Julia Steiny: Helping Men Become Terrific Dads, Co-Parents
Jim Alexander, Dads Making a Difference and Children’s Friend and Service are all helping men like Maurice Thibodeau become better fathers.
When each of his two children were born, Maurice Thibodeau promised himself that he would always be the best dad possible for them. His own father took off when he was in his teens. His kids should never know such pain.
But, as happens all too often, relations soured badly between him and “the ex.” “I’m laid back and she’s, well… not.” Conversations, most importantly negotiations about the kids, quickly boiled into yelling and “belittling.”
Thibodeau, a landscaper, wound up in Family Court, a system fathers consider notoriously unsympathetic to them. Thibodeau says, “Dads feel like walking into a court is like walking into a gun fight.”
But worst of all, he could feel himself being impatient with his kids. He wasn’t meeting his own standard of a great dad.
So his heart was wide open when he heard about the 2009 New England Fathering Conference. He went, and “that opened a whole new horizon.”
On that horizon, eventually, was a life-changing relationship. Jim Alexander is the Male Involvement Specialist in a program called Dads Making a Difference (DMD). He runs dads’ support groups and models good parenting in men’s homes. Resembling a wise elder or trusted family doctor, he builds honest, close relationships with men whose troubles with relationships have inevitably extended to their kids.
DMD is a program of Children’s Friend and Service, an agency that’s been serving vulnerable children since 1834. Nicole Hebert, now Assistant Vice President of Programs, was there in the mid-1990s when “we started to feel the dads’ piece was missing. If you’re serious about improving the lives of kids, you have to look at the dads.” In 1995 the agency launched a fatherhood initiative that pulled together a group of family-related agencies into the Father and Family Network of Rhode Island. Herbert says, “We trained staff throughout Children’s Friend so they could help mothers understand the importance of the dad in their children’s lives.”
Then in 2006 Children’s Friend started Dads Making a Difference, opening up support groups for urban dads. “Dads” can be step-dads, grandfathers, or whoever is the most important male in a child’s life.
Alexander runs the support groups and has a home-based caseload of 15 fathers (and a huge waiting list). “I listen to their stories. We talk about their goals. Some have been incarcerated. Most need help with employment, training, becoming self-sufficient. A lot of the dads need counseling, but most put it off. I point them to opportunities, but it’s up to them to take advantage.”
Overwhelmingly, the biggest problem are the dads’ rocky relationships with their children’s moms. These break-ups, divorces and family fights chew up children. Schoolwork suffers. Kids act out. Unless Alexander or some other guide intervenes, kids often spiral into social distress.
So once a week Alexander gathers the dads and their children for what Thibodeau’s children call “kids school.” During the first hour they all share a healthy family meal. Alexander models how to have an effective family dinner, with lots of interaction and no TV. Then he might demonstrate how to read a book to a little child, or help an older kid with homework. He stresses the importance of playing and having fun together.
During the second hour, the kids go off for an activity, so the men can talk alone. Alexander gently suggests strategies for maintaining relationships, especially with the people in the children’s lives. Most especially with the difficult Other Parent.
After months of Alexander’s friendship and coaching, Thibodeau was watching TV one night when he suddenly decided he was ready to take a new, more positive approach. “I picked up the phone and called the ex. Let’s sit down in a public place and talk. Bring the kids and we’ll go to Dunkin Donuts. I got us coffee and we sat down together. I was non-confrontational. We’d been butting heads and that wasn’t the way to do things. I understood that being deliberate about relationships was humongous. I can’t say how humongous. So I said that us working it out would be in the best interests of the kids. And she agreed! Which honestly was shocking. By the end of the conversation, we walked out smiling. It was a sense of relief.”
Mind you, he still struggles with the fact that his kids live in two worlds. He feels he’s on top of their manners, for example, and she’s not. He’s working on that. In a non-confrontational way. With Alexander’s help.
Of course, the big winners are the kids. Their parents are committed to peace. And Thibodeau is thrilled with how he’s grown as a parent. He doesn’t yell. And he’s gotten deeply involved in their schooling, so his kids are dying to show off their work. “My daughter’s reading skills became tremendous. I’m working on teaching reading to my son. It’s a big enjoyment to me.”
Alexander says, “The most important role I play is to support them.” And that changes lives, several at once.
I admire Children’s Friend’s efforts to help dads. Sadly, the country needs an army of Jim Alexanders and another army for the moms. Most American families are now several generations away from getting traditional parenting support from grandparents, extended family and spiritual elders. Too many families are isolated and operating with some wretched parenting information and habits.
America desperately needs a robust, viral conversation about parenting. But sure, we can start with talking about dads.
Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as infoworks.ride.ri.gov , RI’s school-accountability site and ridatahub.org , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.com.
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