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A Father's Prime Directive

Recently I was asked an interesting question. What advice would I give myself as a young dad?

I had to think for a minute. My first thought was that I still pretty agree with the core fatherhood ideas I had 30 years ago. Get involved in caregiving as soon and as much as possible. Do your best to understand and support partner’s experience of parenting. And (if you partner is a woman) understand that she is, in a very real sense, part of your relationship with your child at first. Then I thought of something else.

Try to see comforting and soothing as the core of your job as a dad.

Many of today’s dads spend time comforting babies and toddlers. But my observation is that moms still do the lion’s share. One reason is that mothers seem to see comforting as a core part of their responsibility. They tend to get good at it more quickly and get more experience than fathers. So in a Mom-Dad couple, it becomes expedient to let the one who is most adept at comforting to do the lion’s share.

In contrast, men tend to see playing, teaching and, maybe discipline, as core fathering tasks. That’s good stuff, but I’d like to see comforting push it’s way deeper into the fatherhood mentality. Because comforting is absolutely a core parenting skill. Reliable soothing primes a child’s stress response system in the right way: to expect comfort (social engagement) and seek it out when stressed. What’s more, the repeated experience of being a comforter also changes a man. For one thing, it enhances his ability to understand and support, not just his kids, but also his partner, friends and co-workers.

The world needs all the skilled comforters we can get. And while a fair number of men are pretty good at it these days, we need them all to be good at it.

So, dads, keep playing, teaching and helping kids to learn how to behave. Just remember that being able to comfort and soothe comes first in the hierarchy of kids’ needs. What’s more, if you get good at comforting your kids you’ll be a better playmate, teacher, and partner, not to mention better at navigating behaviour issues. That’s a win for your family and a win for you.

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