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Model Behavior
A Dad Around the House Is Not Necessary for Sons to Grow Up to Become Good Dads

by Timothy A. Nelson

         Our researchers have found that dads are taking the Home Depot approach and using a variety of resources in learning how to be dads.  According to study findings presented in August 2008 at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference by several of our staff psychologists in Chicago, it appears it really does take a community to raise a child – and a man – to become a good dad.  Men are using more resources, including popular how-to approaches, than simply what they gleaned from their own father for guidance in becoming a good dad.  In fact, more men say they learned what they need to be a good father from their mother and their male friends than they do from dear old dad.

         “It’s a popular myth that men who grow up without a father present in the home feel they’ve received less guidance and, therefore, view themselves as doing a lesser job with their own kids,” says Carroll Cradock, director of Behavioral Health Services for Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center and lead author of the study.  “We found that those fathers felt just as positively about how they’re doing as dads as those who were raised with a father in the home to model after.”

         Cradock and her colleagues, Michael Horowitz and Scott Leon, say the team surveyed 254 employed fathers from a wide range of ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds to find out how they learned to do their most important job – raise their own children.  The respondents, which included both dads who had been raised with and without a dad present, identified several influences on them above and beyond the modeled behavior of their own dads. These included good memories from their own childhood, their mothers, experiences taken from raising a first child, their children’s behavior and their friends and co-workers – both male and female.

         “Many fathers, whether they had a dad around or not, use the Home Depot approach to learning,” Cradock says. “I call it HOOP learning – Hanging Out On Purpose. They know there’s something they need to know, so they look around to observe and pick up from those they are closest to.”

         Cradock says one dad took advantage of his evening work schedule to visit his child’s daycare center.  There, he watched to see which teachers the young ones listened to most closely and used those modeled behaviors to speak to his own child. Another man said he watched his brother interact with his children while he was expecting a child of his own.

         “These men used the resources around them to learn what they needed to know, when they needed it.  Where a mother-to-be may read all the childcare and pre- and post-natal instruction books, men will look for what’s immediately available at the moment.  They tend to be more task-focused and skill-based when it comes to childrearing.  They’ll approach it much in the way they would the construction of a new deck or light installation.  They gravitate to the person who has that specific, experience-based knowledge for the project, modeling their behaviors.”

         The results of the study led the researchers to the conclusion that, to help build strong fathers, more focus is needed on building stronger communities, in the neighborhood and the workplace. “Since it does take a village to help create a strong father, fathers need to be provided with more opportunities to apply the HOOP learning process within their communities – churches, community centers and social groups to provide more learning experiences for dads – groups to share experiences, not necessarily classes,” says Cradock.

         “And employers should be providing more support for fathers to come together to learn from one another.  The key is not that you need a father figure to base your own actions on, but that you need a variety of influences and the resilience to be a good dad.”

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Timothy A. Nelson is manager of public relations at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.

 Pillow Talk
Pay Attention to the Light Shed by Your Children’s Dreams

By Valerie Andrews

        According to psychiatrist Carl Jung, dreams are links to the grand scheme of evolution.  That’s why our kids’ most common dreams are about swimming, flying, running and other ways of propelling their bodies through space.  In the dream world, ontology recapitulates phylogeny – meaning that the unconscious runs through the whole script of Darwinian development from fin to rotating femur. 

        Dreams about animals are common in childhood. When humans lived close to nature, dreams helped young people to deal with lions, tigers and bears, and to understand their immediate environment.  For urbanites, animal dreams represent our instincts, our “fight of flight” response, and the primitive “yes” or “no” we get in the gut when we are facing the unknown. 

        According to evolutionary psychologists, nightmares also have an important function: They warn children that we are not living in a perfect world, and they activate their own “danger detection” systems in the same manner as our Grimm-est fairy tales.  To tell us what’s friendly and worth moving toward.  And what people or situations we should quickly run away from, because they threaten our well-being or self-interest.  

        So don’t wave off or dismiss your children’s dreams as irrational fears or undecipherable flights of fancy.  Take some time to listen to them, and you’ll find that they contain valuable information about the tests and challenges of growing up.

        As a child, Jung dreamt of a large phallic structure emerging from the center of the earth.  He identified this all-powerful figure as the Man-Eater and associated it with a vengeful God.  The son of a country parson, Jung was wary of organized religion, and this childhood dream set him on his path.  He’d spend the rest of his life developing psychoanalysis as a modern-day alternative.

        So there you have it: Children’s dreams can shed light on our unfolding destiny.  But most dreams don’t function as a kind of soul X-ray or Kuder preference test.  The best reason for paying attention to our children’s night-time narratives is to find out what they need from us at this particular stage of their development.

        Dr. Gillian Holloway, author of The Complete Dream Book and Dreaming Insights, says that, when children dream about monsters under their beds or spiders covering their bodies, they are very likely upset about a change in the family situation; the anxiety that attends the arrival of a new sibling may come out in an insect or monster dream.  Your child won’t be able to make the connection; it is after all, unconscious – a message from the portion of the psyche that is in the dark.  But you will be able to – if you take the time to listen and consider this in context. 

