Years ago I had the privilege and challenge of teaching a class for divorced parents through Families First in Missoula. About half of the dozen or so participants were mandated to attend. This made for an initially less-than-pleasant opening mood. As I went around the room doing introductions, I came to a man who looked a bit snarly. He announced his name and then said, “But I don’t need no stupid-ass parenting class. The only reason I’m here is because the Judge told me that if I didn’t come, I’d be forced to have supervised visits with my 12 year-old daughter. I’m here, but I don’t need this stupid-ass class.”
This was a difficult moment and perhaps because I’m a man, complete with a pesky “Y” chromosome, I was tempted to get into an instant pissing match right there. I felt an urge to say something like, “Well, you may not think you need this class, but apparently the Judge does and so you’d better watch how you talk in here!” Instead, somewhat to my surprise, the following words came into my mind and then out of my mouth, “Well, let me especially thank you for coming because you must really love your daughter to be willing to attend this class.”
As the 6 hour marathon class progressed, the snarly man settled in. He was never really pleasant, but he contributed to discussions and politely got in line at the end of class to receive his signed certificate. When I handed him the certificate, I said something like, “Hey, you know you should frame this certificate and put it on your wall at home.”
A few weeks after the class I got a call from the guy who didn’t need a stupid-ass parenting class. He sounded different and immediately apologized for “being a jerk in class.” Then he told me in a cracking voice that he’d taken my advice and hung the class certificate on his wall. And then it was clear he was crying when he said, “My daughter came over for an unsupervised visit and when she saw that certificate on the wall, she turned around and gave me this big old hug and said, Daddy, I am so proud of you!”
This experience and others like it taught me an important lesson about parents in general and fathers in particular. I’ve learned that underneath the bluster of some irritable and difficult dads there are men who desperately love their children. If we tap this potential, good things can happen.