Champion dads

Stuart Shanker

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a distinguished research professor emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University and founder of the MEHRIT Centre. He is an acclaimed author and speaker, and Canada’s leading expert on the psychophysiological theory of self-regulation. In 2012 he published Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation, which became one of Canada’s bestselling educational publications, and in 2016 he followed with Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life. Stuart has a son, Sasha, born in 2002 and a daughter, Sammi, born in 2005.

Words from Stuart:

These are difficult times for children of all ages, and for their parents. I see tremendous anxiety in all the work I do with families, and also confusion for fathers about who they are and how they should be. It’s an important time to support fathers, and elevate fatherhood, instead of the dumbing down we often witness in media.

I have tried to make sure that my children have a childhood, roughly compensating for the absence of mine. My father was an intensely moral man; the most important things for him—which I heard about over and over—were honour and integrity. He had a strong sense of serving society and loyalty to Canada. They (Canada) took us in, he felt—what can we give back? He was appalled with anyone who was driven by personal ambition. As a consequence, I have been heavily motivated to do things of benefit for my country.

I trained in psychiatry with the distinguished Dr. Stanley Greenspan. He made a video that I still show parents. In the film, Dr. Greenspan is meeting with a three-year-old child. He engages with the child while the father appears detached, sitting on the couch. He’s invited to get down on the floor with his child and when he does his whole being changes. He blossoms in front of our eyes. When I am watching this with parents, I want to say, “This is what you’ll get as a father—you have to be willing to get down and be in their world, but you will experience genuine joy, something you won’t experience at the office every night, you’re going to discover the meaning of life…”

One of my early lessons as a parent was to take full responsibility for my own responses under stress. There were times when I would have an immediate and visceral reaction to something they’d done. I don’t want to say I ever harmed my children, but I certainly didn’t help them. If I think back on those moments, there has always been a reason for the behaviour that occurred. I don’t believe they were “being bad.” In fact, one of the things I preach across the country is that there’s no such thing as a bad child. It’s just a shame that I sometimes forget that with my own children. It’s in those moments when I am flooded that I need to be able to give myself a moment of pause.

As a father, I fell into a trap of constantly pushing my son. He got in to a really good prep school but it should have been obvious to me that it was not going to be a good fit for him. It all backfired and of course I should have known. I was seeing his character traits as if they were weaknesses and felt that if he were pushed harder, he’d rise to the challenge. This didn’t happen, and I had to work very consciously at seeing who my son really was without me imposing some kind of idea on him. To actually see him, not my vision of who he should be.
I have failed at many things in life, but I have been very successful in giving my children a safe and secure attachment where they can have complete reliance on me, and where the love between us flows naturally and reciprocally.

I love the lapses that occur during downtime together at home when everyone is relaxed. A few evenings ago, my hulking son comes home around 8:30 p.m. I’m lying on the bed with my daughter and my wife, giving my daughter a head massage with this little gizmo. My son leaves the room and returns with his gizmo and gives it to his sister who massages his head. Shortly after she asks him, “Would you like me to make a ponytail with your hair?” He allows this, and I lie there breathing in the beautiful energy—the kinds of moments that are at the same time ridiculously banal and exquisitely heartwarming. It’s not the cruises, the rock concerts, the fancy holidays. For me, these are the best of times as a father. The trick is to notice these moments, to know you are having them when they happen, not after!

Excerpted from “Forty Fathers: Men Talk About Parenting”, with permission from Douglas & McIntyre, 2022.

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