Learning to be better dads

Robert Phinney is given a certificate from Jack Baker when he graduates from the Nuturing Dads program for new dads, expectant dads, married or single dads held at Children First. The class is helping area fathers be the best caretakers they can be and empower them to be pillars in their child's lifelong success. Three year old Henry Phinney is also in photo. [Herald-Tribune photo/Carla Varisco]

Robert Phinney is given a certificate from Jack Baker when he graduates from the Nuturing Dads program for new dads, expectant dads, married or single dads held at Children First. The class is helping area fathers be the best caretakers they can be and empower them to be pillars in their child's lifelong success. Three year old Henry Phinney is also in photo. [Herald-Tribune photo/Carla Varisco]

Robert Phinney — owner of Roots, a yard clearing and demolition company — has arms the size of some of the heavy branches he clears. He works around 70 hours a week and lives with his 3- and 5-year-old. The black tinted windows of his company pick-up don’t reveal the two toddler car seats inside.

Even with moms working outside the home, divorce and fewer “I dos”, the value of fathers in early child development remains undisputed.

That’s why Phinney signed up for the Nurturing Dads Class. The free 10-week course is modeled on The Nurturing Father’s Program, a curriculum created by Sarasota author Mark Perlman. The program is focused on helping men become “better dads, better spouses and a better person,” Phinney said.

In the weekly meetings, traditional parenting roles are sometimes discussed.

Mothers often provide caregiving like meal preparation and bathing, while fathers traditionally focus on discipline and breadwinning, according to Ronald B. Mincy, director the Center for Research on Fathers.

“One myth is that the father’s contribution to their child’s learning isn’t as valuable,” Mincy said.

On a range of outcomes, like the likelihood of graduating from college, scoring well in school and cognitive development overall, the lack of a father presence is a risk factor.

Engaged fathers also impact behavior. The type of physical play that dads tend to engage in can help kids exercise executive function: to be in control and modify behavior when needed. Rough and tumble play also is an opportunity to learn boundaries.

Fathers also tend to talk to their children more like they would with adults rather than using baby talk, Mincy said. As a result, children with engaged fathers tend to have a larger lexicon, which leads to better communication.

But dads often overlook feelings, said Jack Baker, the program facilitator, and feelings are what drive most behavior.

“It’s shifting ‘power over’ to ‘power with.’ Instead of making the child do what you want, we want fathers to ask, ‘How can I help my child?’” Baker said.

That’s just one of the questions posed at The Nurturing Father’s Program meetings held at Children First in Sarasota. Other topics include being a better listener and managing time and stress. The class also emphasizes nurturing.

‘The father I choose to be’

When Phinney was 11 years old, his stepfather’s violence exploded after years of abuse and he set their home on fire.

“You should never see your dad beat your mom. But how many men just mimic their father when they grow up?” Phinney said. “A lot of the class is introspective. No one says, ‘I can’t wait to be a bad dad.’ I think everyone’s goal is to do better than their parents did, and that takes a conscious effort.”

Some dads attend the class by court order, some are prompted by a family lawyer to help ease a custody case, but all are there to learn the tools to be the best dad they can be, regardless of marital status.

About half of the fathers in Phinney’s class are single, and while some venting is inevitable, ex-wife talk is quickly rerouted to focusing on the self.

The take-home activity after opening night is to craft a vision statement called “The father I choose to be.” Dads write the things from their father that they want to save, the things they don’t, and the things born of themselves.

At graduation, the dads present their families with a lifelong commitment. Phinney’s: to be more present, a better listener and a leader.

“The hardest thing for me is when you’re tired or stressed, your tool kit dries up, but you need to be able to catch yourself. It’s natural to have a bad day but you can’t take it out on your kids,” Phinney said.

Jack Baker, facilitator of the Nurturing Dads program, gathers with families of dads on graduation day at Children First. [Herald-Tribune photo/Carla Varisco]

Jack Baker, facilitator of the Nurturing Dads program, gathers with families of dads on graduation day at Children First. [Herald-Tribune photo/Carla Varisco]

To sign up for The Nurturing Father's Program offered in Sarasota and North Port, contact Jack Baker at 941-953-5507 ext. 127, or email jbaker@childrenfirst.net.