Hey Mr. Tough 🥊
Redefining what strength means to our children
The New Fatherhood explores the existential questions facing modern fathers, bringing together the diverse community of forward-thinking dads who are asking them. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. You are one of the 2,229 dads (and curious non-dads) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.
One of my favourite things about writing this newsletter is connecting with other dads across the world. Occasionally I'll post an email exchange (with permission!) when I think it's relevant to a wider audience. Here’s one.
I found your newsletter via Caitlin Dewey’s excellent “Links I would GChat you” newsletter and I’m already hooked.
I’m 39 and my son is almost 2 years old. Our house is littered with important books about how to raise kids, but the idea of sifting through all that information is a challenge when also chasing around the kid, taking care of the house, being a husband, etc — so I appreciate your straightforward articles and lists. Looking forward to reading more.
Our son is part of a nanny share with another boy (almost the same age) who lives nearby. One of the challenges we’ve been facing: the other boy often attacks my son (pushing, pulling hair, scratching) whenever our son has something that he wants. It’s gotten to the point where the other kid will just casually grab my son’s hair and pull him down for no real reason. (To his parents credit, they try to teach him not to behave this way, but it doesn’t seem to stick.) My son doesn’t really fight back—unless the fight is over food, in which case my son will just stuff all the food in his mouth before it can be stolen away.
I’m a little conflicted about how to handle this. My father was a working class cop and I was raised to learn to fight back (“you’ll never get in trouble with me if you throw the second punch.”) But times have changed and I’m in the minority on whether or not to teach my son that approach. Our nanny put it succinctly: If my son is going to attend public school, he should learn how to fight back. If he’s going to attend private school, he should learn how to hold back.
As much as I appreciate this sage advice, it doesn’t quite answer the question (and anyway, it’s too early for me to know whether he’s going to attend public or private school). I recognize that a 19 month old may not have the brain development to tackle these issues yet, and in some ways I want him to retain his best “root” qualities (gentleness, open). I just don’t want him to learn to be a pushover. I’m curious if there’s anything smart out there about how to teach a boy to defend himself without teaching him to become a barbarian?
Thanks, and looking forward to reading more of your work,
Thanks for reaching out, and glad to hear you are into TNF—emails like these are one of the main reasons that I started this endeavour. I was looking for exactly what you said: something honest, to the point, and that could fit into the 10 minutes you occasionally find amid the craziness of parenting.
Your question is a great one, and gets to a the core of a key theme I keep coming back to—wanting to be a modern father and to live by a new set of values, but unsure of how to navigate the conflict this presents with the definition of fatherhood we inherited.
There isn't an easy answer to this. But the fact that you're asking the question is a good sign.
Many of us were taught the importance of being tough from an early age, to learn “the law of the playground”, and told that vulnerability is a weakness. Today's generation of fathers are trying to fix this, exploring new definitions of what tough might mean today: not focused on physical strength, but emotional resilience and the perseverance in the face of adversity.
All of this is a hard to teach to a toddler, of course. But you’re at the start of long-term education, moving on from the model of toughness you grew up with to the one you want your son to have.
Some of this is going to feel a uncomfortable, especially when it comes to reprogramming things we internalised as kids. But we have an opportunity to raise our children to learn the values and beliefs we want them to carry into adulthood. We’ll always come up problematic people in our lives: bullies, bad colleagues, random rabble-rousers. How we teach our kids to navigate these situations will define how they manage conflict the rest of their lives.
The other thing that comes to mind here is around boundaries—something that I've only personally started to get better at myself in my late 30s. This is a chance to start teaching your child how to deal with these types of people: to assert his boundaries, his right to personal space, and his ability to remove himself from a situation or relationship where these boundaries are being consistently ignored. It’s like Jim Rohn says: "You can't change the people around you, but you can change the people around you".
I'd like to think I've started living that advice myself over the last few years. And I want my kids to grow up knowing they can do the same.
Finally, I'm no expert on all of this, so I'd recommend getting some of those in your life, especially at this toddler stage. I'm a huge fan of the Big Little Feelings team on Instagram—they have a series on hitting and biting already.
Thanks again for getting in touch. Glad to have you aboard for the journey.
3 things to read this week
So many of you loved Hana's essay on gender norms and the language around same-sex parenting, and this article from Romper on "Who gets to be called dad" is a companion piece from the male perspective. "For most of our lives we LGBTQ+ people have been called three and four letter words that we cannot control. Naming ourselves for our kids is a restorative and creative act."
New Tiktok Dad meme just dropped: Vacation Dad. Kids are sharing how ridiculous their dads behave when leaving for a family holiday. My favourite one didn't make the article—Vacation Dad, starring Dave, where he "sits with the driver, away from the ✨peasants✨". Reminds me of the time I hauled us to the airport four hours before a flight, after mistaking the departure time for check-in time. In case there was any doubt, Luton Airport at 4am is not a fun place to be.
I was overloaded with great links for Father's Day, so didn't get a chance to link this at the time, but this series of 100 Vision of Fatherhood is still very worth your time.
One thing to watch with the kids this week
Ekow Nimakow is a visual artist who explores topics of racial identity through Lego cultures created with all-black pieces. His work is hauntingly beautiful and should inspire your kids to create something different with their Lego collection this week.
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last week I wrote a post for members on a powerful piece of writing that helped me focus on what's important in life, which I hoped might help others do the same. I also asked "How's your summer going?" which sounded pretty great for a lot of you!
"We're in Italy and looking forward to some beach time this weekend. The thing I love about Italian beaches is that everyone is there, from babies to 90 year olds, and there’s no shame or performance in any of it. The Adriatic is such a giant, warm, salty pasta bowl of water. It’s not like any other beach I’ve been, it’s like a giant public pool with all the craziness that comes with it. So we’re doing that alongside working on the farm and just soaking up the attention of grandparents on our daughter." Ivor
"We made two separate trips, driving cross-country from Chicago to NYC and flying to Miami so he could see his grandparents for the first time since the pandemic started. Both went great and it's so, so much better seeing loved ones IRL than on the iPad screen. Now if he could stop using the sofa for a trampoline, would be great." Neal
"It's strange to feel like things are moving in a good direction, especially with so much destruction still around us. But it's been nice breathing little (masked) sighs of relief this summer." Dante
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
We’re in lockdown again, but have used this time to finally achieved a lifelong ambition of solving a Rubik's Cube. I’m currently down to 2.5 minutes, and reckon I can shave more time off that too. If you spotted the Yo La Tengo reference in the subject line, a gold star for you.
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