Revealing Men
Revealing Men
How to be a Better Father

Therapist, Joe Kohley specializes in working with children; especially those children who are struggling with attachment problems and trauma. He often finds himself in conversations with parents about parenting methods. In this animated interview, interspersed with personal stories, Kohley talks with Randy Flood, psychotherapist and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, about the challenges men face as they work to be good parents, especially today when they’re asked to be both disciplinarians and nurturers. Throughout their conversation, Kohley and Flood use their first-hand parenting experience and clinical expertise to illustrate that men can remain strong, respected, authority figures while nurturing a loving connection to their children. Their examples serve as guidelines for any man seeking how to be a better father. Listen to the entire Revealing Men podcast and/or read excerpts of the conversation below (edited for length and clarity).

How Do Fathers Earn Power?

Flood: I’m going to start out by reading this meditation I ran across a few weeks back. I think I sent it to you and you thought, yeah, that seems like a good place to start:

In a time when mothers, the sacred feminine, the female energy are being honored, it is important not to forget the importance of fathers. Father energy and mother energy are two complementary energies necessary to bring a healthy human being to fruition in this world. Many of the ideas surrounding fathers are changed in the wake of more modern parenting styles, and the more egalitarian roles that are evolving between the sexes. More men are embodying the mother energy these days and a woman can provide father energy for her children. [Madisyn Taylor, the DailyOM]

I’m wondering if you could start by speaking to what you would see as mother energy versus father energy.

Kohley: Sure. But first, one thing I want to emphasize is I do not consider myself an expert in parenting or in fathering. I can say I have a lot of experience. I’ve been parenting and fathering for thirty-plus years with kids in the house. Between a set of step-parenting kids and also a set of adoptive kids that do come with special needs. So, it’s been a lot there.

I think one aspect of masculine energy in terms of parenting is the balance between our authority and playfulness. That is extremely, extremely important. Because I think as men, we’re still trying to figure out how to deal with power in this new culture, trying to balance both our feminine and our masculine energies. I very much found myself being drawn toward the feminine energy as I emerged into my 20s as a male. Because I didn’t want to be that dominant male a**hole out there. [Flood: “Right.”] I didn’t have a lot of good mentors either. I mean, I think they were out there; I just wasn’t exposed to them. First thing, when you become a step-parent is “oh, my gosh!” You don’t have any power.

Flood: To start with. You gotta earn it, right?

Kohley: You gotta earn it, you gotta earn it. And certainly, that was a heck of a challenge. Because it did send me. I did really well with the oldest and the youngest, but the middle step-child, my buttons were getting pushed and it sent me to get help. It sent me to get into therapy. But then as I became more comfortable in my skin with fathering and developing relationships with my step-kids and then becoming an adoptive dad. I certainly had to then step into my authority and step into my power, and step into my masculine power of what it means.

Strong Enough to be Trusted

Kohley: I work with kids, particularly who are traumatized and have a hard start in life, because I work with a lot of adoptive families and the kids had challenging starts that collect abuse, trauma. And when they come to my office they really, out of their need to really keep themselves safe in the model of how they’ve experienced life, they’ve gotta have control.

Flood: Okay. Right. Survival.

Kohley: Exactly. They can’t trust anybody so they become compulsively self-reliant which means they try to control every environment they are in. Including my office, when they come to my office. So, I’ve developed a little role play when the kids come in. I check out their imagination and that gives me some clues on whether they have that ability or not, depending on how much severity of neglect they may have experienced. I ask them to imagine.

I have some pictures with dinosaurs coming out of them and I ask them to check it out and what do they see, and do they see the dinosaurs coming out of the picture. And I say, “what do you like to imagine?” And I get into “I like to imagine, too.” “I like to imagine this is a castle.” I talk to them about my office being a castle and the lobby area and the door being the draw bridge that goes down over the mote. And I say “if this is a castle, what does that make me?” And they’re like “hmmmmm.” There’s always a hesitation.

Matter of fact, I had one little five-year-old boy, he looked at me and he said, “You’re not the king.” And I said, “what?” [Kohley: in the boy’s voice.] “I’m the king!” [Both: Laugh.] And he meant it. And he controlled everything in his life and when he didn’t, he raged out. But that’s that control. I understand that.

When we learned to be therapists, we were always taught unconditional acceptance [Flood: “Right.”], and really meet people with where they are at. I really had to change that and I’ve had to step into the strength of my masculinity of really showing the kids in the families that I am a strong enough male to be trusted. I don’t expect them to trust me. I do not. But that this is a safe place and this is how I create this to be a safe place.

