First-Time Dads: Learning From Your Father’s Mistakes

Despite good intentions, all men make mistakes that affect their kids. It is wise to consider what we’ve learned from our dad, and how it may influence our own fathering.

By the time actor Michael Douglas married Diandra Luker in 1977, the son of  screen legend Kirk Douglas was already a TV star. The dashing couple gave birth to a son, Cameron, just one year later.

Michael’s career really took off in 1984 when he starred in the hit movie Romancing the Stone. Douglas was already famous, but now he was rich and in demand. He soon found himself on the road and on the set far more than at home. Although he didn’t divorce Diandra until 2000, the two basically lived separate lives, and their son, Cameron, was raised in a single-parent home. Michael struggled with alcohol and drugs and entered rehab in 1992.

Not every child from a single-parent home abuses drugs and alcohol, but Michael’s son Cameron did – and he found himself in and out of rehabilitation programs starting at age 13.

I’m sure Cameron Douglas didn’t think he’d have the same problems as his dad. Cameron was raised with nearly every advantage imaginable: a great house, excellent education, exciting travel and every toy and gadget he wanted. What he was missing was something money can’t buy – a full-time father. When Cameron was on trial for illegal drug use, the elder Douglas said his family’s fame and history of substance abuse helped drive his son into drug addiction and crime.

But Judge Richard Berman discounted such reasons and pronounced a stern judgment. “Get beyond and get over that idea … that Cameron Douglas is a victim,” Berman said.

Victim of circumstances, of his own poor choices – or is Cameron Douglas a tragic example of what happens when a father fails to model life skills and pass along values to live by?

Yearning for Dad

Many men struggle to break free of a hard life. For Cameron Douglas, a combination of an absent father, a family history of drugs and alcohol, and a series of bad choices left him with a prison sentence and plenty of time to evaluate his life. If one day he marries and has children, Cameron will have to break the chain of difficulty that has wrapped itself around his life. He will need to figure out a way to deal with his past and face the present in a healthier way – for his sake and that of his kids.

Many individuals can identify with at least some of the fractured Douglas heritage. We may have had a hard-driving dad who expected a lot from us. Perhaps our father was not around much and did not connect emotionally with his children.  We tend to approach parenting as we experienced it. As we grow up, we assemble a collection of tools, and when we have children of our own, we reach into that toolbox and use those tools  with our children. That’s a truth we need to consider.

Whether we grew up with a loving father or not, every parent is human. Despite good intentions, all men make mistakes that affect their kids. Every one of us takes baggage into our adult lives. These affect our parenting, so it is wise to consider what we’ve learned from our dad, and how it may influence our own fathering.

As sons, like it or not, we learn our approach to parenting from our parents – especially our dad. As we grow up, we mimic him in many ways. We watch him shave, and we shave like he did. We see him fixing a broken dryer, and we learn at his side about mechanical things. When we have kids of our own, we’ll tend to be a lot like our dad – for the good and for the bad.

Consciously or not, you and I grab hold of our father’s parenting style. It’s what we use as a template for our own parenting. If there were good interactions and attitudes, we copied them and have those in our parenting toolbox. If Dad brought a thoughtful, calm and caring approach, I’ll likely emulate him. If he took time to be with me, I’ll likely do the same with my kids. If he yelled a lot, my children will probably often hear me raise my voice. If he was absent or angry or distant, I’ll naturally be like that with my children. You and I receive a heritage from our father that we, in turn, incorporate into our own parenting.

My Own Life

My dad has many wonderful traits. He was fun, principled, and supportive. He was an advocate for his kids and stood up for us whenever there was a problem at school or in the neighborhood.
I recall one meeting he had with a music teacher who made disparaging comments about me – to the entire class. She really embarrassed me, and Dad took her to task.

Another time when I was about 9, Dad  started a Little League alternative for boys who, like me, didn’t qualify for a baseball team in the more competitive league. He watched out for me, and I’ve tried to emulate that value in my fathering journey.

Fortunately, I’ve not had to confront a teacher for unprofessional conduct, but I have had to talk with an adult for inappropriately criticizing one of my kids. That desire to protect and defend my children is inside me because I saw my own father model those values.

Nobody is Perfect

If good parenting values can be caught and taught, it makes sense that not-so-healthy habits might also become part of our routine.

I learned from my father to use my voice to express anger. Raise the volume, increase the intensity and be forceful … and you’ve got a common reaction to mistakes, irritations and such in our home.

