What Type of Dad Are You?

BY NATHANIEL READE

A well-meaning father grapples with how to set limits. What he learned could change how you raise your kids

At the dinner table, Henry asked me if we were going to what he called "The Spanish Game." All his friends were going to watch the U.S. soccer team play the Spanish national team at a stadium nearby.

"No," I told him. "We are not."

Henry's chin wrinkled. His lip quivered. He put down the chicken leg he'd been gnawing, wiped his hands on his napkin, and covered his eyes.

Was he crying, I wondered? He's 11. It takes a lot to make him cry. And should I care?

I'm not a monster. I'm just unemployed. And I'd already looked at ticket prices; they started at $50 for the nosebleeds and went up to $500 for something decent on the field. Add $40 for parking, $100 for gas, and untold sums for stadium hotdogs, and I would be spending hundreds of dollars I didn't have.

"Sorry," I told him. "We can watch it online." As the Buddha said, life is suffering. It is my job as a father to set limits. Limits, I know, are good for my kids. I said no.

I'm no parenting expert. The best piece of parenting advice I ever got was to beware of people who want to give you parenting advice. On the other hand, I'm also impressed by the research done by Diane Baumrind, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Now retired at the age of 84, Baumrind spent about half a century looking at different parenting methods and what kinds of adults they produce. Baumrind identified three distinct parental styles, which she called "authoritarian," "permissive," and "authoritative."

Authoritarian parents limit their children's behavior in a firm and unyielding manner. They expect obedience and respect for their authority, and don't like it when children question their decisions. If their family were a political system, it would be a dictatorship.

Permissive parents go the other way: They limit almost nothing, whether it's bed time or the desire to eat a box of sugar-cubes. They want their kids to be happy and free. It's the family equivalent of anarchy, minus the all-black wardrobe.

Baumrind found that children raised under these authoritarian and permissive styles develop specific clusters of behaviors that I for one don't want to see in Henry: They tend to be less successful with their peers, more dependent, and have lower self esteem. Authoritarian-parented kids tend to be less happy, the boys more aggressive. Children of permissive parents show less self-control. Authoritarian parents double the likelihood that their kids will drink heavily, and permissive parents triple it.

I want to be an authoritative parent. So do you. Like the president of a democracy, this parent finds a middle ground between those extreme styles. The authoritative dad sets firm limits, but does so with warmth and understanding, allowing some elasticity. He explains the thinking behind his decisions, and allows for debate. Such parents are more likely to produce children who grow up to be happy, confident, self-controlled, and good with their peers.

Unlike an authoritarian father, Baumrind wrote in one study, the authoritative dad doesn't view himself "as infallible or divinely inspired." He explains his decisions. He tolerates debate.

Back at the dinner table, Henry said, "But Dad! David Villa will be there!" This was Henry's hero. He pronounces his name like a proper foreigner would: DAH-vid VEE-ya. "He's the best striker in the world!"

Henry and his buddies don't wear baseball, football, or basketball jerseys to school; they wear the maroon and blue of Barcelona's soccer team, the white and blue of Real Madrid, the red and yellow of the World-Cup-winning Spanish Team. When our hometown Bruins won the Stanley Cup, Henry and his pals collectively yawned. But for the final game of this thing I'd never heard of called the UEFA cup (the best teams in Europe, he explained), they gathered together at a friend's house, dressed in soccer jerseys, and cheered for Barcelona. Five Barcelona players, plus countless other of their heroes, would be coming to our state, led by David Villa. I disliked this kind of hero-worship. It struck me as silly and pointless, as likely to bring my son misery as wanting to marry Lindsay Lohan. I could tell that Villa was a self-involved punk, with his gelled hair, his soul patch, and his fancy Italian sports cars. Instead of idolizing some guy because he's good at kicking a leather bag filled with air, I wanted Henry to respect the truly heroic people in the world: The Dalai Lama maybe, or Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski.

"So what?" I said. "He spends way too much time on his hair."

The sight of my sniffling son, however, forced me to think of Baumrind and question my own infallibility. Was I being too authoritarian here? Was I being too much like my father? If he had had a motto, it would have been "penny wise, pound foolish." He bought the cheapest ski boots he could find, even when they made his feet bleed. He wouldn't buy decent soil for the garden, so the plants died. I didn't want Henry to be eternally disappointed about missing this game for the sake of a few hundred dollars. That was silly.