The Evolution of Father Archetypes

Flood: It would be good to talk about the history of fathering a little bit. Could we talk about the old-school fathering and what [Carl] Jung calls the shadow side of any archetype? The king’s shadow side is the tyrant. [Kohley: “Yes.”] And so, he is to be served. So, you think of the old sitcom dad who comes home from a hard day’s work, comes in, the slippers come out, the scotch is served, and the kids are quiet and clean, house is clean. There was this kind of king energy but it had this taint of “Dad’s here, Dad’s had a hard day and a hard life.” And the kids are just… So, say a little bit about that and where we are headed and the balancing of all that.

Kohley: Luckily, I didn’t experience that with my father. But I certainly understand that—and perhaps from his father or further generations back—the old “spare the rod, spoil the child” kind of attitude. Children are to be seen, not to be heard. I think, thank goodness, we’ve swung from that end of the pendulum to the other side of the pendulum now where we really try to do the opposite. But you’re right. That archetype was very dark in the sense of really kind of not allowing children and boys, in particular, to feel safe or to express themselves at all. They learned the boys’ code to shut down really quick, particularly if they had a tyrannical father.

Flood: Right. So, there’s that overemphasis perhaps, and again, fathers got put into this role. I remember growing up with “wait until your father gets home.” It’s like, he’s worked all day and he comes home and now he’s got to discipline the kids type of thing. They [fathers] get categorized as being this person whose job is to provide the roof over the head, food on the table, and clothes, but there wasn’t this huge notion of mother energy, or nurturing, or care, or connection, or affection. There was this needed energy for rules and control and order. But it was maybe an over-emphasis that dads got put into that role. [Kohley: “Exactly. Exactly.”]

Kohley: They were often entrapped by that role. They didn’t know other archetypes. Although I would say the worker archetype really became a way for males to continue to become the provider and the giver, but not wanting to step into that tyrannical role. Ya know? The unhealthy aspect of that fatherhood. I mean, when I look at my dad, I think about him as that worker archetype, of really being there and he worked so hard to provide opportunities for his children that he may not have gotten growing up.

Asserting Authority without Losing Control

Flood: I like to study pendulum swings. When you look at it, we always over-correct. For a period of time, we swing way over and so now we have I think a child-centric culture in some ways where children get to eat what they want, they get to watch what they want. It’s like if the dad’s watching tv and the kid wants to watch cartoons, the dad gets the boot. Ya know? In some households, it’s swung. You work with children where they need a lot of containment, [Kohley: “Correct.”] but I’m wondering if you have experience where you think children need to be dethroned?

Kohley: Yeah. I think when kids are put on the throne perhaps too soon, particularly if they have a harder background, they come from a hard place, they, of course, are going to grab that power. They are going to want to control it, and have it, and keep it.

I remember one time after I got my three adoptive kids and they were maybe six, five, or four, and I took them to Burger King and they had one of those play areas with all the balls and the tubes to crawl through. A couple of my kids were getting into it and were getting out of control and I’m like, “darn, if they were out on this space, I know what I would do with them.” So, I’m like “okay you need to leave, get out right now, and come over by me.” And they refused because they were scared. They were terrified because that’s part of their background. They are always afraid.

And so, this big body—and you know my size—I crawled in there. [Both: Laugh.] I am trying to hopefully not get stuck in these tubes. Anyways, I got them out and I sat there. And I do strong sitting with them because I’m a big believer that before I engage with them cognitively and from the heart, I just, we just need to settle. I use my authority and we’re going to sit and we’re going to do strong sitting.

So, they settle down and I look at them and I say, “Okay what happened?” They each had their story, and they know they’re not just supposed to blame the other, but to say “Wow, I pulled her hair,” or “I slugged him.” Which both happened. I’m like, “okay, good job for telling the truth.” I affirm them for being truth-tellers because they need that safe place to talk about the mistakes that they made, but then the consequence was, the punishment was, they had to stay out longer before they got to reenter.

There was an older couple there; grandparents there with their son. The grandparents witnessed me doing this and they came on over and they were like, “Oh, my gosh! Can you teach our son and daughter-in-law how to do that?” [Laughs.] [Flood: “Right.”] They said, “We just see them never setting boundaries with the kids.” And, we don’t want to be that tyrannical parent, tyrannical masculine father model, but we also want that balance between teaching the kids the safety to be able to say “this is what I did wrong,” and then to help settle them and help them accept the responsibility.

