20% of the class, as measured by their academic success, and the other 80%. They did quite a bit of analysis to identify underlying causes they could try to address. The gap didn’t correlate to socioeconomic class or other areas they first examined. Ultimately they were able to determine that the strongest indicator was a lack of connections.
“There were two common denominators that led to some change. [The students in this 20%] did not generally have something that they were connected to after school: sport, theatre, music – some thing that they felt some link or connection to. And when we asked the faculty and staff, ‘who do you feel connected to among those kids’?, the kids in that bottom 20% had the fewest [staff connections].” Armed with this, they were able to craft a response: creating a requirement that once a semester each student had to do something after school, whether it be athletics or arts; and starting a mentorship program, which faculty volunteered to staff.
Many of the panelists spoke about being “intentional,” meaning consciously planning time to thoughtfully interact with your children, at any age.
Our kids are going to differentiate from us. They’re going to disengage. But if they always know that they’re welcome back, as their full selves, I think the world will give them ample reasons to want to come back and reconnect. -Mark Greene
- Mark said, “Children are keen observers of the world around them and can pick up on tension and other behaviors. Therefore, it’s important to make them feel seen and heard from an early age. We can achieve this by paying attention to their efforts and acknowledging their positive actions.”
- John spoke of, “the frantic, fast-paced life of going from one activity to another, [which] I think, discourages this opportunity to develop the space in the silence, in the emptiness, that you need to begin to hear some of these things from your children. I think it takes time for them to be able to disclose these things. You just attending quietly to them. I think a lot of time it’s trying to slow things down and spend time doing stuff; like making breakfast.”
- Jose spoke of what he called “the great letting go” as your children get older. “I have to be intentional and make structures and be thoughtful about the moments that we can be together. And hopefully try to find opportunities that can bring a sense of spirituality, wonder, awe.”
- Mark agreed, saying, “Our kids are going to differentiate from us. They’re going to disengage. But if they always know that they’re welcome back, as their full selves, I think the world will give them ample reasons to want to come back and reconnect.”
Work life balance
Someone in the audience asked, “How can a dad who works 24/7 in a high-stress career teach work-life balance to my children?”
John acknowledged that it was hard but suggested, “they can try to make their life a little bit lower stress to model some balance for their children.”
Jose used email as an example: “In the morning, I would wake up and check my phone and email, and it would make me anxious. Then, I’m the one who has to wake up my [children]. So, what version of me were they getting? They were getting an anxious dad. What I’ve learned is there has to be a certain time of the night when I stop checking. My people know, if there’s an emergency, you call me. So, if I don’t structure it and intentionally say, ‘I’m not going to look and check,’ then I think the experience of my kids would be impacted.”
Identity and community
Oscar read a question from a member of the audience: “Years ago, emphasis was on getting kids to feel comfortable with each other, ‘we’re in this together,’ and that was a good thing. Today, the emphasis is on getting kids to be aware of their identity affiliations. Also a good thing. Are we getting the balance right?”
John’s answer focused on a key word in the question: balance. He emphasized the balance of community and identity: “I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. There’s a lot of overlap there. I understand the question and understand why identity can seem more individualistic than, ‘we’re in it together.’ But there are ways in which you’re in a group that helps you feel who you can be individually as well, so you’re in that together. I think you’re really doing some of both all the time: trying to find ways in which you can consolidate your own sense of self with others in spaces that are safer; and then venturing out into places where you’re encountering people who are unlike you, and finding common ground there as well. ideally, you want both of them, and they’re mutually interacting with one another.”
Jose spoke about his experience as an eleven-year-old Puerto Rican student at Horace Mann, just being introduced to the idea of private school. “There weren’t very many of us then, and frankly I don’t think I would have made it through if I lost my best friends, my brothers. We allowed ourselves to be ourselves.”
Navigating social media
Another question from the audience was, “As a father, how can I provide positive role modeling and guidance, especially to my sons, amidst the rising popularity of negative, sometimes misogynistic, social media celebrities?”
If a boy lacks relational capacities to create connections that are born in conversations in the family and outside, they tend to lean into hierarchical dominance as a form of self-expression. Boys who don’t have a home base where they can be their full selves, are then shoved into that hierarchy of dominance behavior. -Mark Greene
Mark said that, “I believe it all comes back to the relationships within the family, and if lucky, a few teachers at school who invite a sense of community to foster connection. If a boy lacks relational capacities to create connections that are born in conversations in the family and outside, they tend to lean into hierarchical dominance as a form of self-expression. Boys who don’t have a home base where they can be their full selves, are then shoved into that hierarchy of dominance behavior.
“Creating a welcoming environment in our home, where our children’s friends can come and hang out, is an excellent way to foster connections and ensure our children have positive role models. When we become the house where all the kids come, we create an environment where they feel welcome, and we can observe their friendships closely.”
Modeling behavior for our sons
In response to a question of how to provide support in a world with so much anxiety and tragedy, Mark expanded on the pressure facing boys today. He talked about what he and others have called ‘Man Box Culture,’ which boys start to absorb at a very early age: It’s “a set of rules for how to be a man. It includes things like: don’t show your emotions, always be tough, never ask for help, have the final word in the room, be heterosexual not homosexual, have control over women and girls.” It’s something men and boys have to overcome, as “the degree to which we are resilient, connected, thriving human beings is located not in our ability to dominate those around us or exert power over them. It is in fact, located in our networks of relationships.”
