Helping to make life 'calmer, easier and happier' for parents, teachers and children everywhere
Guiding Boys to Feel and Be Their Best Self: The Role of Fathers
Photo copyright Mael Balland

You may be a father who doesn’t feel confident about taking on the role of guiding your sons to feel and to be their best. This may be especially true if your own father was absent or distant, possibly uninvolved or too critical. You may be separated or divorced and wondering how you can best guide your sons when you no longer live with them full time.

In the following article I refer to a number of specific strategies that are part of the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’ approach, about which I explain in more depth in my books. The ideas and strategies that I recommend are based on my decades of working closely with families and helping them to transform family life. So if you like what you read here, I invite you to learn more by reading the books in my ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ series.

The information in this article gives concrete information and practical strategies that you can start putting into practice straightaway - read on to discover how to feel and be more confident about guiding and supporting your sons to be all that they can be.

The role of fathers

A boy learns what it means to be a man from his father or from the other father-figures in his life. When you, as the father, are actively involved in teaching your son how to be a man, both you and your son benefit hugely. The bond between you is strengthened, and self-respect as well as respect for each other is deepened. You and your sons will have such a good time together. The result is that your sons will want to grow up to be just like you.

All boys need adult male role models. When fathers are not spending enough time with their sons, boys will seek out and find role models in other places. In the vacuum created by busy or absent fathers, boys are often strongly influenced by older boys. Research has shown that this need of boys to look up to an older male is an important factor in why boys join gangs. Having a positive older male role model is a reliable predictor of a boy finishing secondary school, going on to further or higher education and avoiding risky behaviour.

As a father, your job within the family is to teach your sons how to be a man:

  • How to control his emotions so that he expresses them constructively
  • How to use and enjoy his physicality while respecting those who are weaker (especially girls and women)
  • How to contribute to the family
  • How to handle conflict assertively (not aggressively and not passively)
  • How to have self-respect
  • How to feel comfortable and successful outside of the family in the world of school and work

In the past, boys had far more opportunities to learn from men. Increasingly, a boy is not likely to see his father at work. Especially with white-collar jobs, a boy may not even have a clear picture of what his father actually does for a living or why he does it. As a result, boys are not able to admire and copy their fathers, which is the natural inclination of boys.

During the last half of the twentieth century, fathers’ working hours increased dramatically. Fathers regularly report that in the evenings and at weekends, they often feel exhausted and stressed, more inclined to switch off with a newspaper or in front of a screen, rather than involving themselves with their children.

And because so many fathers are spending more hours at work and often have longer commutes, their time at home may be taken up with household tasks such as paying the bills and doing repairs. A boy naturally wants to hang out with his father, and he is likely to be curious about whatever his father is doing. But a tired, time-poor, stressed father may be trying to focus on getting these chores done as quickly as possible, without the distractions of having to manage a child at the same time, so that he can finally unwind and relax. You can see how even a loving, conscientious father can end up not being a very good role model and not giving his children what they need, which is his attention.

If a father has only a very limited amount of time at home, he may be concerned that teaching and training good habits (what is often called ‘discipline’) would spoil the small amount of time he has with his children. So he may be reluctant to insist on good behaviour, to enforce rules and routines and to follow through when rules are broken or routines drift.

In fact, many fathers do not quite know what the household rules are. That’s because mothers, who are usually at home with the children for more hours every day, often get into the habit of declaring new rules unilaterally. Fathers may come to feel on the outside of family routines. Even at weekends, when the father is at home and could be doing an equal amount of supervising of meals, homework, bath, screen time and bedtime, it is often the mother who is still on duty, still responsible for either doing or overseeing all these aspects of family life.

It may seem to the mother as if the father does not care that his children want to spend time with him. Or the mother may feel that the father is lazy or that he does not appreciate that she needs a break. But these are not the reason that fathers too often stay on the margins of their children’s daily flash-points. What is far more likely is that the father feels unconfident. It is a vicious circle because the less involved the father is, the less confident he will feel, and the less confident he feels, the less involved he will seek to be.

In terms of academic achievement, when fathers leave the supervision of homework, revision and reading to mothers, boys get the impression that schoolwork, homework, revising, reading, doing one’s best, writing neatly, getting good marks etc. are things that women care about, not things that men care about. And since boys are genetically programmed to model themselves after their fathers (or another father-figure), boys often copy what seems to them to be their father’s lukewarm attitude towards school and learning.

