Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fathers are parents too

Today I dropped my children off at day camp.  My son Jesse, who is 4 years old, was clinging to my back as I hung their backpacks and lunch-boxes, and led my children to the main room.  I was about to leave and reached behind me, taking hold of Jesse's shirt, and pulled him around to my front, telling him for the nth time that I don't like him clinging onto my back and that it was time for a hug and a kiss goodbye.  At this point, the camp director stepped in and said "no, no, no" and took over.  She "comforted" Jesse and suggested that I get something of mine to let him hold for the day.

I found myself becoming irritated.  Why?  My initial reaction is that I don't need or want someone to direct my parenting.  She knows my children superficially, but doesn't know much about my relationship with them, my values, how we resolve issues, whether this has been dealt with before, or whether I want him to learn how to get through the day without having to rely on holding a reminder of me.  She probably acted in a way that was based on her experiences with her own children, or, my worst fear, her assumption that as a father I was an incompetent parent.

As I thought more about it, I began to wonder whether she would have done the same thing to a mother.  As a father of young children, it sometimes seems that the assumption is that I struggle through my interactions and various challenges with my children, when in actuality I have read a great deal about parenting and have a style that I am comfortable with and that evolves as the children grow and change.  At the same time, I am not opposed to hearing suggestions on parenting when presented as just that, suggestions, rather than dictations.

Finally, I began to stew because I am not just a father, but a father whose marriage ended in the last year.  I sometimes feel that there is a bias against divorced fathers based on the assumption that they must have been bad husbands or bad fathers to have ended up divorced.  Perhaps there are rumors about what kind of husband/father I was.  This camp director also knows my wife.  In my experience, most of the people who are involved in taking care of my children outside of the family are women.  This includes camp counsellors, teachers at school, and teachers at extra-curricular activities.  My sense is that these women, although not openly hostile, tend to have a bias of sympathy with my children's mother rather than with their father.

In the end, I realize that this woman was trying to do what she believed was the right thing and the helpful thing, but it makes one think of the Golden Rule, which is not "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".  A more proper interpretation is "Do unto others as they would like to have done unto them".  This requires communication.  It requires asking "Would you like some help with your son?", "Would you like me to suggest something to do about this?", because my answer might have been "No, I prefer to handle this myself".    It is important to remember that people do things differently and if you are trying to help them, it is wise to inquire  about the situation first, especially if you don't know the person well.

Obviously in cases where there is neglect or abuse we accept that others can step in and act, but even here, the definitions of neglect and abuse are subject to interpretation.  She may have felt that pulling my son off my back by his T shirt was abusive. 

I'm reminded of the recent case of a woman who let her kids go to the mall unsupervised.  She ended up charged with endangering the welfare of her children.  Her children were 7th graders left at a mall in a small, safe city - Bozeman, Montana.  Both children had attended babysitting classes which teach CPR and infant care.  The girls were also with three other children at the mall, aged 8,7,and 3.  My point is that there are many variables involved and many arguments could be made for either side of the endangerment issue.  The question is at what point the criminal system should appropriately become involved.

When divorced, a parent is under more scrutiny than parents in an intact marriage.  It can create a sense of paranoia, leaving one too afraid to speak up and defend one's parenting style, especially after reading about cases such as the above. 

I like this day-camp, and I like the camp director.  My children socialize with other children, learn new skills, and develop their growing sense of independence and accomplishment.  I wish that there was more sensitivity and understanding shown to single fathers, not just at this camp, but in general.  Fathers are parents and one should assume that parents know how to take care of their children and enjoy doing so.


  1. I agree that she should have asked you whether you wanted some help instead of butting in and taking over. As a teacher myself I don't believe others generally have a bias against divorced dads. Teachers put themselves under enormous pressure trying to get on with whatever's planned for the day. In this situation I imagine that was the driving force...she was trying to hurry things up.
    If I may leave my url here, there may be some articles there of interest to you and your readers on literacy.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Ultimately, everyone has a reason for how they act, but it is the effect on others that determines whether the world is pleasant or not. Your words "enormous pressure" are all too common in all professions and lead to a lot of sub-optimal behavior, in my opinion. Perhaps a topic for a future entry...
    I look forward to reading your website.

  3. As a mom and step-mom, I'm afraid I can confirm some of the "stupid dad" bias you experience. My husband is a great father - and did an outstanding job as a single dad I might add - but somehow I'm always the 'expert' to schools, daycare, strangers.

    All I can say is, be thick skinned and keep doing what YOU need to. The people that matter will recognize your competency, and the rest can take a flying leap.

  4. Hi Amber,

    Thank you for your comments. It's nice to finally have some visitors at my site!
    I appreciate your kind words. I think some of the "stupid dad" bias is based on reality. Partly because dads historically worked and were not around to take care and be involved. I am out of work and divorced and can say that I have never had better relationships with my children. They are both young and I'm glad that I am not missing this wonderful time. I know my kids and I hope to be there for them as long as possible. Episodes like I described with the camp director happen now and then, but I'm getting better at developing a thick skin. It's tough in a small town...That's for another entry.