He stressed, “We as parents have the ability to create a space in our homes where we let our sons, and our daughters, see us modeling connection and caring friendship. We create spaces where we invite them to bring their whole selves and talk about the full range of things that are happening for them. Those aspects of self are the ones that your children will hide from you if they know you don’t want to hear about it. But those authentic aspects create belonging. This shows up later in the workplace and elsewhere, where people are able to show up with their full selves and feel like they’re completely engaged in the communities they’re involved in.
“So, you have to open up and make space for them to share what’s going on. And in that way we’re nudging them toward connection and relationships and honest expression of self, and away from these narrow, hierarchical rules of gender, which affect girls, boys, and non-binary people equally. It is a spiritual space, that network of relationships. It’s the place where we thrive as human beings.”
Changes in family structures
In response to a question about the evolution of family structures and in particular about divorce and whether this makes it harder for fathers to stay connected, John said, “I don’t know if I can generalize too much about it. I’m struck by the way in which, as family structures continue to become more varied, it’s not the structures that make the difference. The steadiness of the connection and concern and unconditional love is what’s key. The stability of structure and steadiness of care for that child makes all the difference in the world.”
I’m struck by the way in which, as family structures continue to become more varied, it’s not the structures that make the difference. The steadiness of the connection and concern and unconditional love is what’s key. The stability of structure and steadiness of care for that child makes all the difference in the world.” -John Allman
Jose agreed and said that, even when one of his students was going through acute struggles, “if that kid felt loved, I felt like they’re going to be okay.” Uncorrelated to family structure, in his experience, “if that child was going to be held, and supported, [they were] going to make their way through.”
Single gender schools
A question about single gender schools led to a discussion about the differences between independent schools. Jose talked about the “wonderful things and challenging things” that come from that experience. He said that all individual schools should ask themselves, “Why do we exist?,” meaning what makes them unique. “What I love about independent schools is that there is such a range.” He chose a single-sex school for one of his children but not the other. “I’m glad there was that option for my daughter. Even though she was ‘a humanities kid’ like her father, [she was] encouraged in math and science in one of the most sophisticated math programs that I know.” That gave her and other students confidence.
An audience member asked “Is there a connection between the amount of homework assigned and success in life?”
- John said, “let me start by defending homework.” Research shows that meaningful homework fosters student achievement. But the amount was less impactful than the quality of it. “The research suggests a difference. There are certain types of homework that encourage completion and others that don’t. The homework that doesn’t foster completion isn’t as helpful as the homework that does lead students to actually complete it. The purpose is to engage with homework.”
- Jose agreed, saying that when he was coming up, much of his homework load was what he would call “busy work.” “The more intentional, thoughtful, skills-based the assignments, the better.” He also acknowledged that since that time, particularly leading up the college admissions process, there has been “a shift in what’s being asked of our kids: you can’t just have good grades. You should do some service; you should probably travel. You should have a hobby, maybe you should do an internship. That all starts to add up. I’m not saying this to be critical, because I myself have done this with my own kids. I know what my intent is. But I think there’s an enormous value in looking holistically at the experiences of our children.”
- Mark stressed that point, saying, “I think sometimes people get into a grind mentality about things like homework, combined with outside activities. What I have heard parents say is, ‘Yes, we are able to get it all done [but] I don’t feel like I see my kid. I don’t feel like I have time to be in my child’s life in a relaxed relational space.’ It’s all about, ‘get this done, this done, this done.’ Our relationships with our children are probably the single most defining aspect of how they develop socially. If there is too much work piled up on them or too many activities, we don’t get a chance to [grow] that socialization connection with them.”
Jose talked about his recent experience experimenting with ChatGPT and seeing it generate a multi-paragraph well-written essay from a simple prompt. “It had a huge impact on me. It made me think what [skills] kids potentially need and how some of those [skills] are evergreen and some may need to shift. All we can really do is give our students the skills, the ability to communicate, the ethics, the desire, [and] the hunger to engage this [technology] in a thoughtful, productive way.”
He emphasized the level of change he believes is coming. “I’m a history teacher. I used to talk about the years after the printing press and how it changed the entire world; the steam engine, how it changed the entire world. We’re in the digital revolution—we’re just getting started—and we’re going to be studied a thousand years from now the way we studied those folks.”
Oscar asked the panelists to highlight one area where fathers can better connect on an emotional level to their children.
When you are physically present, be present. In mind, in heart, in body and soul. So often we think we are doing [that] by just simply being around, [but] there’s so many distractions in our lives. -Jose DeJesus
- John said, “I have older children and what I’ve come to love and enjoy about that is when I’m able to ask them to educate me about things and to reverse the roles; there’s all kinds of ways they’re helping me to do that. It’s one of the great joys of having children older and turning the tables.”
- Mark talked about Ray Arata, who runs the Better Man Conference, who models openness by saying, ‘I go first’—meaning he initiates conversations by risking vulnerability himself. “In age-appropriate ways, we can ‘go first’ with our children, and show our human side, and what we might be wrestling with and what we might be excited about.”
- Jose stressed that, “when you are physically present, be present. In mind, in heart, in body and soul. So often we think we are doing [that] by just simply being around, [but] there’s so many distractions in our lives.”