FATHERS FORUM 2022: March 3, at the New York Film Academy and via Zoom
By: Melanie Wells
How does Dad up his game? According to the sincere, dedicated and compassionate dads who probed this question at NYC-Parents in Action’s 2022 Fathers Forum, it starts with cultivating the best we can be: using honestly, empathy and mutual respect in our relationships with partners and children. In this year’s Fathers Forum, NYC-PIA upped their game too, opening the event to all caregivers. The conversation soared.
Moderator Oscar Bleetstein opened by thanking “all the wonderful parent volunteers” at NYC-PIA; the New York Film Academy, which had generously underwritten the event, and the panelists eager to discuss the “Changing Role of the Father in the Modern Family.”
Oscar introduced the panel: Aaron Gouveia, author of Raising Boys to be Good Men; Rabbi Ben Spratt , Senior Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan; Mark Greene, co-author of The Relational Book for Parenting, whose work focuses on “dominant space masculinity and what we call Man Box Culture,” and two NYC-PIA-connected volunteers – Charles Harkless, an NYC- PIA Parent Talk Facilitator, member of the facilitation training team, and NYC Independent School advisor; and, finally, himself, Oscar Bleetstein, also a Parent Talk facilitator and alum of two NYC-PIA participating schools.
Oscar threw out the opening question: How are we doing, as dads?
Aaron Gouveia: If there’s any “silver lining of Covid it’s the work at home aspect,” he said. After working remotely two years, he found it helped to lose the long commute. “I’m way more present in my kids’ lives, and can be there when they need me.”
Rabbi Ben Spratt: “I had a year and a half watching my kids struggle with remote learning, seeing the universal experience of being separated from peers,” he said, noting that as a parent, he’d had to learn to “sit with my own loneliness and fear.” It was a time when “so much support was taken away,” he added, describing also a “time of reckoning what it means for a person like me to be both who I am, and to be a good father.”
Mark Greene: “I had my son when I was 45 – that son is 16 now – and my dad had me late too, so my son is the only kid among his cohort whose grandfather fought in WWII.” He noted the generational changes: as the son of a father who’d had “a brutal childhood in Virginia, fighting for survival in the Depression era,” he could see, from his fath’s’ generation to now, “a massive shift. There is more caregiving now for dads.” In an earlier phase, he said, “home dads” were often stereotyped as inept and were the target of jokes. “We now see dads push back against that; there’s a transformational change afoot. Even working fathers are more involved with their kids now.” We dads “may not be as organized as moms … but we’re trying to speak out to say that the old stereotype is harmful. We’re not mediocre. We learn as we go, and that shouldn’t stop us from stepping up.”
Charles Harkless: “There are dads who’ve stepped up – but I’m worried about what happens when everyone goes back to the office?” He wondered how that might affect dads who’ve been living in a more home-centered world.
Oscar posed another question for thought: What happens when mom hands the baby to dad?
Mark: “I was that dad who came home and put the kids to bed,” he said, yet there was a need “to appreciate differences between how moms and dads handle things.” He recalled a time his son slipped at a playground under his watch, and how mom reached for the child, “bristling” until he “had to stop her and say, I’m here, I’m good.” Parents need “that leeway to be different” in the way they handle the kids, he added.
Oscar: What should fathers aim for in division of labor in raising kids?
Mark: “I’m responsible for groceries, cleaning the toilet, getting the kids off to school.” He added that for too long we’ve assumed “men are immune from being in service to others” (including housework) and also assume “that we are insulated from the work at home.” He noted that while earning is important, the idea that dads can become “deeply engaged in caring for homes and families” can be transformative. The panelists cautioned against pitting moms against dads, noting bias against a more involved kind of fatherhood can also come from other men, and not always from “a frowning mom at the park.”
Charles: “My kids are older now but when my boy was young, I was doing a lot at home.” He pointed out, however, that “keeping score” is not the way to create strong partnerships.
Ben, recalling talking to a two-dad family, reported that “they discussed dividing the work and said they split everything. Equally. 100% plus 100%.” He spoke of the need to be “fully present in every space,” so for example, if children see dad on the phone dealing with the cable company he’s “being a good dad,” or if helping with homework, he also is “being a good dad.”
Oscar: Pandemic changes? Good? Bad?
Mark: “It’s been brutal.” He recounted that his son, now 16, was a “social animal – passionate about friends” but during the pandemic, when unable to connect with them, “it was hard. He found ways of coping and creating community online – even sharing watching movies together online – and was creative and resilient.” Still, “I had to be there for him, in an almost spiritual way, to … talk him through what kind of a place the world had become, and how to cope with fears, like the one that if we didn’t wipe down all the groceries something bad would happen.”
Aaron noted “It’s been tough,” adding that he had gotten an “up-close view of my wife’s labor caring for kids; I used to leave before my kids were even up, and often returned after they were asleep. Being home every day, I learned what happens during their day.” He hoped fathers would not be tempted to slide back into the old ways when we “all go back.”
Ben: Talking to “a single parent in my community,” he said, he heard “how it was absolute hell for him, trying to work while helping two kids with Zoom school.” He noted the phrase, “it takes a village” and wondered aloud, who has a village? He stressed the need for community, and for “others who can help us, who will share wisdom and support.”
Mark observed that all the Zoon meetings people attended offered a “window into people’s lives,” and voiced the hope that such insight might not be forgotten when workers go back to offices. “People used to hide so much at the office,” he said, like not admitting they were leaving early to pick up the kids. “I hope we can hang on to a more honest view of flexible work life and … celebrate it instead of be ashamed,” he said.
