Navy SEAL masculinity and parenting

Raising+Men+Book+CoverA couple of days ago I was listening to the Art of Manliness podcast. Brett McKay interviewed Eric Davis about his recent book: Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALs Learned from Their Training and Taught to Their Sons.

The author comes from a completely different perspective than me. I grew up a pacifist. But we have a lot in common when it comes to parenting. And that’s what I want to emphasize today.

Eric Davis has a strong behaviorist and training perspective on parenting. I think in cognitive terms and read about brain science. And as I was listening, I realized that it shouldn’t matter what perspective you come from. The value of your perspective is not in the theory but in the health and wellbeing of your kids.

Once I realized that someone who trained harder than I can imagine to be capable of extreme violence can still write about parenting in a way that I completely respect, then I was deeply interested in some of the wisdom that Eric Davis had to share.

Let me name a few take-aways.

First, the most important piece of advice he had to give. Lead from the front.

This means among other things that you have to show your kids what they need to learn by your own behavior. Kids catch more than they hear, as the saying goes. Or in other words, the last thing you can do is tell your kids to do as you say, not do as you do.

Kids will learn from what you do, from the example that you set.

One conclusion is then that you have to take care of yourself. You have to be the person that you want your kids to be. You cannot sacrifice yourself into the ground, because your kids will know always know more about the grind you put yourself through than about the love that compelled you.

In a way, Davis said, and this really struck me, not taking care of yourself is a form of quitting. Not taking care of yourself is allowing the circumstances of your life to overtake you. Take care of yourself, and you will raise kids who see self care as an important value.

For someone who is skilled in causing great harm, Davis’ comments about violence and aggression deserve some attention. For him he says, violence is the product of ignorance, it’s the sign of failure.

For fathers, this is so important to remember, exhorted as we may often feel to show our aggressive side in public.

Aggression and anger are the ways in which men can show emotion in public, but when you do that, we have failed. And we have set very poor examples for our kids, our sons in particular who already grow up absorbing way more violence than they should.

And I was impressed by that he said about respect. You have to respect your kid’s respect. With everything you do, you show your kids that you respect them, and you ask: “Will what I do now, make my kids respect me?” We often say the very same thing. You teach your kids respect by respecting them.

One direct training tool from the Seals intrigued me. They are called Immediate Action Drills or IADs. What these are are short action sequences that you can practice before you need them. You practice them because when you need them you usually need to take action before you can think.

And as you know, parenting sometimes creates such stress that we act without thinking. What this idea suggests me to do is to inventory all those moments when I get so stressed that I cannot respond reasonably. And then come up with a response that I want to have now, practice it, and make it automatic.

For instance, you may be someone who gets frustrated when at the end of the a long day, after your kids have eaten, brushed their teeth and are now in bed, the ask for one more thing.

Instead of snapping—which would be totally understand, just not very helpful—you can say something like, “I don’t know. I’ll think about it and will get back to you.” Or more simply—because the simpler the better—“I’ll get back to you.”

And you can practice that line now. “I’ll get back to you.” Or some other simple sentence that you like better. You can say it a hundred times now, and then it’ll be ready for you when you need it, before you snap.

At the same time, here we get into the area where Davis’s understanding of parenting is that of training. We’re training our kids. And to do that well, you need to embrace them where they are and lead them to a better place or show them a better place to go.

But it is the training approach to parenting where I can’t really go along. For instance, Davis makes the good point that yelling at our kids is unhelpful. I agree, but I think the reason it’s unhelpful is different than he suggests.

For Davis, yelling is unhelpful because it is inconsistent with the normal training routine. And an inconsistent training routine makes kids anxious.

I would say that it is the yelling itself that makes kids anxious because it makes them feel unsafe around you. And if they feel unsafe around you, they don’t know if they can trust you, you, the person they are completely dependent on. This creates a break in their attachment to you and that is what creates the anxiety.

If it was the inconsistency that was the problem, then consistent yelling should not produce anxiety. But it does.

Again, his behavior based approach ends up in the same place as our relationship based approach. Don’t yell at kids. It’s harmful. But we get their differently. Those differences do matter.

They matter in particular since Davis is also concerned with the role of men in our society. As I mentioned before, he strongly wants men to move away from aggression and violence, seeing these as failure of masculinity not the expression of some male ideal.

But then he doesn’t get to the more difficult area of allowing men to be more open in relationships. I understand the approach to parenting as training from the point of view of a man who takes his fatherhood very seriously. Eric Davis is clearly very close in with his kids.

But I worry that he doesn’t model relationship enough and doesn’t help his children understand their relationship as relationship. The give and take of it, the feeling heart to heart, the mind melt that can exist between parents and children where you feel each other more deeply than anyone else in any relationship.

In the kind of parenting relationship I have come to appreciate, you make sure that your child feels felt. You make sure that your child knows that he exists inside of your mind.

When I conducted a parenting class with fathers, the issue of training your children came up often. And my response was often that it’s not about training. It’s more about being with them, open and connected.

Letting them know the you feel them. That’s perhaps the most important gift we can give them.

And this is where my biggest problem with parenting as training comes in.

Parenting is not training when you realize that your children already have wisdom, that they already have a sense of fairness. Your kids know so much and learn so much so quickly when they come into the world.

Parenting is mostly about being present.

And simply and deeply being present is what men have such a hard time with. Being present, listening, nurturing, without stepping in, without controlling, simply being and trusting.

These are not un-manly skills. These skills are critical, simple, scary, and may just be the key to the most fulfilling relationships you will ever have.

Thank you,

until next time

Niels