Flood: So, that generation is looking at the kids and saying, I see the kids not having that kind of self-control, not being taught or modeled, and they are just running wild. [Kohley: “Right. Not enough boundaries!”] And there’s just different ways of teaching that to kids. The old way is to induce fear, fear of physical pain as a way of deterring them from doing certain things, but I think the more 21st century is seeing these episodes as opportunities for lessons to be taught or for them to ultimately internalize the lessons, so they see that it’s a better way to live, to live more respectfully, or to live with some more order.

Being Smarter Than Your Kids

Flood: I remember my daughter had this stage where, when she started walking around with her snacks, she just liked to throw stuff on the floor. And she knew where the garbage was. [Kohley: “That’s right.”] There was this “put your stuff in the garbage!” Lots of talking. Didn’t work. Pointing the finger, “put it in the garbage!” Didn’t work. I was like, “Randy, you gotta be smarter than her.”

She was obsessive about keeping her room clean and liked everything tidy and orderly. So, I came up with this idea: every time I found a granola wrapper on the floor, I would take it and put it on her pillow. It drove her crazy! [Kohley: Laughs.] Because then she’d have to go take it there. She wouldn’t throw it down on the floor in her room, then she’d have to put it in the garbage. So then she thought, “I think it’s easier if I just put it in the garbage.”

Kohley: Yes, yes. Smart parenting.

Flood: It’s like out-smarting them, and then helping them understand why we have that rule, and then getting them ultimately to internalize, that is what we are trying to do.

Learning to be a Better Parent

Kohley: Earlier in my career, I was doing workshops, I often got the opportunity to speak to teachers and school professionals. And I went off and asked them, “how many of you have been trained in positive behavioral rewards systems?” And they would all raise their hands. And “what’s the value of that?” They would speak to that eloquently. They just really found it a very valuable tool.

And then I would say, “how many of you also use, as part of a discipline strategy, reprimanding your students?” And they all raised their hands. “How many of you had professional training on how to do a reprimand?” And hardly any hands came up. Because what’s a reprimand? Just a fancy word for scolding. [Laughs.] Ya know, pointing your finger and “stop doing that!” Right? And then I’d ask them, “so where did you learn reprimanding? Where did you learn it from?” “Our parents.”

Flood: That’s the school. We go outside the home to learn how to drive and so many things, but I have found in my life that one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done with virtually little training is parenting.

Kohley: Parenting. Exactly! And why can’t we break that cycle to really systematically begin teaching more flexible, dynamical parenting out of situations, trainings, helping parents practice. Kind of like you did with your daughter! You went from the scolding and you came up with the creative solution. That’s flexible. That’s what we need. Because too often we all get stuck in scolding. I remember one time I had a man in my office, a dad, and I make them practice therapeutic scolding. How do you actually effectively scold? Because it can be a really effective tool, but unfortunately, one of the things that makes it not effective for most parents and for children is parents go on too long.

Flood: It’s overused.

Kohley: It’s overused and [Flood: “It’s a filibuster.”] Yeah! Exactly. On and on and on. And that’s a complaint you hear from kids. And so… [Flood: “Kids’ eyes roll back in their head.”] they’re detached and unattuned and nothing happens. [Flood: “Right.”]

The Art of Effective Scolding

Kohley: I teach a kid how to take a scolding, and I give them the outline, and we talk about it. And I teach a parent how to give the scolding. This dad did it and he was really mad about something the kid had done. He had really, really done a kind of mean and violent behavior towards another sibling.

And so, in the office, he [the dad] started to do it and I give them a cutoff sign because he can go no more than 30 seconds with his anger/frustration about it. Right? I could see him, he’s looking at me, and I’m like, “nope, cut it off!” And he’s got a switch, right? He’s got to take some deep breaths, and then he comes down to the child’s level with a chair, moves in closer, and lowers the voice.

It’s all part of the training. How to practice doing therapeutic scolding. And all of a sudden, it was just really amazing, because he started getting tears in his eyes. And then he started to say, “I hate being so mad at you “and “I grew up where I had to be the perfect kid. I could never act out, I could never, …” [Flood: “Because what happened to him?”] Well, he didn’t go into that too much.

It was just the piece that he felt that he had to be the perfect kid and so then he was doing the same thing with this kid. Who isn’t perfect. Who is acting out a lot. [Flood: “Of course not.”] Out of fear. [Flood: “Right.”] He got tearful and then you could just see the kid’s eyes all of a sudden with the connection. Softening. The kid’s shoulders soften, and the face softens, and the kid was connecting with the dad. And I think that is really what is so needed now in terms of that balance.