When a father is at home but too busy or too preoccupied or too stressed to take the time to notice and think about what is important in his relationship with his son, the father will come across as uninterested and uncaring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every father I have ever spoken with wants to connect with his children and in particular wants to have a strong, satisfying relationship with his son.

When a father is at home but too busy or too preoccupied or too stressed to take the time to notice and think about what is important in his relationship with his son, the father will come across as uninterested and uncaring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every father I have ever spoken with wants to connect with his children and in particular wants to have a strong, satisfying relationship with his son.

When a father is absent, either physically or emotionally, his son misses him and feels the stress of not getting this vital connection that he needs, even though the boy may not realise what he is feeling or what is triggering it. The boy may believe that his father does not really want to spend time with him. He may know that his father loves him, but may not really be convinced that his father likes him.

A tired, stressed father can easily drift into being too critical of his children (or in dread of his partner). This is especially damaging for boys because of the natural tendency of boys to copy their fathers. The criticism goes in deeper with boys and can significantly affect a boy’s self-esteem. It does not have to be like this.

How can a father contribute to his son?

By using the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’ strategies, fathers can teach their sons important life skills.

The following letter is typical of many that I have received from fathers who have committed to practising these strategies:

I’m so proud of the young man he’s become

When my kids were little, I didn’t really get it that my boys needed something from me that was different from what they got from their mother. But that changed when Kyle was about twelve. He started throwing his weight around: contradicting us, not paying attention to what his mother told him to do, copying the ‘cool crowd’ at school, saying rude things about his teachers, saying school was a waste of time, not bothering to do a good job on his homework. We thought it was just a phase, but it didn’t blow over, and in the meantime Darren, our younger son, was starting to imitate him.

My wife heard Noël give a talk about boys, and she came back and told me off! She said I should be in charge of disciplining Kyle and not just assume she would do it. She said I should spend some time just with him. My reaction was to get defensive – doesn’t she realise how busy I am, etc, etc.

But I thought I might as well try it. So I read the book and learned about the strategies. I felt awkward with the Descriptive Praise and the Reflective Listening in the beginning, but I got used to it. At first Kyle thought I was being sarcastic, but pretty soon he was listening. And when I told him the new rules about earning and did the think-throughs, he started taking me seriously.

The Special Time was brilliant. I took him rock-climbing every week and he loved that it was just him, not with the others. When he needed a lift somewhere, I would be the one who drove him, and we had really nice chats once I said no radio, no headphones and no texting. I realised he had some interesting ideas, but I hadn’t really been paying attention.

He started confiding in me, and it turned out he was really anxious about fitting in and about growing up. Was he clever enough to get a good job? Would girls like him? Would he get hair on his chest? Would he be a good kisser? I was shocked that he was worrying about things like that when he was acting so hard and cool. The more we hung out together, the more we chatted. I think he could see I really liked being with him. I think that helped him relax and think he was OK.

We made sure to keep up the strategies because we didn’t want him to backslide or set a bad example. All the disrespectful behaviour faded away quite quickly, and his teen years have been quite easy. He’s off to university in a few months, and I’m so proud of the young man he’s become – caring, hard-working, confident.

Father of two boys (aged 19 & 13) and one girl (aged 16)

Teaching boys how to manage their physicality

In most families, it is the father who provides the physicality that a boy needs and craves. Fathers usually have the job of teaching boys how to use their physical energy, strength and drive. It is the rare mother who wants to do this. What I am about to say is a gross generalisation, and it may not apply to your family, but most mothers do not enjoy the rough and tumble, play-fighting and wrestling that most boys crave. A mother is more likely to worry that someone will get hurt, that clothes will get ripped or furniture damaged or that it will end in tears.

Fathers, having once been boys themselves, understand the need to be physical, and they are less likely to worry. Fathers usually know that it is just fine if someone gets hurt; they know that being able to ‘take it on the chin’ helps boys to develop the confidence that they can handle themselves in the play-fighting that boys like to do. Fathers can help their sons notice how far to go before they do real damage, either to someone’s body or to their feelings or to their surroundings. Rough and tumble can teach boys how to fight fair.

Teaching respect for those who are weaker

Traditionally, it has been the job of fathers and the other older males in the community to teach a boy how to respect those who are weaker, especially girls and women. In our culture, as in many others, boys value physical superiority. We may wish this were not so, and we may take active steps to instill other values, but for most boys being physically strong remains an important value.