Despite my best wishes, I found early in our marriage – and even more as a new dad – that whenever I was angry I sounded a lot like my father. Even mild irritation came out with a strong verbal barrage. It took a few years for me to recognize this pattern (despite my wife’s best efforts) and to try to tone things down.

A colleague tells the story of his own father, a wonderful man but a guy with a very reserved, methodical manner. He was fun, but quiet. When my friend married a woman from a loud and spirited family, he was often ribbed for being too button-downed. But why shouldn’t he be? To him, that was the definition of a good, responsible father. What he saw in his wife’s family was zaniness. “I can’t tell you how often I’m reminded to lighten up!” he says.

When it comes to inheriting parenting habits, the good will always come with the bad, and the bad will always come with the good. The secret is to make the right choices. Look back. Try to identify patterns. Take a piece of paper and write the top five good things your parents did – and then five things you didn’t like. There’s a good chance you’ll do a little of both.
Especially if you need to break the chain, becoming self-aware is the ke

When Dad is Divorced

Of all the negative influences affecting today’s dads, divorce is probably the most pervasive and most serious. The statistics about divorce and children are sobering in several ways.

Divorce affects a startling number of children. According to a 2002 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of first marriages last less than 10 years. And if the couple was cohabiting and not married, the chance that they’d stay together for even three years dropped to less than one in three. Second marriages were even less likely to last than first marriages.

A painful number of children will see their parents’ marriage break apart, and many of those will watch their dad or mom try again at marriage, only to divorce a second time.

If there’s any doubt that divorce leaves deep, lasting scars, consider these sobering numbers. In its current listing of US divorce statistics, the website for Divorce Magazine – with the motto, “help for generation ‘ex’ ” – reports that fatherless homes account for:

  • 63 percent of youth suicides
  • 90 percent of homeless/runaway children
  • 85 percent of children with behavior problems
  • 71 percent of high school dropouts
  • 85 percent of youths in prison
  • more than 50 percent of teen mothers.

Divorce affects a significant number of children, and those effects last a lifetime, following children into adulthood and coloring their  parenting efforts.

When Dad is Distant

Distance is an influence that leaves many men searching for their fathers and affecting their own parenting.

His father – actor Michael Douglas – was distant due to busyness and his own emotional issues, so Cameron Douglas struggled. “Cameron … idolized his father and did not want to be apart from him,” wrote Diandra Douglas, even as she described her husband as an absent father. Michael Douglas admitted Cameron’s drug use and poor life choices were because, perhaps unconsciously, he was looking for the father figure he did not have.

Children have a deep need to know their father, and to know a dad’s  love and protection. When that connection is missing – particularly due to rejection and emotional distance – a man spends much of his life looking … for acceptance, for affirmation, for encouragement, for significance. These men seek what they’re missing from their dad through achievement, accomplishments and other people.

It’s not hard to see why many younger people don’t value marriage – it’s an institution they’ve often seen poorly modeled. Those of us who care for the family must put more effort into helping prevent marital breakups, especially starting with younger couples. When kids grow up without a loving father, their lives are often filled with pain.

Fathers Aren’t Doomed to Repeat the Past

Author and speaker Josh McDowell had an incredibly painful childhood – and a dad who was distant due to alcohol addiction. As Josh was growing up in a small town, his dad was the town drunk – and everybody knew it. Josh was embarrassed and said he hated his dad so much,  he wanted to kill him.

The anger festered a long time, until Josh accepted Christ as his personal Savior. “God’s love took that hatred, turned it upside down, and emptied it out,” Josh later wrote. “I looked my father in the eyes and said, ‘Dad, I love you,’ and I really meant it.”

Some time passed and his dad came for a visit. “It was one of his few sober days,” Josh remembers. “Dad paced nervously around the room and finally blurted out, ‘Son, how can you love a father like me?’ ”

Josh replied, “Dad, six months ago I despised you … [but] I have placed my trust in Christ, received God’s forgiveness, and invited Him into my life. He has changed me. God has taken away my hatred, and now I love and accept you just the way you are.”

His father listened and chatted warmly and finally said, “Son, if God can do in my life what I’ve seen Him do in yours, then I want to trust Him as my Savior and Lord.”
Josh says his father’s conversion stuck.

Be the Dad You Want to Be

Whether because of divorce or distance, a man who has had a difficult or nonexistent relationship with his father isn’t doomed to repeat the past. Regardless of your circumstances, you can be different from your father. To break the chains and be the dad you want to be, you’ll need to identify those chains and then be very intentional about getting free from them.