        You may respond rationally and logically to a child’s nightmare (“I’ve got a flash light.  See?  There’s nothing under the bed”).  But it’s also good to consider what changes your child may be facing in real life.  Is a situation causing some anxiety?  (“How do you feel about our new home?”  “About your new baby brother?” “Do you like your new teacher?”)  Dreams show how a child is responding to change; they may reflect a child’s response to a specific rite of passage, like coping with a divorce, an illness or death in the family.  And they may be especially active or intense during the big “step-up” from elementary to middle school.

        When a young child dreams of being pursued by animals, this may indicate a fear of a specific person, says Holloway.  Perhaps a relative or authority figure who yells or raises their voice too often.  Here, a little careful questioning may reveal the source of the disturbance, and you can take steps to correct it.

        Finally, your child’s dreams may reflect the fact that you are under stress.  Though you may try to keep your financial or marital problems from the kids, they have an uncanny way of tapping into the family dynamic.

        As one family therapist friend put it, “the unconscious is a sponge.”  She reminded me of a famous case in the annals of psychology where a boy walked through the house wrapping string around the furniture and tying all the different pieces together – linking table legs to chairs.  It turned out the parents were on the verge of separating.  They had said nothing to the child, not wanting to distress him.  But of course he sensed the change at home.  The wrapping of the furniture was the boy’s way of trying to weave his family back together.  

        How can you spot distress signals in your child’s dreams?  Be alert to dreams where ordinary objects in the home are falling apart or in need or repair.  If you’re going through a stressful time, don’t be surprised if your kid’s dreams are a little rocky as well.  Often kids can’t tell you what’s making them anxious, but you can get some idea from the general tone of their dreams.  And then find appropriate ways to reassure them. 

        How do you start the dialogue?  Just ask, casually, if they remember their dreams.  Show an interest if they do, but don’t pounce on these images or try to offer an interpretation.  Just listen carefully.  Watch out for dreams about monsters and bugs, of being chased by animals or people.  And ask if your child feels uncomfortable in other situations.

        If you’re unsure what a dream image means, take some time to marinate it, to see what “feeling tone” it would evoke in you, if it came from your dream.  If the answer is anxiety, fear or powerlessness, you can ask how these feelings show up in other areas of a child’s life.  You also might plan an activity – say, a sport or game that provides a sense of mastery and accomplishment – anything that gives your child a greater sense of balance and control. 

        If the whole family is facing a life challenge, choose an activity that reinforces collaboration and draws on each member’s special brand of creativity.  This can be something as ambitious as going on a camping trip or painting a room or as simple as making a meal together.  The idea is to provide the skill that’s lacking in the dream world, to give your children’s psyches what they need to feel safe and whole and to cope with the situation on their own.

        As the poet Delmore Schwartz once said, “In dreams begin responsibilities…”  Our duty is to help our children develop their innate resilience and develop coping mechanisms of their own.

        One last thought: Be alert to your dreams about your children, for they may also contain valuable insights and intuitions.   In his very early writings, Freud suggested that a mother might remain connected to her child by a psychic umbilicus.  In short, the father of psychoanalysis, who broke with Jung over his belief in the occult, was suggesting there was such a thing as parental ESP!

        I have no major studies to cite on this one.  But I do have an intriguing anecdote.  A friend dreamt her son was struggling at school but his grades were solid.  After careful questioning, she discovered he was being bullied by a classmate.  The dream as ESP or common sense?  Who knows?  But if a child’s unconscious is capable of picking up what’s going on within the family, your unconscious is also capable of picking up on things that may be threatening your child.

        There’s a positive side to this as well. Dreams can also help you appreciate your child’s special gifts..

        One night my husband had a bad flu and I found myself sleeping in my stepson’s room that was lined with skateboard trophies.  At age 12, he was already winning competitions and experiencing the joys of “getting air.”  As I slept in his bed that night, I dreamt I was flying through space on a skateboard – with complete and absolute control of where I landed.  Talk about a sense of mastery!

        I suddenly “got” why my stepson loved this sport.  The dream felt like a direct Dharmic transmission, a Vulcan mind-meld.  His unconscious was telling me how wild and wonderful it felt to propel yourself into the unknown and then come down exactly where you hoped to be. 

        When I told my stepson about this experience, he smiled and said, “That’s what I dream every night.

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Guest author Valerie Andrews has written about psychology for WebMD, Healthscout, Vogue and Esquire.  As the founder of Sacred Words, she has taught seminars on dreaming and navigating life transitions.  Her forthcoming novel – Finnegan’s Awake – explores the relationship of words and dreams.  It features a talking dog, a clairvoyant cat, James Joyce and Jane Austen. 

     Her other writing credits include The Business of Changing Lives: How One Company Took the Information Highway to the Inner City, a book that features contests and educational programs on the Internet (a collaboration with Internet pioneer Allan Weis), A Passion for this Earth: Toward a  New Partnership of Man, Woman and Nature and The Psychic Power of Running: How the Body can Illuminate the Mysteries of the Mind.  Andrews has contributed to two PBS documentaries for teens, PowerShift and Nourish, about the global energy and food systems.

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