As boys grow older and bigger and stronger, a time comes when they realise that they are physically stronger than their mothers. This can be a problem if a boy is harbouring resentments against his mother. That can easily happen when a mother falls into the twin habits of nagging the boy but also doing for him the things he can and should be doing for himself (or learning to do for himself).

A boy’s frustration and resentment, or his feelings of not being taken seriously, can lead him to use his physical strength and his size in subtle or not-so-subtle ways to intimidate or get back at his mother. The boy may move in very close to the mother and shout in her face; he may semi-deliberately bump into her as he walks past her; he may raise his hands in a threatening gesture. Even a boy who would never dream of using his physicality against his mother may become very disrespectful in his words, his tone of voice or his body language.

Fathers: you can teach your sons to respect their mother. Start by taking the time to sit down with the mother to clarify and agree on the rules and the routines that you both want for your family. This needs to include agreeing on the follow-through, by which I mean the rewards for cooperation, common sense, self-reliance and responsibility as well as the consequences when rules are broken or routines are forgotten.

Being a United Front

Children feel better and behave better when parents are united. Part of being a United Front is not arguing in front of the children. Make a habit of keeping any disagreements about your parenting for a private time; do not talk about them in front of your son.

But being a United Front goes further than that. Together, both parents need to actively create the family’s lifestyle. This is often problematic; even when parents share the same fundamental values, their different temperaments and life experiences mean that they tend to express these values in different ways, and they may have slightly (or widely) different expectations of their children. Later in this article I explain in detail a very effective strategy, called a solution talk, which helps parents become united.

Fathers: model appreciation of your son’s mother, his grandmothers, his female teachers and all the other females in his life. Insist on politeness and respect, both in words and tone of voice, by using the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’ strategies of Descriptive Praise, think-throughs and action replays, which I briefly explain below. (You will find more details and many examples of each of these strategies in my books.)

Descriptive Praise

When we´re pleased with something our children have done and we want to motivate them to do more of it, we often say ´Well done´. If we´re very pleased we may exclaim ‘Fantastic’ or ‘Brilliant’ or ‘Terrific’. The problem with these superlative praises is that they´re too exaggerated and also too vague to be very motivating. Descriptive Praise is a new type of positive feedback, and it’s a much more powerful motivator. With Descriptive Praise we leave out the superlatives, and we say exactly what the child did that was good or exactly what they didn’t do wrong: ‘You remembered to say please’ or ‘I can hear you´re not shouting; you´re using your indoor voice’.
Make sure that your voice sounds pleased and that your face looks pleased.

Reflective Listening

Reflective Listening is a parenting strategy that, over time, helps children and teens to express their upsets constructively rather than through disrespect and aggression.

With Reflective Listening, the parent takes a few moments to imagine what the upset child or teen may be feeling, and then reflects that feeling back in words: ‘It sounds like you’re angry that Mum made you turn your computer off’ or ‘Maybe you’re wishing Mum and I would let you have pizza for dinner every night’.


When we tell a child what he should or shouldn’t do, we are assuming, or maybe just hoping, that he’s listening and that he’s thinking about what we’re saying. But often he is barely paying attention, especially if he’s heard it all before or if the parent looks annoyed and is talking in an exasperated tone of voice.

A think-through is a strategy that I developed based on research into how and when the brain pays attention to incoming information and how information gets stored in the long-term memory.

A very effective way to help your son pay attention to what you are saying and to remember what he should do and how he should do it and when he should do it and why he should do it is to ask him to tell you. Each think-through lasts only one minute. It is not a reprimand so it doesn’t feel like an ordeal, either for the child or for the parent. A think-through consists of the parent asking questions and the child or teenager answering those questions in full sentences.

As your child answers your questions, his brain is automatically creating a vivid mental image of the words he is saying. And with repeated think-throughs, this information is soon transferred into the child’s long-term memory, which is the repository of habit. This soon influences him to do what he told you in the think-throughs he should do, and without his even having to give it much thought. Better behaviour and more mature values will start to become habits.

Action Replays

An action replay is a way of maximising the likelihood that your child will behave appropriately the next time a problematic issue arises. It´s far more effective than a reprimand or a punishment or a threat or making the child apologise. An action replay is a consequence that should follow every misbehavior, whether minor or major. (Parents may decide, of course, that major misbehaviour requires an additional consequence.)

