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Jeffrey Lopez: Becoming a better father

Too many dads ignore their feelings and consequently alienate their children

Father’s Day turned 100 years old in 2010. What a wonderful time to honor our dads!

A Spokane, Washington, woman is credited as the founder of the annual celebration. Sonora Smart Dodd, often referred to as the “Mother of Father’s Day,” was 16 when her mother died in 1898, leaving her father, William Jackson Smart, to raise Sonora and her five younger brothers on a remote farm in eastern Washington.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Jeffery T. Lopez is a mental health clinician, fatherhood coach and educator for Lutheran Community Services NW in McMinnville. He retired after six years in the Marine Corps and 15 years in the Army, when he served as a chaplain in Iraq as well as in convoy security. To sign up for a parenting class, call him at 503-472-4020.

I find it interesting that a single father of six was the catalyst, the inspiration for Father’s Day. Today, single parents as well as families with both parents often face the same challenges raising their children. Many parents express their difficulties in understanding and communicating with children of various ages. Also, they struggle to help children feel valued by giving them a voice in some decisions.

Communication difficulties may include understanding how, when and what to say or not. Consider this example from A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh:”

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. 

“Pooh!” he whispered. “Yes, Piglet?” 

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.” 

This is an example of how something as small as a touch can speak louder than the noise of many voices. Notice that Piglet spoke not in a loud commanding voice, but in a whisper. It is not always necessary to have words of wisdom. Instead, we convey messages of love by simply being willing to come alongside our children, sit in silence, be present in the moment, take their hand and just be there.

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After feeling called upon to reach out and help others, I retired three years early from military service to earn my second master’s degree, in counseling. My first was in information and project management. I am an advocate for education, surprising since I dropped out of high school after the 10th grade.

My success has been through sheer will, wanting a better quality of life, which required me to look forward and not dwell on the past. While interning at a nonprofit in Portland, I was introduced to a parent education curriculum called Parenting Inside Out. I found it relevant and worthwhile. I became a co-facilitator for 18 months, teaching and assisting other parents in understanding their role in their families.

A few months ago, I accepted a position as a fatherhood coach and educator with Lutheran Community Services NW in McMinnville. I work with men trying to improve in their roles as fathers.

Day after day, I work with these men to find effective ways of communicating without offending or hurting their children and families. Many have never witnessed examples of positive communication skills and it is difficult for them to see the world as their children may see it.

In a recent session, a dad said he thought it seemed “weak” to put an arm around his child or to get excited about an art project. I told him he was wrong; it is meek, I told him. The difference is, when you’re meek, kids know you have the strength but are choosing not to use it at that time.

Many fathers become more at ease with their roles as they grow more aware of their own feelings and understand it is OK to have those feelings. Once they recognize and accept their own feelings, they will better understand the feelings of their children.

We use four concepts — values, roles, goals, and vision — in working with parents. These principles help guide fathers toward accepting new approaches that will unify the family system. Thus, the families become more cohesive.

All members of the family are invited to share their views of these concepts as individuals and as part of the family group. When all family members feel they have an important role, inclusiveness and collaboration are the result. They feel they are valued in their family.

For example, a father may especially value education, knowing its importance for achieving a higher quality of life. He hopes his children will take advantage of their educational opportunities and eventually reap the benefits; this is his goal. He may expect them to follow in his footsteps: do their homework, become productive in school activities and volunteer for community projects.

But if he never shares his feelings about education and his hopes with his children, they may disappoint him. Misunderstandings and confusion may be the result. He cannot expect his children to automatically understand how important education is for them.

In his role of parent, he’ll have an easier time conveying this message if he demonstrates his beliefs through his own actions. Sharing his vision for their future helps his children imagine the life he describes. As a result, they may feel valued, and they may adopt a similar goal. Families with mutual goals, vision and values tend to have stronger ties.

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Lutheran Community Services NW offers a parenting class, Make Parenting a Pleasure. In this eight-week course, dads are exposed to various methods of communication within family systems. In addition, tools for managing short and long-term stress, anger management, quiet and active listening, as well as active and passive communication, are taught.

This class is designed for families experiencing high levels of stress, stress from issues such as substance abuse, legal problems, low income, relationship conflicts, or severe emotional or physical illness. This proven program values, respects and supports parents.

I challenge anyone who is a man struggling in any capacity to become a better father and is unsure whether a parenting class would be beneficial to go ahead and take the full eight-week course. Only then will he appreciate its value.

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Helen Keller was once asked, “What is worse than not having sight?” She responded “What is worse than not having sight is to have sight and not have vision.”

All right, fathers everywhere: What is your vision for you and your family?

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