PEP Blog

06|15

A Model Dad – Not What You Think!

By Dr. Brian Lewis

Raindrops on roses
And whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

  • Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (“Favorite Things,” The Sound of Music)

Kids on screens past bedtime drives Daddy crazy
Backpacks on floors, causing trips – whoops-y-daisy!
Dad’s come unhinged, hurling curses with stings
These are the least of Dad’s favorite things
Losing it when the kids won’t stop their fighting
Yelling works well if it’s loud and it’s frightening
Kids late to school, late to meals makes him sad
This house ain’t perfect and neither is Dad

  • Brian Lewis, MD

When you and your child were perfect

Somehow, before the kids were born, each of us imagined being that rare phenomenon: a flawless parent raising a flawless child. What were we thinking? And, what happened? For many of us, the dream was quickly quashed by ourselves or our child. My wife and I each – at some point – dropped one of our perfect children on their heads. I am not lying.

Perhaps your child accrued imperfections without your help. Our youngest went two years as a toddler with a frightening, off-putting, odd-angled, highly visible, brown front tooth acquired in a sibling brawl. Whatever the cause of your child’s flaws, you lowered your expectations, learning that neither you nor your child were actually perfect.

I had the added luck of good counsel from my dad: “You’ll figure out all your parenting mistakes when your kids explain them to you many years from now.” Talk about messed-up whiskers on kittens!

So, if perfection is not an option (or if you still think perfection should be an option and still need life to change your attitude), try courage instead.

Courage is half of it

Parenting is definitely the hardest thing you can do. And, on top of that, your kids won’t thank you! This is another not favorite thing.

So, you need courage. Like its language origin, courage means a full heart. When you’re taking on the hardest challenge in life, you definitely need a full heart. Minutes after our oldest was born, my wife and I suddenly felt all the weight of a lifetime of responsibility. We felt fear and awe, but summoned courage.

The other half: imperfection

Imagine how discouraging it would be to always have someone judging you against the highest bar. All day, all night. Now, imagine that judge is you. That is totally not a favorite thing. You would spend day after day reaching for unattainable goals. You would constantly feel the sting of either failure or hypocrisy. And where could you go from being perfect? Could you even attain it? Would you want that pressure? And worse, wouldn’t it just repulse your spouse, your family and your friends? Who wants a friend who is perfect? Someone who is always right and always an expert is truly discouraging, especially to their children.

What’s left? Doing your best. Embracing your imperfection. Being good enough, warts and all. My wife and I began taking classes at the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland when our oldest was five and would not go to bed. It’s eleven years now that we have enjoyed workshops and classes as students and volunteer educators. After all these years, we get the kids out the door in the morning without yelling – most, but not all mornings. We enlist the cooperation of the kids keeping the house in some order, but not complete order. We’ve learned how to deal with most sibling fighting and gracefully try to accept the rest as normal or even healthy (think bear cubs practicing their skills before going out in the real and harsh world). Bottom line, my family now aims for slow, steady improvement. And we find that we can meet that goal, because it is reasonable. Our odds of success in any given parenting challenge are good, but not perfect.

Foster cooperation rather than demanding obedience

When I was young, children were “seen and not heard” and obedience was prized. What seemed like perfect behavior in those days is now thought of as hazardous. Why? Because kids nowadays must think on their own two feet, and sometimes they must refuse the entreaties of untrustworthy adults. The consequence is that our homes become somewhat chaotic and messy. This is because independent-thinking kids bring disagreement and negotiation to our families. That is a good thing if you are hoping to raise an adult. Your children need these skills to get along without you. Some day you want to watch them embark on independent lives knowing they are capable on their own.

Encouraging independent thinking and disagreement and negotiation doesn’t mean your family lacks limits. It just means that your family agreements begin with all members welcome to contribute. Children are not invited to lead in place of their parents, but encouraged to sit at the table and develop their voices in the family. All of this is framed within limits set clearly by the parents.

Building a model

This whole time you are building a model: you. You are the example for your kids. You are the imperfect, sometimes failing, always human person they learn to emulate. Your ability to apologize when necessary gives your child the same capacity. Your ability to accept your own mistakes helps them accept their own.

My wife and I were amazed to learn from PEP classes the brevity and complexity of saying: “I need to cool off, you need to cool off. When we’re done, let’s hear each other out. It seems something important is on your mind.” These words tell an angry spouse or child:

  • Everyone gets angry. It’s part of being human.
  • Hot-headed is not the time for problem-solving.
  • Cooling off is a learned skill that requires practice.
  • Anger helps us understand what we deeply value, love or wish to protect.
  • Family members can problem-solve after cooling off to support each other’s deeply held values.

A dad modeling self-acceptance, showing his feelings, sharing his frustrations, worries, sadness or fears gives his kids the gift of knowing they may safely do the same. Whatever model you choose, it will pay to build the model intentionally, because the example you set is the most powerful learning experience of your child’s whole life.

What happens when you aim to influence, rather than control your children

By now you have learned that helicopter parenting does not work because it deprives children of opportunities to learn and is also disheartening to them. The children of controlling parents lack operating space in which to try out their skills. They lack the important opportunity to fail and learn from mistakes. Building a model for your children in which control is not the goal gives them the confidence to try new things without fear that they will be judged, cut short, shamed or blamed. They don’t need to be perfect.

Mistakes provide the best opportunities to learn, but how many parents fail to convey this message through the example of their own behavior? One way to model this is to routinely share stories within the family of lessons we have learned through our own errors. Children may never learn that such errors are acceptable and part of a growth mindset without our modeling mistakes and thoughtful recovery.

My wife and I have learned (and often use the tool) to “act as if” our kids will succeed. This means modeling that we are neither willing to nor interested in micromanaging them. The idea is to model respect and an expectation of goodwill and good effort all around the family. Seeing the kids model it back is the confirmation that the extra time spent teaching this lesson has paid off in the end.

Putting it all together

“Putting it All Together” was a favorite childhood biography I read about Brooks Robinson, the Orioles third baseman I idolized. He was my model for good sportsmanship. Now that I’m an older dad I realize how much my own dad has also been a model for me. He has never been about brown paper packages tied up with strings. Instead, there’s always grit, love of hard work and integrity. He’s loving and honest.

So, next time you’re watching that buff, tanned dad on the TV ad for hair restoration – the dad swimming with his kids – here’s some advice: Don’t throw out your dinner, instead throw down a little positive modeling for your kids. Take that Rodgers and Hammerstein! (Did I just say that?)


Love is instinctual, but parenting is not — at least for some of us! Looking to develop skills to become a courageously imperfect parent? Join one of our July Master Classes

Dr. Brian Lewis, the father of three confident, capable children, is also a volunteer parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland. This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Washington Parent Magazine and is reprinted with permission.


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