Right now, one of the highest grossing actors in America is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Last year alone, he pulled in $65 million dollars. On a recent date night, my wife and I saw him in the film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
In this particular flick, Johnson plays a dorky teenage kid who is mysteriously pulled into a 1980s video game. He has the brain of a 14-year-old, but the body of The Rock. In one particular scene, as Johnson and his co-stars are trying to determine how to get themselves out of a difficult situation, Johnson can be seen whispering to himself, “Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” In order to lead his team, Johnson believes he needs to be “strong” by not showing any “weak” emotion like tears.
Somewhere, somehow, our culture seems to have given us a picture of manhood without emotions—especially negative emotions like sadness, fear, shame, and depression. Whether it’s the phrase, “Big boys don’t cry,” western heroes played by the likes of John Wayne, or the stoic, stiff-upper-lip of the 1950s, society teaches us that a real man is not an emotional man. Emotions are often portrayed as a sign of weakness or femininity.
This unfortunate stereotype ignores the fact that we are all—men and women—emotional beings from the beginning. We laugh and we cry. We experience fear and excitement throughout life. But like Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji, men can feel the need to hide, ignore, or deny their feelings. This is problematic because emotions are such powerful teaching tool in our life. Emotions allow us to connect our brain and our heart, and determine what thoughts or ideas are driving our behavior.
When men become fathers, the need for emotional availability becomes acutely important. Too often, fathers feel like they must lead the team by being brave, strong, and confident. While these traits are valuable, our kids must also see that we are real, vulnerable, and capable of processing the real stuff of life, including our emotions.
Kids need an emotionally available dad.
What is an emotionally available father? This is someone who recognizes the reality of their own emotional responses and reactions, and is willing to take responsibility for those emotions in a way that trains up his children to be emotionally self-aware.
An emotionally unavailable father feels the need to be stoic—to keep their true emotions hidden or express them to others privately. This could include being unapologetic when their emotions get out of hand; like responding in anger, frustration, or fear.
Our children are building a roadmap for emotions, in part, by what they see in us. We aren’t born with the natural ability to understand and process emotions. We simply “experience” them. But unless someone helps us, we may not have the words to explain what we are feeling. An emotionally available parent leads us toward emotional self-awareness. If a dad is emotionally unavailable to his kids, they will learn from others—family perhaps, but also media, society, and friends—how to process the hard stuff of life. These other “teachers” may be unreliable at best, and down-right destructive in other ways.
The “aha” moment that many men experience in a Pure Desire small group is to recognize what a story or series of events from their childhood caused them to believe about themselves and the world around them. In other words, they experienced strong emotions, but no one helped them interpret what they were feeling.
This is the role of a parent in the lives of their children—to help them understand emotions.
What are emotions? They are gauges on the panel of our aircraft. The problem, or the solution, is not the gauge itself. The gauge is only an indicator of something else in the aircraft of our life. Imagine a pilot who had a warning light continually beeping and flashing red in the cockpit. If he found a hammer and smashed that warning light, he may have stopped the annoyance, but has he done anything about the source of the problem? No! His engines might still be on fire! So also, if we only “manage our anger” or “deal with some feelings of depression,” we might have hit pause on the difficult emotion, and yet, done absolutely nothing to address the source of the emotion.
Emotions will guide us to the trauma, wounds, and lies that life has created in our thinking. As parents, we will be part of creating some of this in our children whether we mean to or not. Wounded people wound people. Hurting people hurt other people. There’s no doubt that we’ll be part of our kids story! But will we also be part of the solution? Can we help them identify and process where their story has some broken pieces?
As we remain emotionally available to our children, we can be part of the solution.
So what, exactly, does this look like?
Sooner or later our kids will yell, fight, explode in anger, or cry. Don’t correct them or shame them for having these emotions, even when you can see that the reason is “childish” (She took my doll!). Relate to what they are feeling, and then give them a chance to see how you have struggles with similar feelings. “Honey, I know that made you really angry—I can get really angry too when people take my things. Let’s take a deep breath together and think about a solution to this problem.”
We ask, “How was your day?” and we look for a list of events and happenings. But sometimes we need to probe deeper into a day and ask, “How did that make you feel when she said that?” or “What were you experiencing when that happened?” These questions aren’t just for a counseling office. In fact, many people go to a counseling office to have these questions asked because no one has cared enough to ask them the questions before! Connecting with our children emotionally is caring for them.
Do you share about your life only through actions or do you open up about how you are feeling? I am not saying that we should go home and vent about everything that annoys us to our family. I’m saying, when we process our hurt, our fears, or what makes us angry in a healthy way with our family, they are being trained to do the same.
If we lose our temper or say a careless word out of frustration, we may wound our kids. But what we do next—allowing for an admission, an apology, and recovery—is far more important. Follow up and explain why what you did is not their fault, even if and when they did something wrong! I’ve had many such conversations with my teenage daughter; “Sweetheart, when you argued with me earlier, I got pretty angry. You didn’t deserve that. I was already frustrated from a long day at work. Will you forgive me?”
Remind them, and yourself, that emotions are explanations of behavior, not excuses for behavior. When we feel something deeply, we may react in anger. Our explanation of why we felt an emotion is helpful, but that doesn’t excuse the way we acted. We don’t ever want to blame our behavior on our emotions, or on someone else! Someone else may have made us feel something, but we need to do the hard work of asking why we felt as we did. And then, take responsibility to deal appropriately with that emotion. Remember: my response is my responsibility.
So, fathers, and all parents, I hope that you feel encouraged to be emotionally available to your children. As you lead your team on a new adventure through difficult circumstances, be brave and move forward. But don’t underestimate the value of displaying vulnerability and real emotions along the way. When we do, we invite others into the process; allowing them into our world in a way that builds lasting relationship.
Nick is the Executive Director of Pure Desire Ministries. He has been in leadership for 15+ years. He was in Pastoral Ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, WA for 14 years. Nick is the author of Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.