A Father’s Role in Developing a Healthy Self-Image

by Ashley Solomon

I don’t like to limit my aspirations, but I have accepted that I will never be a father. And thank goodness for small blessings – they have quite a job. Just like mothers, fathers are responsible for helping their children develop into educated, respectful, and self-sufficient adults while balancing demanding careers, potentially challenging marriages, and (hopefully) personal growth needs (read: achieving the highest score in Wii bowling). Meanwhile, a father has the added burden of knowing just what the just a bit too suave sixteen-year-old guy is thinking as he puts his hand dangerously close to his daughter’s bottom… Fatherhood is clearly complicated business.

One of the many tasks with which dads are charged, a challenging one at best, is to help their children develop a healthy relationship with their bodies and selves. In a culture consumed with the Keira Knightlys and Adrian Petersons of the world (and of them there are few…), this task can feel Sisyphean – reminiscent of Greek mythology’s king who was forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to repeatedly watch it roll back down. For eternity.

Fortunately, experts on such matters can provide some guidance. One of these experts is Margo Maine, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who has studied father-daughter relationships extensively and written my hands-down favorite eating disorder-related book (and that, my friend, is quite an endorsement!), Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness. While Dr. Maine focuses particularly on girls and dads, I am going to try to generalize her guidance for fathers of both genders. Here are a few of her main points (and my explanations):

1. Teach your child to say no and set limits. In my opinion, no lesson is more important than that of respecting one’s self. When you are no longer around to protect your children from the pressures that be, a healthy sense of their own rights and boundaries will be the key. This means helping children understand what belongs to them – their bodies, their ideas, their passions – and that they have the right to assert themselves when someone attempts to violate or belittle these.

2. Help your child develop values other than consumerism. Not to sound like a grandma here, but today’s world is just little bit different. Getting caught up in the newest, flashiest, and trendiest is hard to avoid. Help your child see beyond the surface by demonstrating the value you place on what’s deeper – things like nature, friendship, volunteering, and real-time (and real person) communication

3. Show interest in his/her activities. So maybe your child doesn’t share your fondness for all that is Meatloaf. Or you just can’t understand what’s so appealing about vampires. To close the gap, push yourself to step into his or her world and keep an open mind (isn’t open-mindedness another value you want to promote?). You may discover your beloved 80’s rock bands are now center stage on Glee.

4. Show respect for real people of substance. Instead of discussing the latest multi-million dollar contract of the NBA rookie or how many plastic surgeries Heidi has really had, spend some time talking about real role models – Lisa Ling, Blake Mycoskie (founder and CEO of TOMS Shoes) , or your grandmother who marched for civil rights. And have open discussions when former role models (ahem, Tiger…) fall from grace.

5. Watch what you say about others’ bodies. This applies to celebrities, strangers, and those close to you (this includes your wife). I can’t tell you how many times I have overheard fathers making comments about the “chick with the nice butt” (or worse – use your imagination) across the room with their children in earshot. Even if it’s your son, remember that your daughter could be dating a guy like him one day. Consider what such messages communicate. Do you really want your daughter’s boyfriend speaking like that?

6. Examine your own weight, eating, or body image issues. Yes, fathers have issues too. Are you critical of your lack of locks up top? Feeling pressure to lose the gut? Take note of the thoughts and feelings you have about your own appearance and then consider how these might be being relayed to your children. Work on making peace with your looks so that they can be at peace with theirs.

7. Become more media-literate. And my favorite… Help your child understand the fantasy world that is the media. Young people (and old, for that matter) often have a hard time separating reality from the “truth” of the image in front of them. Remind your child that images (s)he sees on the billboard or movie trailer are retouched, airbrushed, or sometimes even completely computer generated. Help make your child a more critical consumer

And one last note… Remember that you are up against incredible forces – jealous peers, the weight loss and fitness industries, and Hollywood, to name a few. Expect that your children will struggle with seeing themselves as quite as beautiful and amazing as you see them. Just keep reminding them every day. Even if they forget, they won’t.

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2 Comments to “A Father’s Role in Developing a Healthy Self-Image”

  1. Awsome Ashley, You are so special to me. This is great stuff. Love Ya

  2. I remember driving somewhere with my dad once when I was in 2nd grade, and I was trying to tell him about an incident in school, and how I didn’t like this one guy in my class, and I was only just starting my story when my dad stopped me and said, “Big people talk about ideas. Average people talk about things. Little people talk about other people. I don’t want you to be a little person.”

    That’s one of my favorite quotes to this day, and something I strive to remember all the time. It’s just one of the many great things that my dad taught me. 🙂

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