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Being a father to two daughters comes with great responsibility in terms of teaching them what it means to be a good man, writes Jarrod Gabriel.
I grew up in a male-dominated family: even the dogs we had were male. In hindsight, it must have been difficult for my mom, who not only had to deal with so many males, but also because there was no one who could relate to her role.
Now, many (not that many) years later, I find myself in the same position, being the only male in a female-dominated family. This time the pets are cats and they are both females. Fortunately for me, my wife grew up in the same situation, being one of two daughters, so I’m relying a lot on her to tell me when I might need to back off to allow for the girly things that I just don’t get.
Being the first man in my daughters’ lives can be quite intimidating. In many ways, it sets the bar and forms the idea of what men are. In the beginning, this didn’t seem to have a noticeable effect, but now that they have a clear understanding that we are different, the gap has widened. I’ve always understood that I would not be the only man in their lives for very long, so it’s important that I make sure the image of what a man is, or can be, is addressed. That’s quite a tall order to deliver on and I realise that I will have far less influence over it than I think, but like most men, that’s not going to stop me from trying.
If I have learned anything from my experience as a dad, it’s that kids absorb more from what they witness and experience than what they are told. I have had many a conversation with my daughters based on logic. And while they surprise me at times with how well they grasp things, I’m sure it’s more the skill of knowing how to convince Dad that they get it, so the conversation can end. (Three-year-olds can be quite crafty – never underestimate them.)
I then adopted teaching by example, which can be a lot easier said than done. How you deal with a call on the phone, how you react to being cut off in traffic, when you clean up after yourself, when you listen to the nuances of their social lives at school despite having a deadline, when you are at a braai and there is a clear division of gender, the way you apologise or accept an apology, the way in which you show strength, how you show vulnerability – they watch, they see, they absorb.
That’s a lot of gender-related things to think about, so I tried to narrow it down to two simple principles. The first was that I made it less about what defines a male and more about what she does not have to be defined by. I do the dishes and clean up a lot more, not because cleaning up is not a woman’s responsibility, it’s everyone’s, including the kids. I make a note to take my wife’s advice and decisions in front of them, not because a woman needs a man’s public approval but for them to see my wife is just the better person to make decisions on some matters.
There are many other examples but it’s about making this whole thing about them and not about me. I’d rather spend my time placing the focus on them understanding their own roles better than to try and craft some narrative about what males are because that is where I would want them to place their focus as well.
The second thing I do is expose them to a wide range of things that are seen as “boy activities” by some. Building robots and playing with electronics, martial arts, digging in the dirt, etc. The point, however, isn’t for them to be less “girly” or to be advocating for these activities being non-gender-framing. The point is to show them this stuff because I like these things. What better way for them to understand their dad than by sharing in an activity that he likes and spending time together? To focus less on the “role” and more on the person because that’s what most of us forget about our parents. They are people too, with interests, hobbies, and passions just like them.
As parents, we want to put on our best side but they will figure it out that you are hiding stuff (crafty, remember?). Teach them by example that it’s okay to be who you are because that’s a lesson they need to get way more than how much of a role any single man plays in their life.