When I became a dad I realized I didn’t know very much about what being a dad meant. Until I picked up a tiny human and felt the true responsibility to help raise them to become a bigger human with values and morals and information to help them grow, I couldn’t have understood the feelings that come with the word “dad.”
It goes well beyond changing diapers or staying up until 3 a.m. with a child with a sore tummy, or becoming a coach of a kid’s soccer team and assigning snack duties to the other parents. Yet those were the things I saw the most growing up about being a father. So I applied the messages around me to what being a dad—and in my case being a dad to two girls—meant.
Dads are often portrayed as the friend of sons and the protector of daughters. This is manifested in pictures of dads holding up shotguns to their daughter’s prom date or dads in shirts that read Dads Against Daughters Dating. They are also often portrayed as being unengaged and uninterested in housework, childcare, and essentially anything that takes them away from football or hockey.
Beyond this, being a dad who challenges these stereotypes leads to praise beyond what should be expected for being an involved parent. Dads need to push back on these ideas, both the stereotypes themselves and the idea that a dad who braids his daughter’s hair or is capable of talking about menstruation is a superhero.
Traditional views on masculinity and their relationship with fatherhood can stunt overwhelming emotions if you are unwilling to push back on them. And the biggest beneficiary of me being willing to challenge what being a man means for me is my parenting
There are a number of learned behaviors I have had to focus on as I try to raise socially conscious children. Admitting there is so much for me to learn and unlearn both as a dad and as a partner is the key to broadening my parenting, and so I try to bring these action items into the way I interact with my kids.
This is where sex-positive parenting becomes so important for my partner and me.
We are the first-responders to questions asked by our kids. They look to us every day to answer questions about how both their bodies and minds are changing. We help them develop and define their identities with the answers we give them and even in the way we give them those answers. Were we to shut our minds to the things we bring into the lives of our kids, the odds are high that the books they read would feature mostly white children, the movies they watch would feature primarily heterosexual couples, the textbooks they bring home wouldn’t tell the whole story about the history of our country, and there wouldn’t be a single reference to mental health issues.
So, we actively seek out ways to integrate these things into parenting and into our home.
You can easily teach the concepts of consent—of both giving and receiving it—when you hand out goodnight kisses at bedtime or when extended family is over for the holidays. Give your kids the confidence to say no and be sure you respect those times they do say no. Expect the same from them when you are not feeling like a hug or kiss. Work with them on being able to say no to people outside of their family too.
I have addressed my own mental health and talk to my kids about my medications and my therapy. We have talks about “the doctor for my brain” and make a point to talk each day about things that made us happy and things that made us sad.
I know now that a more comprehensive sex and health education would have benefited me greatly. I continue to learn more about my own identity as I get older and as I learn terms and see experiences I had never seen before. We want to make sure these are known identities, that we show our kids as many lived-experiences as we can so that they can note their own identities from a greater pool of people versus from the narrow definition of the man/woman, married/single binary that some sex curriculums teach.
I want my relationship with my daughters to be built on the understanding that they can ask me anything and that we will figure out answers together. I won’t judge who they have a crush on, I won’t judge if they never have a crush on anyone. I won’t get angry if they tell me they keep getting angry at people at school and I won’t panic if their bodies are undergoing changes mine never did.
Raising strong, caring, and socially aware children is less about how they are as kids and more about how you are as parents.
What I have come to see over and over again is that girls are naturally wildly strong and ambitious and caring. It is the work that I can do to shift what it means to be a man, to shape the world into a kinder, more inclusive and welcoming place, that can have one of the biggest impacts on whether or not they can stay that way.