For many, you will need to get professional help. The wounds and difficulties run deep. Serious issues require external intervention. If that’s your situation, I encourage you to immediately seek out a caring and credentialed Christian counselor who can walk you through the issues of a troubled relationship with your father.

For most men, healing is possible with some honest soul-searching, thoughtful reflection and hard work. Let me suggest the following steps as a starting point for you to learn to break the chains of poor parenting so you can become a great dad:

  • Assess the baggage from your past.
  • Begin to address your parenting issues.
  • Change your ways, every day.

Let’s unpack these three practical points.

Assess Your Parenting Baggage

There are reasons you tend to think and act certain ways. Understanding those reasons is key to breaking the chain and becoming the dad you want to be. An assessment of the relationship you had – or didn’t have – with your dad is an important step on your fathering journey. It’ll involve some memories and some soul-searching.

Understanding who you are, and why you are that way, is a critical first step in being a better dad.

Ken Canfield, an expert on fathering, suggests six questions to determine what baggage you’re bringing into your role as a dad:

  1. In reflecting on your relationship to your father or father figure, how would you describe his support of you?
  2. Did he regularly show you affection?
  3. Was he present and accessible to you growing up?
  4. Did he struggle with substance abuse or was he unfaithful to your mother?
  5. Did he abuse you or another family member?
  6. Would you say he was a good example?

These questions probe your childhood so you can recognize how your dad has influenced you. His time with you (or lack of time ) and the way he treated you made an impression. Regardless of the specifics of your circumstances, you are a product of your father’s parenting.

What did you feel when you read these questions? Was it uncomfortable  to go back and think through the good and the bad aspects of your relationship with your dad? Maybe painful? Or perhaps you’re one of the few men who have  nothing but good memories of your childhood. Your answers will help you assess your fathering DNA.

Let me note here that many men have serious issues that probably need some professional level of counseling. Maybe you endured terrible strife as a child, or it may be that you never knew your dad at all. Perhaps you’ve got painful wounds from your childhood that will never “just go away,” and no amount of reflection and assessment seems to help. If so, I’ll suggest you connect with a counselor at a local church, or that you find a licensed Christian counselor who can walk you through the difficulties of your past.

Address Your Parenting Issues

If you’ve identified some of the father chains you’ve inherited, take the next step and address those issues.

For starters, I recommend you seek out a group of men in whom you can confide. Many churches facilitate such gatherings. It’s extremely helpful to be part of a community of men who work things out together.

Over the years I’ve participated in several groups, both formal and informal. These guys played a pivotal role in helping me become a better person and a better dad. They accepted me, listened to my questions about difficult matters, and shared in my battles.

I was the youngest man in one group, and learned a lot from the older guys who often spoke about their parenting mistakes. They did so with some regret, but also with hope that I’d get it and become a better dad by avoiding those common missteps.

A small community of like-minded men can provide a safe forum. If there is authenticity and candor, these men can form strong bonds and provide a sense of brotherhood. In addition, the biblical concept of “iron sharpening iron” can play out, allowing you to benefit from the tough but caring voice of someone who knows where you’re at and who is committed to helping you become a better man.

Let me also suggest you seek out the help of an older, wiser man. A seasoned perspective can bring understanding you’d otherwise miss. I’ve wondered why so few of us seek out and learn from more experienced, wiser men around us. Somebody once suggested that older people have all the answers – it’s just up to us to ask the right questions!

Change Your Parenting Ways

Simply knowing about your shortcomings, without taking tangible action, won’t do anything beneficial. You’ll only become frustrated if you don’t make something happen.

The adage is true: A journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step. So start the journey to become the dad you long to be today by changing your ways – or, more specifically, changing just one way this day.

Rather than be overwhelmed by your deficiencies in the dad department, take on just one area in which you can improve and see what you can do to make some changes.

Look through an inventory of who you are and – in light of your history – how you are likely to parent. Then list the things you don’t want to do as a dad, whether that is yelling, being aloof, or escaping fathering responsibilities by loving your work too much. Map out the ways you tend to deal with life, specifically tie them to parenting, and then pick some ways to leave those chains behind.

Determine now that you’ll step away for a few minutes when you sense yourself getting frustrated by your child. Or make it a point to talk every day with your wife about the baby – and how things are going for you as parents. You get the idea. The only way to break free from the shackles is to be discerning and deliberate.

Nobody is perfect, and there are no fail-safe methods when trying to break free from our past. So cut yourself – and those you love – some slack. What’s important is that, when things go awry, we forgive our spouse or children, or ask to be forgiven. Pray for wisdom and discernment.

Simply acknowledging the need to break free from bad habits is the first and most important step.

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