New Dad Diaries – Week 17: The Father Hood – Stephen Mansfield (Part 2)




Chronicling life as a new father to his beautiful firstborn child – daughter Thea – Chris Kerr’s goal is to provide all men experiencing fatherhood for the first time with some invaluable tips and tricks as they are learned – the hard way. This week, more from Chris’s interview with Stephen Mansfield, a New York Times bestselling author. Be sure to check out Part 1 here, if you haven’t already.  

Stephen, how important is it for a father to be present in their children’s lives?  

I believe that a good man who’s trying to be a righteous, solid, strong man for his family, and particularly his children, needs to recognise the power of his presence – the power of just being there physically for his children.   

Let me be frank, I think men often talk too much. They punish their children too much. They are too nervous in their fathering. I learned this as I went through my parenting journey. I certainly didn’t have it all together when my kids were first born, but I had some good mentors to tell me this and so, in time, I realised that my presence as a father reset things. If I was strong, if I was loving, if I was firm, if I was clear then all I had to do was step into my son’s room and he would start cleaning it. I wouldn’t have to say a word. He would just start cleaning it up because Dad was present.   

I remember on one occasion, when he was 14, I simply stepped into this room and looked around. I didn’t even put a scowl on my face. I just looked around and waited for him to get ready as we were going somewhere. He said, ‘Give me a minute and I’ll clean up’.   

It was the same with my father. He was a military officer and fierce looking. If we were misbehaving in church, he would look down the row at us. We would freeze, not because we were necessarily afraid of being punished afterwards, it was the fact that we were misbehaving, and we didn’t want to displease him. His look just said, ‘Get right. I’m here so align with my expectations’.   

Let me give you a quick illustration of the power of presence. During the Iraq War there was a prison called Abu Ghraib. Unfortunately, as we all know, some American soldiers misbehaved and tortured captured enemy soldiers. What we don’t hear much about is the solution that ended up stopping this. The Chaplains Corp studied what was going on and realised that the Chaplains they had assigned to that prison had not been present. They hadn’t been making themselves known to the soldiers working there.  

So, what the new Chaplain Commander said was, ‘We are going to do ministry by presence’. All they did at the start was being present. They were present when prisoners were being moved. They were present when prisoners were checked in. They were present when prisoners were being interrogated. The result:  All abuses were stopped. The soldiers started behaving honourably. Attendance at Chapel services increased dramatically because the soldiers related to the Chaplains who were there doing their duties.  

We hear a lot today the phrase, ‘be the change’ but my children knew that my world was orderly. I was neatly dressed, my office and bedroom were tidy and my bed was made. And so they knew that when I stepped into their room, I expected certain things. When my son was dating, he knew my presence would go with him. I don’t mean that in a mystical sense, just that he knew what my expectations would be of his behaviour, how he treated his date and so forth.  

So, when you are a good man striving to be a great man and you’re not nervous and jittery and overly reactive, your presence is the difference maker. Just by being, just by looking, just by standing near and letting your expectations and love emanate, it makes a big difference to your children now and in the future.  

You mentioned there that your expectations – your presence – would go with your son when he went on dates.  Let’s flip things around for fathers with daughters – how would our presence go with them?   

Let me tell you a quick story.  My daughter is in her 30s now, but when she was growing up I used to pick her up from High School. I used to pick her up from this big atrium and several times she was talking to this boy. He would be facing her, with his back towards the door I walked through. She could see over his shoulder, and so she could see me when I walked through the door to sign her out at reception. She could see me, he couldn’t.    

One day, as we were driving home, she told me something remarkable. She said, ‘Even though he can’t see you, do you know that when you walk through the door, the attitude of this boy changes towards me.’ 

Now she wouldn’t have let him be nasty with her. That’s not what was going on. But she said that once, when I walked through the door, the boy got all fumble-mouthed and called her, ‘Ma’am!’.  They were the same age. So she began to understand that just me stepping into the room, and I wasn’t trying to emit something or anything weird like that, would alter boys’ behaviour towards her. And she gave many examples of that.  

So what was happening? Well, if you have loved your child, prayed for your child, disciplined your child, taught your child, sacrificed for your child then of course you have a Godly authority in their life.  But it was kind of cute, a little lesson for her that several times a boy would be talking to her. One time a boy actually stepped several feet back from her when I walked in the room. She said, “It was kind of like, ‘Uh-oh, Mufusa is in the house’ and even though he couldn’t see you, he was feeling something different had just happened.” 

I believe that is real.  I think that this really happens if we do our best to be great men, and great dads to our daughters.     

You talk about the importance of a father’s presence but what about the dads out there who grew up without their dads? They often have nobody to model their fathering on. How can they learn how to be great fathers?  

Two things come to mind. First, there’s a statistic from a US study that has just come out after years of research. It tells us that even if a young man does not have a father in the home, other men who are nearby – uncles, coaches, clergy – they can make an enormous difference to the current and future prospects of that young man. It’s as much as 85% of a positive difference, which is very encouraging because otherwise, we might conclude that a young man who doesn’t have a father in the home, would really struggle. 

I am a big believer in the idea that men who want to excel, who want to be good and noble men, need to seek out mentors. Now the problem for us is that we have this Greco-Roman image of mentoring, sitting under trees in a toga speaking to Socrates or what have you. That’s not what I mean. It’s something like going for a hamburger with another dad you know that is a great mentor for their sons in sports or respecting their mother. Or a guy you know who has taught their kids how to handle finances – earning allowances, saving and giving. Go grab a bite to eat with them and ask them how they taught them that.   

I still do this, and I am in my early 60s. I will see a man who has some aspect of fathering or manhood that I don’t have down and I will say, ‘Can I buy you a steak whilst we talk about this thing?’  Now, they may go on for more than one meal. Watch out – people love steak!   

I recently sold a house in Nashville, Tennessee, and I didn’t know what I was doing. And I got a guy who knew what he was doing to mentor me. I’m a big believer in that. So, in this area of fathering, you’re not doomed and cursed because you may not have had the perfect or the ideal father. My father was a good man. But he was a military man. And he was tough and famous, but not intimate. So, when I became a father, I learned this idea of going after mentors and it made a massive difference.  

So, my advice is: take the best you can from the father you had, take the best you can from the men around you – older brothers, uncles, men in the community – and then go after mentors. Be bold, take them out for a bite to eat. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. Sometimes your entire world can be turned around in two hours due to advice from a good man. 

Check back here next week for the final part of this interview, when Stephen talks about marriage, morality and more.

Chris Kerr

Chris is a husband to Alicia and father to Thea, who is the subject of his columns on Fatherhood for Sorted.  In his spare time he works for a national law firm in an executive capacity and provides crisis leadership consultancy support for non-profits across the UK.  He attends Urban Crofters Church in Cardiff.  A keen weekend adventurer, Chris is regularly spotted in the sea or on mountains.

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