An action replay always takes place once both the parent and the child are calm. There are two steps to every action replay. The first step is asking your child to tell you what he should have done. You might ask, ‘When you were angry because Mummy said you couldn’t have a third biscuit, instead of calling her an idiot, what should you have done?’ Your son is likely to reply sensibly because you waited until he was calm and because you’re not telling him off. Once he has answered sensibly you then have him re-do the scenario, but this time he does it right. With an action replay the last thing that sticks in his memory about this event is him behaving well, and over time this strategy teaches him to behave better the next time he’s upset.

If your wife is having a confrontation or a difficult moment with your son and you feel that she is not handling it very well, you may be tempted to react in one of three typical ways: you might take over (which may undermine her confidence in her ability to manage his behaviour), you might give her some advice from the sidelines (which she may interpret as criticism) or you might say nothing and let her struggle alone. Any of these reactions will only weaken your son’s respect for his mother. (I’m assuming that in this situation your wife is trying to follow through on a rule or routine that both parents have previously agreed on.)

Instead, it is more useful to lend the weight of your authority to the situation. Stand side by side with your wife, look at your son and say firmly and seriously, ‘Do what your mother said’ or words to that effect. Then stay there together, side by side, until your son cooperates. With this strategy your son will learn to respect both you and his mother.

Showing the importance of education

A father’s role is to show his son that education is important. Mothers usually do most of the supervising of homework and many teachers are female, so it is easy for a boy to assume that his father does not care that much about learning or about him doing his best.

Even a father who works long hours outside the home can make time at weekends, or possibly early mornings before going off to work (or even by Skype or Facetime if he is travelling) to sit down with his son and show an interest in his schoolwork and homework. In my books, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys’ and ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Homework’ I talk more about how you can help bring out the best in your boys academically.

Acting as a role model for how to handle responsibilities in the world outside the home

A father’s job is to bring home the outside world to his son and show him how men function in the world. Fathers and father-figures need to be role models for how men handle their responsibilities in the wider world outside the home. A boy who respects his father will naturally want to imitate him. He will want to feel included in his father’s activities. Fathers: take your sons to work, and take the time, both at home and at work, to show and explain what your work consists of.

Let your son participate in aspects of your work where it is appropriate; let him earn some money by doing this. When talking about work, remember to talk about problems and strategies rather than just about problems. Talk about your goals for work, about your triumphs and disappointments, about how you feel and what you have learned.

I am not suggesting that only fathers should share these aspects of their lives with their children. Of course, mothers will want to do this as well. The point I am making here is that boys are internally programmed to pay more attention to what their fathers say so we need to take advantage of that. Mealtimes and bedtimes are a good time for these conversations.

Special Time

Special Time also enables you to share these parts of yourself without being distracted by siblings or chores.

Special Time consists of one parent with one child doing something that you both enjoy that’s not in front of a screen, that doesn’t cost money and that doesn’t involve a sweet treat. What’s special about Special Time is that both you and your child are focusing on being with each other, with no distractions.

What you do together during Special Time depends on what you and your child might enjoy. You could read together, go for a walk, build something together with Legos, cook or bake together, play-fight, do some DIY, throw and catch a ball, tell jokes, weed the garden, play a board game, fold the laundry. Your son is likely to enjoy almost any one-on-one activity with you, as long as you don’t rush him, as long as you stay friendly and calm and take the time to Descriptively Praise his efforts.

You might be worried that your son wouldn’t enjoy spending time with you, or you might not know how to carve out the time for it in your busy schedule. In ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys’ I address these concerns and others that fathers have about Special Time.

Encouraging physical affection

There are some countries and some cultures where physical affection between fathers and sons is accepted and encouraged and valued. Sadly, our culture is not one of these. But even after a boy has outgrown sitting on his father’s lap, he still needs physical affection from his father (or father-figure), as well as from his mother.

Research indicates that boys who do not get the kind of touch they need from their fathers are more susceptible to being groomed for sexual abuse because they are desperate for physical warmth and affection from an older male.

So take every opportunity to rumple your son’s hair, give him a squeeze, pat him on the back. Include in the repertoire of activities you do with your son, some games that require physical contact.

Modelling good friendships

Boys also need to hear fathers talking about friendships. A father can explain what he likes in his friends and how he has handled problems with friends. Your son will want to copy you so remember to show your best side.

Teaching and training consideration and good manners

Boys can get the impression that manners and politeness are ‘girly’ and that real men are proud of being crude or off-hand. Therefore, it is important that fathers and other adult males set a good example and show that consideration matters.

