Some dads have demanding jobs -- how can they still play a central role in their children's lives?
When a father is a public figure or occupied with a very demanding job, how can he be a role model for his children? Psychoanalyst Jacques Arènes helps fathers spend more time with their children, and emphasizes how important it is for them to recognize difference, and even fragility, in their children. Here he answers questions about how to do that.
We know the challenges for fathers who haven’t been able to realize their professional ambitions. Is this true also for the father who has succeeded professionally but is hardly present to his kids?
There are amazing and brilliant professional careers, but work addictions as well. Some men think of their job as a true vocation and do not understand when others do not think the same. Their career may be suffocating at times, and at others quite exhilarating. In any case, a father should be very careful to keep a clear division between his public life and his private life, so that in the eyes of his children he is not just a public person.
When a father has a very domineering personality, how can he transmit his convictions to his children without turning them off?
There are certain kinds of intelligence that insist very strongly but get little results, or that refuse to accept other points of view. It is possible to be steadfast and decisive, and at the same time, be aware of others. In this sense, the problem is not so much if you have a strong personality as it is allowing others to have their space, their fragility. This is possible when we know and accept our own fragility, if we do not see ourselves as “champions”, if we are capable of questioning ourselves.
There is no need for big speeches—a father communicates through who he is. He communicates through his attention to others, and should take extreme care to not ridicule what his child is interested in, and to make an effort to stay open to dialogue, responding to questions without resorting to the argument that he is the authority. Paradoxically, he also transmits quite a lot through just listening.
How can you dedicate time to listening when you don’t see your children all day? Is quality time on the weekends enough?
What the parents agree on for family balance is crucial. While these moments are limited, being available is essential. You can be a busy executive but still be available. It is a kind of inner freedom, a mental availability. It is the father’s responsibility to offer some time when he will be truly present. For some men, the only thing that interests them in life is their professional career, so they must work on this.
That said, a minimum quantity should be established. And that minimum will vary from one child to the next, according to his or her personality and age and the professional obligations of the father. It is not necessary to make it the same for all the children: some need more time, while others need us to let them have their free time. The parents will have to evaluate the situation and explain it to the children: “You are all different, you do not have the same history, each one of you has your own needs …”
To compensate for absences, some fathers prefer “quality moments” — less frequent, but more intense time together. What do you think of this?
An intense time should have a reason for it, not just be an invention of togetherness that doesn’t exist day-to-day. It should be a shared passion and not a unilateral decision by the father.
Being a Boy Scout troop leader, the president of an association, or what have you, will these additional commitments affect our children?
To start with, both parents should agree. If one of the parents is left unattended because of the other’s commitments, the children will become aware of this imbalance. And we should note that very noble activities can actually be a kind of escape. But not always. This can be verified by considering your dependence on it: Will I be bothered if I don’t do it? Can I give it up?
We can always find excellent reasons to be indispensable. Think about what you give top priority to: your commitments or your family. A good way to see this is to ask yourself: “If my son or daughter needs to talk to me, am I willing to cancel a meeting?”
And if he can’t cancel his meeting?
If it isn’t possible, he can commit to a meeting with his children. As long as it is seen as fun and not just one more thing that has to be done. When a busy father blocks out a time in his schedule for his children, it is a testimony to his desire to offer them his time. And a child will be impressed with this gesture. But the key for the father is, again, flexibility and adaptability. Where, if not in the family, do you experience gratitude with joy?
Children are also sensitive to the coherence of the adults. If a father promises to spend time without double checking his other commitments, and doesn’t know how to find time to help his daughter with her homework, the dysfunctionality speaks for itself!
How should we react when a child rejects the values that we try to transmit to him or her?
Some children are like aliens to their parents. A parent may spontaneously feel closer to one child more than another simply because that child is more like them. We need to dedicate time to understanding those children who are more different from us. This is an opportunity for dialogue. You need to be humble and confess: “I am worried, I don’t understand what you are doing, what you are experiencing, I had no idea it was like this for you.” It might also be an occasion to question yourself: “What do I really want for my children? Am I worried more about what others think? What is really important? Is there only one way to get there?
What does a father, in particular, bring to his children?
The father is an “intimate stranger.” He brings both a wonderful closeness and a certain exteriority. He is close through his love, his tenderness, his games, his moods … He transmits confidence. But he also brings his children out of themselves, he invites them to take risks. He fills them with the desire to overcome themselves and open themselves up to the world.
Any final piece of advice for fathers?
That they shouldn’t feel guilty! They shouldn’t scold themselves for not having enough time or for feeling awkward with their children. Fathers today are generally closer to their children. They take more interest in their lives, and in their studies.
I would ask that they learn how to observe the relationship they have with each one of their children. And that they care for that relationship with some very easy tools: asking questions, inviting them out to a restaurant or to the movies … Those small shared moments create a special connection with each one!
Interview by Stéphanie Combe