An Aussie dad raised to be tough, but knowing he wants to be affectionate, asks the question.
My dad was not very affectionate towards me when I was a kid.
Don’t get me wrong: he wasn’t one of those cold, unfeeling dads who put a distance between himself and his kids. He was just an unemotional father, who came from a generation when dads were meant to be tough and not show too many feelings.
When it came to kisses and hugs and all that physical display of affection stuff, Mum was the one to go to, particularly for me, the only boy child.
Now, of course, this also means that I came from a generation when dads were meant to be undemonstrative. After all, my generation was raised by his.
But although we were raised to be tough, the overall culture we grew up in was different. Over the last few decades, expectations of fatherhood have changed.
This sets up a bit of a conflict for me. I know it’s right to be affectionate with my kids, but because of how I was raised, I still feel a little hesitant about it.
How affectionate should I be?
I am physically affectionate with my kids. I hug them, I kiss them, I reach over to pat them on the leg or ruffle their hair when I feel they could use some reassurance. From the very start, I made it a habit to squeeze my little ‘uns tight and make sure they never felt detached from their father.
But even now when I hug my daughter, I wonder if she’s silently wishing I wouldn’t. If I give my son a kiss, I can’t help worrying that maybe he finds it cringeworthy.
It’s a tough thing, worrying that you might be distressing your child by showing your love, but I can’t help fretting.
There has to be a limit, doesn’t there? There’s got to be a point when a parent’s affection becomes suffocating for a kid.
But how much is too much? Pull back too far, and you’re one of those stereotypical fathers I mentioned earlier: the stern patriarch teaching the children that emotion is weakness. Don’t pull back enough, and you’re the weird dad.
When does one become the ‘weird dad’?
You know the weird dad. He’s the one who still kisses his kids goodbye at the school gate when they’re seventeen.
He’s the one who sits teenagers on his knee at family gatherings and wants his daughters to call him “daddy” well into middle age.
The weird dad hovers around little kids, never wanting to let them out of his reach, always dragging them away from toys and games and books for one more cuddle.
You don’t want to be the weird dad. The weird dad, apart from creeping everyone out and ruining playtime, puts his own need for affection well ahead of his kids’ happiness.
Sometimes, I think, we all feel a little bit of a pull towards weird dadness, but we know we shouldn’t give in.
My solution: think about what I wanted as a kid
Like a lot of questions about fatherhood, I think the key to knowing how affectionate you should be can be found in our own childhoods.
When we think back, we remember how our dads were – whether loving, harsh or somewhere in between – and we remember how we wanted them to be.
Think about what you needed when you were a kid, whether you got it or not.
Put yourself in your kids’ shoes: when does a little girl or boy most need a hug? When will a display of affection comfort them, and when will it embarrass them?
You have the heart of a child still inside you, if only you can access it.
It’s all about what you want to teach your kids
Remember that, however you choose to show your emotions, you’re teaching your kids how to show theirs.
What sort of relationship to their own feelings do you want your kids to develop? If they have kids, how do you want them to show affection to the next generation?
In all likelihood, you want to teach your kids that affection is nothing to fear, no matter whether you’re a man or a woman.
You want to teach them that there’s nothing un-manly about showing someone you love that you love them.
You want to teach them that if they stumble across anyone saying that “real men” don’t hug or kiss, that person is wrong.
But you also want to teach them that their dad puts their feelings first at all times.
Maybe you learnt those lessons when you were little. Maybe it took many years to figure it out. Either way, you hope your children will learn them the easy way.
It can be complicated, navigating the paths of appropriate displays of affection, but I say the rule of thumb is: when in doubt, hug.
Remember, you’ve got a limited number of hugs you’ll get to give out during your lifetime: you don’t want to miss out on any of them.