The role of mothers

Mothers can teach their sons how women think and how women feel. Mothers, often better than fathers, can demonstrate to their sons how to share their feelings and how to empathise with other people’s feelings.

Mothers can reinforce the relationship between father and son. Unfortunately, a mother can also unintentionally undermine the father’s authority and thus the father-son relationship by correcting or criticising the father in front of the children. A mother may talk about her husband almost as if he’s another child, someone who cannot be relied on to be responsible, someone who needs to be managed. Children are acutely observant of the way their parents treat each other; a boy notices when the mother is not according the father respect.

If a boy hears his father or step-father being reminded by his mother to take out the rubbish or fix the leak or book the half-term holiday, this will reinforce for the boy the cultural stereotype of nagging females and put-upon males. This is upsetting both for sons and daughters. It can result in the children losing respect both for the father, who seems to be weak and subordinate, not standing up for himself, and also for the mother for seeming often to be cross with the father and for telling the father what he should do.

Mothers can become frustrated and exasperated with fathers for being too ‘soft’, which usually means negotiating about rules or turning a blind eye to misbehaviour, rather than ‘backing her up’. This can easily happen when the father was not actively involved in deciding on the rules and routines in the first place, so he doesn’t really remember what he agreed to. A very unfortunate dynamic can develop where the mother feels burdened with disciplining the children; understandably her frustration can come out as impatience, nagging and shouting. The father, also understandably, finds the mother’s exasperation and nagging very unpleasant to be around so he distances himself even more from the disciplining of the children. This makes the mother even more stressed, even more irritated and impatient. You can see the vicious circle that develops.

When the mother does not trust the father to be an equal partner in parenting, she will tend to take over, criticising the father or simply leaving him out of arrangements. This has the unintended effect of undermining even further the father’s confidence in his parenting skills.

Mothers may complain that the father does not seem to notice the first five times the child is rude to him, but will explode the sixth time it happens, becoming too loud and too rough in his anger. This can make a mother feel that she needs to protect the children from their own father. Read on to learn about strategies that will help parents to become united.

Switching allegiance from the mother-figure to the father-figure

Young children of both genders often start out very attached to the mother as she usually does the bulk of childcare in the early years. It is important that boys shift their allegiance from the mother to the father. Most boys gradually do this naturally between the ages of about two and seven years old.

But some boys become fixated on their mothers, wanting only their mothers to comfort them, tie their shoes, tuck them into bed, help with homework, even when the father is available and keen to participate. It’s easy for this to become an entrenched habit. The father may suggest that he read his son a bedtime story or drive him to his karate lesson or quiz him before an exam, and when the boy says (or shows) that he would prefer the mother to do it, the father may feel rejected. As time goes on, the father will feel less and less inclined to suggest doing things with his son. Both father and son are missing out when this dynamic develops.

To prevent or remedy this situation, I recommend that the father spends time alone with each child, without the mother around, several times a week, from earliest infancy. This will help a boy who is over-attached to his mother to naturally bond more with his father and come to trust him. And the father will grow in confidence. It’s never too early to forge this bond, and it’s also never too late.

Mothers: you will need to refrain from attempting to micro-manage how the father, in your absence, will feed, dress, bathe and play with the children. This may require massive self-control, but it’s well worth it. Let your partner establish his own relationship with each of his children. Start with the expectation that he won’t handle things the way you would. He’s not perfect--but then again neither are you. Partners can learn a lot from each other, but only if they approach parenting with an attitude of mutual respect.

Mothers and fathers becoming a United Front

Mothers and fathers both have an important role to play in teaching and training children of both genders to be cooperative, confident, motivated, responsible and considerate. But each parent may have a different idea about how to achieve these goals. Rather than arguing, what is needed is compromise. A solution talk is a way to reach a compromise. In a solution talk, neither parent is giving in; neither parent has to do it the other parent’s way.

Solution talks need to happen at a neutral time, by which I mean a time when neither parent is upset or in a rush or in front of a screen. Spend fifteen minutes, no more, on each solution talk. Make the time to do a solution talk almost every day; you won’t run out of issues!

How to do a solution talk

A solution talk starts by one parents saying, in only one sentence, a family issue that feels problematic in some way. It’s important to spend no more than one sentence stating the issue because it’s very easy to talk at great length about a problem, exploring all its nooks and crannies, and often assigning blame. The initial sentence might be: ‘I wish Ben wasn’t so rough with the baby’ or ‘Harry’s whingeing is so annoying’ or ‘The children need to concentrate on their homework, instead of messing about’.