And what of this sports-hero worship? Part of me thought: I had never collected baseball cards or put posters of athletes on my walls when I was a kid, so why should he? Then I remembered that at his age I'd been traumatized by sports. Not to lay everything on my dad—he was a sweet, decent man—but his father had been too busy clawing his way up the corporate ladder to play games with him. As a result, even though my father taught me how to paint screens and tie square knots in my youth, we barely touched a ball. Gym class was a torment. How come every other kid knew what this weird dance called a lay-up was? How did they manage to hit that fast-moving ball with nothing but that stick? I hated myself—boys who were bad at sports in those days questioned if they were truly male.

All this changed in 7th grade, when some nerdy friends turned me on to a new game that had come to town called, you guessed it, soccer. I splintered the clapboards on the back of the garage by kicking a ball against it for hours after school, and grew to be if not gifted at soccer, at least competent. It made me feel almost normal. As a father I knew how important it was for a small male person to feel capable at sports and to be part of a team, so Henry and I played soccer in the backyard from the time he could walk. I signed him up for the recreation league in kindergarten and now coach his travel-league team. It gives me great pride and pleasure to see that my son may not be a star, but he does feel included and competent in a way that I never did.

I realized then that his sports-hero-worship was not something to forbid, like picking your toenails or telling lies—it was something I had helped create, and something I should support. It meant he was having a more normal childhood than I did. It meant we as a family had evolved.

"All right," I said to Henry. "We'll go."

One of the nice things about accepting that I am fallible is that I learn things from my kids. This Spanish Game, for instance, surprised me in wonderful ways. Through the kindness of the U.S. Soccer Team, Henry and I were not only able to see the game itself, but the practice sessions before. We got to stand on the sidelines and see Tim Howard, the American goalie, dive for saves from a few feet away. We got to appreciate how Sergio Ramos, a tall, long-haired, tough-shoving Spanish defender, ranged the entire length of the field like a lion. It reminded me why I love this game. ^^^^^pagebreak^^^^^

All was not so poetic, however, for Henry. Dressed in a red and gold Spanish National Team shirt with "David Villa" printed on the back, Henry stood behind a metal barrier when the teams passed from locker-room to field and back again, proffering a Sharpie and his pass to sign. The U.S. players went out of their way to encourage him. One even stopped to chat with him, and chastised him for wearing a foreign uniform.

"You need to support your home team!" he said.

"I will," Henry said, "When you win." They both laughed.

Then the Spanish team appeared, and Henry grew so excited he seemed to levitate above the ground.

"Por favore," Henry called out. "Autographo?"

In this way he collected the signatures of world-famous soccer great Santiago Cazorla, who would go on to score two goals the next day; Sergio Ramos, and Pedro Rodriquez, who had scored a goal for Barcelona to win them the UEFA cup.

Then we saw David Villa, with his soul patch and his pointy hair. It was like seeing Mick Jagger, or President Obama. It was him!

Henry called out, "Por favore!" There were only two other kids seeking autographs, so it wasn't like Villa would be stuck here all day, but he waved his hand like he was swatting aside a mosquito.

Henry looked shocked. This was his hero; how could he?

Not to worry, I told him. We'll catch him after practice.

But later Villa did the same thing: He literally gave Henry the brush-off, and disappeared.

My son was crushed.

I didn't say it, but I was thinking, What a gel-headed, soul-patched, self-important little schmuck. And also, I knew this would happen.

Was I a terrible father? I wondered. Should I have saved him from this?

They call soccer "the beautiful game," and the next day, before a record-setting crowd of more than 60,000, the Spanish team illustrated why. Using short, accurate, one-touch passing, they controlled the ball like they were the only ones on the field. They crushed the U.S. 4-0, which would be like 56 to 0 in American football. I found the scene around us equally beautiful: At a time when we as a nation feel so divided, we heard Spanish, French, Scottish, and American accents, some cheering for the visitors, some for the U.S. Some had painted themselves red, white, and blue; others waved the red and gold scarves of Spain. It didn't matter; we were all one, joined in our love of soccer. It was a moving experience, well worth the cost.

But what of Henry, I wondered. Had he recovered from the heartbreak of learning the truth about David Villa?

I asked him how he was doing. He said fine. I asked him what he thought of his hero now.

He said, "I think he's a rich snob."

Oh dear.

"Casillas," he said, who had happily signed his pass, "is much cooler. He's probably the best goalie in the world."

Thank you, Professor Baumrind. Kids benefit from limits, her work showed, but they also benefit from being given the room to figure things out on their own. Henry had experienced the heartbreak of losing his hero. Then he'd picked himself up and moved on. He had learned resilience.

Which he will sorely need when he starts liking girls.