What Kids Need Most From Their Dad: Interview with David Thomas, L.M.S.W.

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It is such an honor to have you here on the Minno Life blog. Tell us a bit about why you became a counselor and specifically, a counselor for kids and young people.

I think I was drawn to this work early on. I spent the summers of my college years working at a camp for elementary-aged children. I was the staff member who kept getting called in to talk with kids who were homesick, needed to talk about their parent’s divorce or some other unique place they were struggling. It came naturally to me to just sit with kids in hard places. Looking back, I think I had those kinds of conversations with friends through middle school and high school. God was clearly preparing me for a lifetime of this work in developing those opportunities and skills throughout my growing up years.

I love working with children. They are naturally curious, and open to learning, growing, and changing. We sadly lose that curiosity and openness to change as we grow up. Think about all the phrases that speak to that reality – “stuck in his ways” or “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” That’s just not true of children, and the hunger to learn and grow is a gift.

What do you see in your practice is the greatest top-of-mind issue facing parents of boys today? Why?

Without a doubt, the greatest challenge is helping boys develop emotionally. Girls have a more expansive emotional vocabulary from early on, and an easier time articulating their experience. This is much harder for boys. They get roadblocked more easily and their emotions come out sideways. It’s why preschool-aged boys are more prone to biting, hitting, and screaming. It’s why elementary-aged boys begin channeling all primary emotions into anger around 9-10 years old. Anger is a secondary emotion and they struggle to get to the fear, sadness, or whatever else may be underneath. It’s why adolescent boys lead the statistics around substance abuse, internet pornography, gaming addictions, and suicide. Those are all destructive paths for avoidance or numbing emotions. 

I believe the greatest crisis facing boys and males of all ages is the ability to name your feelings and take them to something constructive. It’s why adult men lead the statistics for infidelity, substance abuse, pornography, and suicide. This challenge and the spillover effect is why it felt so important to write Are My Kids on Track? – to define the emotional milestones boys need to move toward, and how to help them get there. We talk about milestones like muscles. No matter how weak the muscle may be, whatever age your son (or husband) is, the muscle can get stronger. Developing these muscles is some of the most important work we want to be about as parents.

What simple, easy-to-implement advice would you give today’s parents of boys? 

Help him develop an emotional vocabulary and healthy coping skills for navigating the discomfort of life. It’s a universal experience. Scripture speaks to this repeatedly. This is one of the most foundational needs a boy has and sadly is one of the lowest priorities for many parents. I wish parents gave the time and passion they gave to youth sports to helping boys develop emotionally and spiritually. I can’t imagine how different this world would be if they did. 

I also challenge parents to think about the ways they engage boys in the every day – talking, teaching, discipline, and coaching. I talk often about a full sensory approach to engaging boys that I outline in my book, Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. I talk about how boys are primarily tactile, kinesthetic, visual, spatial, and experiential learners. Notice that nowhere in that list do I name him as an auditory learner. We spend too much time talking at and talking to boys with very little of that talk landing on him. The full sensory approach is a better way of making sure he’s making connections.  

As a dad, what have you found to be the biggest difference between raising boys and girls?

The biggest difference is how they respond to my engagement. My daughter is relationally-wired. I used to pick her up from elementary school on Fridays, and we’d go to a coffee shop in our neighborhood and order chocolate chip cookies and read chapter books together. We’d talk about her week, her friendships, the books we were reading together, and everything else imaginable. She’s in college now, but when I visit her on campus, we still go to coffee shops and talk for long periods of time about those things.

With my sons, we talk around tasks. When they were young, we built Legos, forts, and tents. We talked around those projects. That grew into shooting hoops, walking the family dog, hiking, and any other opportunity to talk while we were in motion. Boys have some of their best conversations side to side, where girls are much more likely to talk face to face. 

These are all just reminders of the unique ways God hard-wired our kids in remarkable ways. Our job as parents is simply to parent more in tandem with their hard-wiring. It’s part of why we talk about the importance of understanding development in every class we teach and every book we write at Raising Boys and Girls.

Can you tell us the two to three things girls need most from their dads?

Years ago, I read an extraordinary book by Kelly Corrigan, called The Middle Place. In the introduction of that book, she talked about her relationship with her father. They had a beautiful, connected relationship that shaped so much of who she was and still is. She spoke about her father in this way.

He makes me feel smart, funny and beautiful, which has become the job of the few men who have loved me since. He told me once that I was a great talker. And so I was. I was a conversationalist, along with creative, a notion he put in my head when I was in grade school and used to make huge, intricate collages from his old magazines. He defined me first as parents do. Those early characterizations can become the shimmering self-image we embrace or the limited stifling perception we rail against for a lifetime. In my case, he sees me as I would like to be seen. In fact, I’m not even sure what’s true about me, since I have always chosen to believe his version

I remember reading those words and weeping. It was a sobering reminder I held the power to name my daughter throughout her life, not just at birth. I hope those words challenge every father to handle that power with care. What a wonderful and weighty responsibility. I don’t believe any man is capable of carrying that challenge well unless he has done his own work. 

We talk throughout Are My Kids on Track? about how we can only take the kids we love as far as we’ve gone ourselves. If we want our kids to grow in their ability to regulate their emotions, for example, it starts with assessing our own ability to regulate emotions. Kids learn more from observation than information. Robert Fulgham once said,

“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”  

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DAVID THOMAS, L.M.S.W., is the Director of Family Counseling at Daystar Counseling in Nashville, TN, the co-author of eight books, including the best-selling Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys and Are My Kids on Track? The 12 Emotional, Social & Spiritual Milestones Your Child Needs to Reach. He is a frequent guest on national television and podcasts, including his own with Sissy Goff and Melissa Trevathan called Raising Boys and Girls, has been featured in publications such as USA Today, and speaks across the country. He and his wife, Connie, have a daughter, twin sons, and a feisty yellow lab named Owen. You can follow him on social media @raisingboysandgirls and find the latest parenting resources at Raising Boys and Girls.