Next, both parents take turns suggesting a possible solution, and both parents write down all the suggestions. Continue taking turns until the fifteen minutes are up. Whenever a parent likes a suggestion made by the other, he agrees. Then he adds a suggestion of his own.

But if you don't like your partner’s suggestion, you are not allowed to say so! That’s how arguments start. Instead of trying to convince your partner that you’re right and they’re misguided, you need to come up with a counter-suggestion. In the dialogue that follows you will read some counter-suggestions.

The following solution talk was recorded by a couple who wanted to learn not to argue about how to handle their children’s issues. Both parents were sitting on the sofa, after the children were asleep, with all the electronics switched off. The mother started the solution talk by saying one sentence about something that was bothering her that she wanted to find a solution to.

Mother: It's driving me mad that I have to keep reminding Sam to feed the guinea pigs every day.

Father: Well, you remember what Noël said. We're not supposed to be reminding.

Mother: Well, I don't want them to starve to death, so we've got to do something if we're not going to remind.

Father: Well, let's just get rid of the damn things. He's lost interest in them anyway.

Mother: But Sarah still plays with them so I don't want to get rid of them. How about if we make it that he has to feed them before he can earn his screen time?

Father: Well, that’s certainly working with homework and table manners, so it might work with feeding the guinea pigs. Can you stop yourself from reminding him though?

Mother: I think so, because I really want him to become more responsible. I can put it on his list of things to do.

Father: And if he remembers to feed them quite late, then he wouldn't earn his whole hour of screen time.

Mother: So we'll need a cut-off time. How about if everything on his list needs to be done by seven pm?

Father: Well, I think we've cracked it, and it didn't even take us the whole fifteen minutes!

Mother: He's probably not going to like it, so we'll need to do lots of Reflective Listening.

Father: And we'll Descriptively Praise him whenever he remembers. Let's do it for a week and see how it's working.

Mother: I'm pretty sure this will motivate him to remember.

Father: He might forget the first few times, so we have to not remind him. We could just Reflectively Listen if he's annoyed that he didn't earn his screen time.

Weekly Date Nights and Nightly Half-hour Dates

Here are two more strategies that will help parents to become united. These strategies can prevent and even reverse many of the problems I mentioned earlier.

It is all too easy for an exhausted, stressed mother to put her main focus on the children, the house, the school, the errands etc. The father’s needs, and the needs of the couple relationship, may get pushed to the sidelines. A weekly date night, with no talking about the children allowed, will go a long way towards remotivating your partner to want to please you or even just to be willing to listen to you. Don’t believe that you cannot afford a weekly date night; where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can even have a date night at home, if necessary.

In addition to the weekly date night, I also recommend that on every evening that both parents are at home, as soon as the children are in bed you and your partner take a half-hour to just be together. During this nightly half-hour ‘date’, you are not allowed to talk about the children, and you are not allowed to talk about any problems. You can cook together, you can eat together (with no electronic distractions), you can play cards or Scrabble or chess, you can sit on the sofa and hold hands, you can listen to music, you can get a breath of fresh air in the garden, you can take a stroll around the neighbourhood if the children are old enough to be left alone, you can cuddle. The idea is to relax, to have fun, to recapture the feelings that brought you together in the first place, to strengthen the couple relationship that existed before the children came along and that will exist after the children leave home. This nightly date half-hour will do your relationship with your partner a world of good. It will also, over time, relieve a lot of stress, enabling you both to remember to behave towards your children more positively, firmly and consistently.

If you do not really believe that these dates will make much of a difference, be willing to give it a go anyway for a few months. Persevere, and you will be very pleasantly surprised. In my article, ‘Taking Care of Your Couple Relationship’, I go into more detail about both the weekly dates and the nightly dates, answering typical questions and concerns that parents often have.

Parents want to know

Q: I’m the father of one boy and three girls. Our house is awash with dolls and dressing-up clothes and jewellery and everything pink. My problem is that my son enjoys playing with his sisters’ toys and playing their games. He even wants to do that when we’re having our Special Time. I’m hesitant to admit this, because it may not be politically correct, but this makes me nervous. I want my son to enjoy the things that most boys enjoy. How can I help my son to think of himself more as a boy without making him feel bad about himself?

