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. This is how we put away our things. This is, of course, crucial. But we’re also indirectly passing information. Kids are always listening and they learn a lot by simply overhearing their parents. This isn’t news to parents. But it’s 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 kids overhear them say.
“If kids are overhearing anything, they’re hearing how someone interacts with someone else,” says J. Stuart Ablon, Ph.D., associate professor of adolescent psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder and director of Think: Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital. This means it’s essential for fathers to be a bit more overt about the things they — hopefully — say already to boost their children’s emotional intelligence, emotional regulation, and general treatment of others. Apologies. Declarations of someone’s talents. Issuances of love. Expressions of vulnerability. Descriptions of friendship. Acceptance of blame.
“Kids don’t know what’s going on in your head,” notes Jeff Bostic, M.D., psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. So it’s good to let them in, so they don’t have to wonder and fill in the holes with their guesswork. In other words: It’s important to say the quiet parts out loud.
Being overt about these things is effective for teaching all kids. But it’s particularly so for boys, who often internalize the idea that vulnerability is a negative trait. They need to hear certain things come out of dad’s mouth, whether they’re paying attention or not, to create a template for later use. This list is far longer than it is here. But as a starting point, here are nine things sons should overhear their dads say.
1. Kind Words About Their Partner
“I love you” is good. But it’s not all that matters. Drop in examples of why you love them to make it better. When you’re getting ready to go out, it could be, “Yes, Mom filled up the water bottles. She’s always two steps ahead. She’s so great.” Or if you’re all playing hoops, and she’s not a baller, find a moment and say, “You are the absolute Hustle Queen.” The message, per Bostic, is that life is better with her.
Conversely, every eye roll or suggestion that Mom needs to be appeased or handled carefully, tells your son that she, partners, and women in general are not equals but inconvenient necessities. That message “doesn’t portend well,” he says.
2. Admissions of Failure and Frustration. But Also a Framework for Fixing Problems.
Whether it’s taking a walk or fixing a bike, something will not go according to plan. You might want to scream and swear, but instead start with, “Oh man, I screwed that up.” Showing frustration is fine, but it’s what you do next that resonates. Talk out your thought process. “I could try X, but that might not work because of Y, so maybe we’ll go this way.”
Here, you’re giving two lessons. The first is that you fail but don’t get overwhelmed. The other is that while no one is omnipotent, there are options in any situation and you can pick one. “You have an affect on the world and you’re important. You’re an agent of change,” Bostic says.
If you do get overwhelmed? Say outright that you lost your cool, but you took X amount of time to gather yourself a work forward. Shit happens. It’s how we deal with it that really matters.
3. Explanation of Emotions
Expressing happiness is good; expressing worry is especially good. You want to show that vulnerability happens. “If you carry it around and don’t express it, you can’t manage it,” Ablon says. Your son will deal with stress, and because you were not stoic, it won’t feel like something foreign or wrong. Intertwined with this is…
4. Requests For Help
It doesn’t have to be epic. It could be having your spouse read over an email or a buddy lend his ladder and some muscle. But by hearing, “I need a little help,” your son will see that dad is strong enough to know when he can’t do everything. You’re also modeling, per Ablon, that life is not all about delegating jobs but about letting others in and collaborating.
5. Shows of Empathy
Specific words are secondary to the feelings behind them. You’re trying to understand what another person is going through. That’s how you connect and how relationships grow. It means asking questions and being curious, and that someone else gets the spotlight and sets the pace. And all of that reflects patience and generosity, because, as Ablon says, “It’s easier to talk than to listen.”
6. Random Musings
“Hey, that cloud looks like Grandpa’s Cadillac.” Will your sons join in? Maybe, or maybe they’ll see it as just another instance of Weird Dad. But they might play along one day, and the long-term point is that while it’s good to know facts — there are 10 trees on the street; Sacramento is a state capital — it’s also good to realize there are many viable ways to see the world. “People who can do that are better at everything,” Bostic says.
7. Explanations of Friendship
It’s not just that you have friends. It’s that you get laughs, great advice, or all-around support from them. You don’t want your kids to view other people as fundamentally annoying. In psych talk, it’s called object relations, in which others are viewed as disposable, Bostic says. You want your son to know that people can be trusted and that there’s an added value that only comes from being together.
8. Descriptions of Preparation
This is another time to talk out loud with, “I got the bag. I need water. Sunblock. Towels?” It’s a process, not magic, which makes things happen. And after a few times, your kids might ask, “Do you have the water? Eventually, you can mention most of the items and ask, “What’s missing?” and then, “What do we need?” At some point, maybe in the teenage years, they can run a list themselves.
9. Apologies. And Acceptances of Blame.
Most screw-ups aren’t fatal, but it’s easy to avoid addressing the smallest infractions. It’s easy to get defensive or to make excuses. Not a great look. It’s also easy to apologize too often. Also not a great look. But during those moments when you do mess up, kids need to hear you make amends and try to make things better. The offended party usually appreciates it and you both move on quickly. It’s not heavy science and the message isn’t complicated.
“It’s okay to be wrong and make mistakes,” Ablon says. Even if the arguments and apology take place elsewhere with your partner, it’s not a bad idea to make a big show of the apology again so kids can hear it — and the other party’s acceptance — outright. These are powerful lessons that go a long way.
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