Establishing Authority and Healthy Boundaries

Kohley: It’s okay for us to be mad and angry and frustrated with our kids and to express those feelings, but they also need us to modulate those feelings. They need us to demonstrate emotional regulation so that we shift out of that. [Flood: “Right. Yeah.”] But we’re not very good at doing that. We’re not trained how to do it. Because what we often do, we can’t stay angry. Nobody can stay angry, angry, angry, [Laughs.] [Flood: “Some people can.” Laughs.] Well, yeah. But most people …

And then you start to soften with your kid and you’re like, “wouldn’t it be so much easier if you’d just done it this way in the beginning? We wouldn’t be into all of this conflict. But every time …” That’s what we do. We start to come down and we spike back up. And we keep spiking. And what happens is the kids don’t see us calming down, they only see the spikes. They only see us angry.

Flood: My granddaughter’s two and a half, and she’s just experiencing her ability to be aggressive, and that she can hit. And so, she’s like, just impulsively sometimes will just hit me and I’ll grab her hand and just kind of hold it tightly and speak very firmly: “You may not hit Bapa,” and look her right in the eyes and she just starts weeping, “I want hugs, I want hugs!” And then we do nice hands and I say “if you want to hit something”—and I show her the pillow and I smack the pillow—you can hit the pillow or whatever, but you can’t hit Bapa.” And it’s just a sweet moment when she realizes that, this is not acceptable and she doesn’t really want to hurt Bapa.

Kohley: But she was attuned to your authority and to your boundary. And then she also was attuned knowing you were going to get to that sweet part and connection. That’s the piece! That whole piece. It can’t just be we scold a kid and then walk away. We have to modulate ourselves and come down and connect. And so many parents tell me, and dads tell me, well particularly dads tell me, “I don’t know what to say to the kid.” And I’m like, “that’s okay. Tell your kid that.” [Flood: “Start there.”] Yeah, that you don’t know what to say.

And what I tell the fathers, in particular, is what’s more important is your nonverbals. Because they see you and unconsciously, they see you going from being angry and upset to sad and disappointed, but now they see that shift in a calmer way, in a nonthreatening way. That speaks more than any perfect words you can say or any lessons you can give in that moment.

Do Kids Need More Discipline?

Flood: I just want to see if you have a position or an opinion based on your clinical experience, your fathering experience, or what you’ve read about people who are listening today and saying what kids really need is more discipline. Because we live in this child-centric world, where they’re running wild and don’t have any discipline. What about the person who says spankings are what we need to do and that’s what kids need? What would you say to that in terms of what you know about that and how it can work but …

Kohley: Certainly, professionally, if I am working with kids who have any history of trauma, I do not endorse corporal punishment, because in my book it contributes to a strong likelihood for a re-traumatization of the child. And it is just not effective. You may end up getting a kid to behave but they’re only behaving because they are terrified. It’s all fear-based. And it’s not behaving because they want to please you, because they want to connect with you.

Flood: What about the internalization lesson? If it doesn’t get internalized as much?

Kohley: Oh, it internalizes. Particularly with kids who are already traumatized. They already have the internalizations of “I’m a bad kid,” “I’m not worthy,” “I wasn’t good enough to be kept by my birth parents,” whatever… And then you throw in that type of discipline and it just reinforces that. It’s all of their yuck and now their parents are angry at them. It’s just, “See they really don’t like me. They don’t love me. They are probably going to get rid of me sooner or later.” And that is not an uncommon internalization for kids; even, I think, in families without kids who come from traumatized backgrounds. It is the right for parents to use corporal punishment; I don’t find it necessarily overall that effective.

Strong, Smart Parenting

Kohley: You have to have the whole tools. You gotta have effective scolding. You gotta have the creative solutions like you came up with your daughter. There’s just so many ways.

But to me, it’s all about whatever that contact is at from an attachment perspective, is that there’s a mis-attunement, the kid acts out, and then there needs to become a re-attunement. And I think that’s the value of the feminine parenting side of things. Focusing always on connection and repair. That’s the beauty. And I grew up with that. My wife really taught me in terms of step-parenting that I needed to focus on the repair side of things. Because I didn’t have the authority as the parent, as a step-dad.

Flood: It’s not just exclusively mothering energy.