A: It is not surprising that your son is influenced by all the girly things that are around him. And it is completely understandable that as a father you want your son to be ‘a real boy’, as defined by the culture you live in. You do not need to apologise about that. And you are right to want to avoid making your son feel embarrassed or ashamed.

I can offer you no firm guarantees, but there is a lot you can do to influence him to seek out and enjoy more conventionally male activities. A child usually wants to copy the interests, the speech and even the mannerisms of the same-gender parent. But this may not be happening reliably if Special Time is not happening frequently. So make sure that your Special Time with your son takes priority over almost every other activity. Alternate which of you chooses the activity, and when it is your turn to choose, make sure to choose an activity that your son would never think of choosing for himself, one that you want your son to become familiar with and eventually enjoy.

As long as you are remembering to focus on the other Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies, your son will want to spend time with you, even if the activity you choose does not appeal to him at first. With repetition and plenty of Descriptive Praise, he will first learn to tolerate it, and over time he will come to enjoy it. This way you can expand your son’s repertoire of enjoyable activities.

Q: I want to help my husband to be more involved with our boys for their sake, but also for my husband’s sake. He’s missing out on so much! He works very long hours so how can I get him to be more hands on?

A: Even a father who spends many hours at work can make the time to be with his children if he is determined. But what often happens is that the father loses touch with what his children need and want and like. There is a lot that a mother can do to overcome any resistance that a father may have developed to becoming more involved with his children. It may not be easy to reverse the status quo, but it will be worth the effort. Here is what mothers can do:

  • Don’t criticise or correct your husband. It will undermine his confidence and can drive him further away from a meaningful relationship with his children. Let him forge his own relationship with the children, even if it is not the way you would do it. As I said earlier, he is not perfect, but neither are you.
  • Descriptively Praise your husband for every tiny step in the right direction: when he helps with homework (even if it ends in tears), when he corrects your son’s table manners (even if he does it in a way that you don’t like), when he reads a bedtime story (even if he goes on past lights out time), when he chats about dinosaurs or superheroes or rugby (even if the conversation is happening when your son should be tidying away his toys).
  • Reflectively Listen to your partner if he complains about the children, rather than advising him how to solve the problem.
  • You can make it easy for Dad to have some Special Time with each child by arranging for the other children to be occupied elsewhere.

Q: Sport has been important to me all my life. I’m deeply disappointed that my son doesn’t share my passion. Are you saying I can do something to help him be enthusiastic about sport?

A: Whatever the reasons may be for your son’s lack of interest, there are some things you can do that are likely to help him see sports in a different light.

  • Your son probably senses your disappointment so you will need to start by appreciating and Descriptively Praising and sharing his enthusiasm for his other interests.
  • Some boys avoid sports because they feel embarrassed about not being very good. Invest the time in teaching your son ball skills and specific techniques for whichever sport you would like to share with him. Even if he complains at first, persevere. Keep each training session short – just ten or fifteen minutes. Frequent, very short sessions will result in improved coordination, motivation and confidence far more quickly than a few longer sessions.

A boy who avoids sports may be slightly or extremely uncoordinated. If the coordination problems are mild, then your son will improve with targeted practice and Descriptive Praise: ‘You caught the ball because you kept looking at it, instead of shutting your eyes’. If lack of coordination is more extreme, you may want to have him assessed by a physical therapist. Physical therapy can improve coordination and balance, and it can strengthen specific skills. This will help your son become more confident and therefore more willing to give sports a go.

Many sports require teamwork, flexibility, the willingness to follow a coach’s instructions and the courage to acknowledge one’s mistakes. If your son has a tricky temperament or is emotionally immature, these may be difficult habits for him to master so he may try to opt out. Use the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies (eg Descriptive Praise, think-throughs, action replays, Reflective Listening) to teach and train these important habits.

Q: As a dad, I have to admit that I’ve pretty much left the job of raising the children to my wife. I really like the idea of being more involved in my son’s life, but I’m afraid I've left it too late. He doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with me, except for me buying him things. How can I reconnect?

A: The following suggestions will help you to re-establish a warm, close relationship with your son, but do not expect it to happen overnight.