Aaron agreed: “Half the time dads don’t take their available paternity leave for fear of being shamed for taking it. I took it, and yeah, you do get snide comments like ‘How was the vacation?’ but you actually know that staying home with kids is no vacation.” He hoped for a time when dads could not only take the leave, but SHOW everyone they’re taking the leave, and “set the tone” for greater involvement.
Charles likened the current job environment to a “talent war,” noting, “There’s room to bargain harder for paternity leave than ever before. This is a time of opportunity – a lot of hiring and not enough people.”
Mark observed that dads often “hold our sons close when they’re infants or toddlers but at some point we put them down and don’t touch them any more except for a fist bump.” He said he still hugs his son, and hopes to keep doing it “until the day I die.” He pointed out our culture’s “long -standing view of masculinity:” prizing individuality, stoicism, toughness, and the concealing of emotions. He said this limits men to “a narrow way to perform masculinity and they end up not developing emotionally, or developing good relational abilities.” He stressed the need to “create emotional space for your kids to express their emotional needs.”
Aaron: “My kids are 13, 8 and 6 years old – sometimes they want the hugs sometimes they don’t. It’s a good time to talk about consent” and that each can decide. “I tell them to speak up in a non-violent way and say it’s okay for friends to hug.”
Ben noted it’s good for kids to learn that “if someone doesn’t want my hug it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want my friendship.” He suggested that “the loneliest demographic in our country is men between 35 and 65.” This span includes the child-rearing years, during which men may have no close friends to open up to. Mark added, “We are too busy too anxious, too overworked, too careful and too defensive” to have close men friends in our lives.
Oscar: How does one address parental alienation in a divorce scenario where the two parents are at odds?
Ben suggested we live in a world where the path to validity is to “convince others they need to hold the same story [as we do].” He thought it helpful to try saying, when talking to the kids, “I’m not here to tell the other parent’s story, but here is mine.” This allows the child not to have to choose a villain and a hero. Mark added: “Do not EVER put a child in the middle of strife.”
A few questions from the audience were brought up for discussion:
Q: What about achievement pressure?
Aaron recalled that if he brought home an A- he was asked, what happened to the A?
“I’m trying hard to undo some of the ideas about success that I had growing up. I fail at this a lot. My wife reminds me when she sees I’m putting pressure on my son. It’s hard.”
Q: Any strategies for getting kids motivated, without making it seem like punishment?
Mark advised we “ask what’s working, and try to grow it. Most kids are interested in SOMETHING. If he plays Minecraft get in there with him and start building things together. If he wants to play music, get him an instrument; if he wants to make art, I’d get the supplies for it. If you co-create and play with them when they’re 6 or 7, it helps them develop things later that they become passionate about.”
Aaron suggested that, in lieu of video games, “get out and play Geocaching – it’s a great game,” (like a treasure hunt), drawing them in as do video games, but also getting them outdoors.
Q: If there’s imbalance between partners – how do the partners discuss it together?
Mark: “Sometimes you need a therapist.” He stressed the need to identify what is fair. “It’s mostly men that don’t do housework. I understand, having done it, that that work can be invisible. No one even notices you cleaned the toilet. Until we know what it feels like to clean over and over, while it just gets dirty again, we’ll never have a compassionate conversation about sharing that work.” He hoped men would come to see that “the world is changing and women shouldn’t be … forced to do that work alone. We need to have conversations” about it.
Aaron admitted he needed “help on the tech side.” He reported using an app called Bark, which looks at a child’s texts and social media use and can be set up to flag things like “self-harm and other ‘worst of the worst’ items.” Twice, he said, the app picked up suicidal ideation in his child’s friend. He offered advice, too, about handling porn, recommending reading Boys and Sex by Peggy Orenstein. In the author’s interviews with dozens of boys, she found most reported starting viewing porn around age 12. After reading that, Aaron checked in with his 11-year-old son, and found, “Yes, it was there!” It’s not just one talk, he said, “you have to have a series of talks, many talks. Some stuff will land and some won’t. You have to just keep trying.” He noted that if “you don’t bring it up, Google and PornHub will,” and they’ll fill in any gaps. Kids “don’t realize porn is fantasy,” he added; you have to help them learn that.
Mark agreed: “It’s not just THE TALK, it’s all the little moments, little conversations day to day that get woven in.” Start early and start the conversation. “If it thrives and keeps going, everything will come up…. organically,” and you can “feed the important things into it” over time. “Talk about more than just your expectations for them – listen to what THEY want to talk about, too,” he said. Timing matters: “Each kid will have a different time that they like to talk but when they do, stop, and do it. Talk when they’re ready.”
Ben: “In many ways [our kids are] leading us into the future. Our time, the past, might not be the only way; have the humility to draw them in and maybe learn from them.“
Mark: “As we shape them, they are shaping us.” He added that kids will care more about what parents want, if always shown that their parents care about what they want.
Q: I’m curious about how parents, especially dads, incorporate physical discipline.
Mark: “My son once grabbed my face hard. I asked him what he was doing; he did it again. I told him to stop; did it again. Then I spanked him; he did it again. I stopped then. I knew I could amp it up, and make the choice to break his spirit but then there’d be a bill to pay for that. And it’s a bill you won’t want to pay.” He cautioned parents to remember that striking a child is playing a power card that can “harm both of you.”
Ben noted that physical punishment can increase blood pressure, and “teaches that if kids feel powerless the only thing they can do is dominate someone else, break someone else’s will.” The long-term effects can be “universally harmful. It will stunt them.”
Mark stressed the value of front-loading: “Front-load what you hope to have,” so it develops that way.
Oscar thanked the panelists, NYC-PIA and the New York Film Academy for a rewarding evening.
He reminded the audience of the aptness of the long-time NYC-PIA motto: If we stay “involved, informed and connected,” we can all be awesome dads!