What I always found helpful is to ask the question, “why is my child acting out?” Because if you can answer that question, you often can solve the problem. Because there can be so many reasons why they’re acting out. They’re just little humans that can’t make sense of the world and they have these strong emotions and they’re sleep-deprived, or they’re hungry, or they’re exploring their power, or whatever it might be.

I remember my daughter realized she could get out of her crib and she was walking. We didn’t have a daybed for her yet. She’s not going to bed because she can scale her crib and she would walk out in the living room like “I’m not going to bed,” and I’m like, “Anna, it’s bedtime.” Pick her up. Carry her. Put her back to bed. Guess how many times I did that? Thirty-six the first night. [Kohley: “Wow! Only 30!”] Thirty-six the first night. Second night it was like down in the teens, and then by three or four days, three or four nights she was trained. She knew that it wasn’t gonna work.

Now, I could’ve beat her ass the first night and maybe would’ve been successful. And, I look at the toolbox of parenting, right? I could use the two-pound hammer the first night or I could get out the allen wrenches and do some different things and tweaks, and ultimately, she learned that Dad’s got authority and he decides when I go to bed, not me. And it did it in a non-violent way.

Kohley: There always are underlying dynamics and sometimes it’s great when we can get to the why’s. But I think parents also need to be prepared that they may not know the why and we gotta just help them get through the moment and in non-violent ways but in strong ways. Do the parenting. Do the fathering.

“Raising Jake”: A Star Trek Model for Fathering

Flood: You’re a Trekkie. I remember talking to you about a model of fathering that you thought was exhibited in one of the characters.

Kohley: That was when I was doing the step-parenting in the ’90s when Deep Space 9 came out. One of the main characters was Captain Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks. I just really fell in love with him as both the captain and how he had to make all of the tough decisions and he also had this incredible gentle side of him. Particularly, as a single parent with his son Jake on board. It was just a beautiful. And he was an African American doing this, and you think back then, and the role modeling. It was just fantastic.

I saw a documentary a while back on it and a little kid asked Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko, “what was your favorite mission on Deep Space 9?” And he said, “raising Jake.” [Flood: “Wow.”] Yeah. And that was, if you go back and look at that series, besides dealing with all the political/cultural issues that they dealt with, they also presented him, I thought as an excellent father archetype.

Flood: And what a great way to send a message to 21st-century fathers. It’s like we have lots of missions in life, whether you’re gonna be a trial lawyer, or a scientist, and what have you, but what a great mission to embrace. Being a dad. The beauty and challenge of that and the openness that I think 21st-century dads have today.

I think of my relationship with my son and being able to be more affectionate. Because the old-school fathering was, “you get off my lap and go bruise up your knees a little bit. You don’t need to be pampered with me.” But just to be able to have that affection and it continues today, he’s 32 and I can still give him a big ol’ kiss and hug, and just the freedom that comes with being able to embrace the nurturing side, not just the discipline side of parenting.

Kohley: And, to embrace our failures. What we did well, and what we didn’t.

The Best Father’s Day Gift

Kohley: I had some of my kids around my dinner table for Father’s Day and I asked them, “what did I do well? What didn’t I do well?”

Flood: What a great question.

Kohley: And certainly, one of the things they said I didn’t do well was when I got angry with them, I got too close to them. And I invaded their space at times. And I’m like, yeah, I can see myself doing that! But then, I also got a text from one of my other kids and he said, I can’t remember exactly how it went, but he said, “Good sir, even though you have parented six kids and none of your own loin,” [Laughs: “which is true.”] he said, “I am very glad that I was one of the ones to be fathered by you [Flood: “Nice.”] and that I know that you loved us and were committed to us.” So that was just a sweet text.

Flood: The best gift you could ever have on Father’s Day, huh? Those sentiments.

Support for Being a Better Father

Today’s fathers are expected to fulfill traditional roles (provide food, shelter, and clothing) and to be more fully involved in the parenting of their children. This demands strength, engagement, empathy, patience, and teamwork. Men often feel inadequate in meeting all these expectations: for some, frustrations emerge in anger and externalizing behaviors including drinking, workaholism, emotional abuse, and even domestic violence. Others may secretly struggle with feelings of inadequacy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the responsibilities of fatherhood or just want guidelines on how to be a better father, the Men’s Resource Center can help. Our Nurturing Dads support group provides relationship help for men by teaching them the skills they need to be firm but loving fathers. In addition, we offer anger management counseling and online men’s support groups that can provide a wealth of shared knowledge and experience.  For more information about any of these programs, please contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call us at (616) 456-1178. In addition, if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast, let us know.