  • When he is in the sitting room or kitchen, sit in the same room with him and start chatting.
  • Don’t ask questions of your son when his mood seems to be surly or sullen or disrespectful. Instead, Descriptively Praise any tiny bits of friendliness. You can Reflectively Listen, and you can share your own experiences.
  • Sit down with your children for all meals and snacks. You will have a captive audience.
  • Drive your son to his activities. Leave the car radio off. Make a rule that you will only drive him if he is not on his tablet or his mobile.
  • Listen with an open mind when your son is talking, even if you’re not really interested in the topic and even if what he is saying goes against your values. Refrain from trying to set him straight, which would just alienate him further.
  • Arrange your schedule so that you have time to spend with your son every day, even if it is only ten minutes, even if it’s via Face Time or Skype.
  • Do not offer to have Special Time with your son, as that would sound like a suggestion and would give him the right to decline. Tell him in advance that the two of you will be doing something together on a certain day. Offer him a choice of activities and a choice of times. Expect complaints, but persevere. Your son will soon realise that you want to be spend time with him and that you enjoy being with him. He may not really know that unless you insist on the Special Time.
  • Give your son ways that he can earn money or extra privileges by doing something with you, such as DIY, household or garden chores, helping to sort and file receipts, etc.
  • Bring your son to work with you on a day when you can spend some time showing him what you do.
  • In extreme cases of alienation (which are rare), your son may adamantly refuse to do anything with you. This is often a boy who spends a lot of time in front of a screen. You may need to start reconnecting with him by joining him in his screen activities or in conversations about his screen activities. If you follow the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies you will soon be able to move on to far more fulfilling activities with your son.

Q: I want to do all the things you recommend in your books, but since my divorce I'm a part-time dad. I only see my children every other weekend. Iím worried that this isnít enough time to make a difference with my son. How can I make the time count?

A: Here are some pointers for separated and divorced fathers, who may see their children infrequently. These ideas will give you more one-on-one time in which to put into practice my recommended strategies:

  • When your children are awake, be with them. Resist the urge to catch up on work or emails.
  • Make rules that drastically limit your children’s screen time so that they are available for you to interact with more of the time.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your job is to entertain your children with treats or new toys. Your children need you. Focus on free or cheap activities where you are all relating and enjoying yourselves.
  • Each day that you are with your children, arrange to have some Special Time with each one while the other plays independently. The other child should not be in front of a screen because that is likely to be too distracting for the child you are spending Special Time with.
  • Include one child in each meal preparation. You can alternate by meal, by day or by weekend.
  • Always eat with your children.
  • Stagger the children’s bedtimes so that you have half an hour if possible with each one for a good-night ritual. When a parent and a child are chatting in the dark, a lot comes out that can't easily be said during the day. The nature of this ritual will change as your children grow of course. But do not phase it out as they get older. Even teenagers still need this Special Time with you.

Q: I'm a single mum, divorced and raising my two boys on my own. Their father has moved to a different city so itís hard for him to come and visit the boys, and they are still too young to travel to visit him on their own. Their father remembers their birthdays and sees them at the holidays, but he isnít involved at all in their lives during term-time. I feel that my sons need more of a male influence in their lives, but how do I arrange this?

A: You're right that the more examples your boys have in their lives of responsible adult males, the better it will be for their development. But you don't need to find only one person to be a positive male influence. A boy can have many role models.

To model means to demonstrate, and a role, in this case, means a person’s function in a particular situation. The function of an older male role model is to demonstrate to a boy how to be a man. Within the family the role model can be a grandfather, step-father, uncle, older male cousin or even older brother, as long he is mature enough to be a good example. Start some new traditions: invite these important role models to Sunday dinner or to attend your son's sports day or end-of-term play.

A separated or divorced mother may have a long-time partner, whether live-in or not. He may be careful not to usurp the position of the biological father and therefore may not realise that he himself can be an important role model.

Outside of the family, the male role model that a boy looks up to can be his godfather, a trusted family friend, a teacher, a mentor assigned by the school, the scoutmaster, sports’ coach or martial arts sensei, a therapist or counsellor or an older student or a volunteer (such as a Big Brother from an organisation that matches children who need another adult in their lives with adults who want to contribute), or even an employer if the boy has a part-time job.

Enrol your boys in after-school or weekend activities that are led by males whose values are aligned with yours. Role models in literature, in films and in the news can also be very influential. Talk about the qualities you admire in men, and relate those to your son's good qualities.

Not all of these role models will be contributing the same thing to your boys, but the overarching purpose of all of these men is to show boys that men can be responsible, caring, productive members of society.

copyright © Noël Janis-Norton 2021

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You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to make all this happen? To find out how the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ resources and services can help you and your family, please browse our website or email us:

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