Working on your mental health is one of the most important things you can do. For dads, it’s something that far too often gets neglected. It doesn’t fit neatly on a to-do list, which, for many of us, is already longer than a CVS receipt. But making your mental health a priority is essential to being the best dad you can be. Not only will it better equip you to handle that daily grind, it’s also a powerful example for your kids as they begin their own mental health journeys.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, paternal mental health is on the decline. The reasons feel familiar. The modern dad does more than the generations who raised us. Grandpa never changed as many diapers as we do, and our own dads likely didn’t arrange as many play dates and help as much around the house. We do all these things willingly and happily, in addition to our “traditional” responsibilities, despite not being raised to see these things as part of our job.
Unfortunately, talking openly about mental health is another responsibility many fathers weren’t raised with. Back in the day, options were limited to “walking it off” or “rubbing some dirt on it.” Rarely did we think, as a society, about giving men a place to put their feelings or the tools they needed to improve their emotions. It may shock you to learn there are very few scientific benefits to applying dirt to yourself, and it is only slightly less uncomfortable to wash it off than it is to talk about the issues that made you rub the dirt on in the first place.
More importantly, our kids need those tools. Mental illness among teens has skyrocketed in recent years. Tragically, there has been a corresponding rise in the suicide rate among teens. More than ever before, our kids need to see us make mental health a priority by taking action to improve and support our own mental health..
Where do we start? It was Seneca who said of fools that the one thing they’re always doing is “getting ready to live.” One thing far too many parents have in common is that they are always putting off taking care of themselves. We’re all familiar with how quickly the calendar fills up. Every busy week begins with us muttering “I’ll get to it next week” and then next week never comes. This deprioritization of our own health may come from a good place, but the results are good for no one.
So, break it down into simple things you can do to set yourself on the right path and be a powerful example for your kids. Here are four things you can do today to improve your mental health.
You’ve probably heard it said if there was a single magic bullet in medicine, it would be exercise. It’s the one thing you can do that has the quickest tangible result. A few more flashy sentences about exercise and its (overwhelming) scientific benefits won’t compel you nearly as much as the noticeable improvement in how you feel after doing it for a week.
Parenting bonus: this is one you can do with your kids. You don’t need to replace a 30-pound kettlebell with your toddler, although they do love being tossed into the air. Simply incorporating a regular walk with your kids is a great way to get in more steps, get them outside, and have a chance to talk with them (away from normal distractions) about their day. Even kicking a ball around the backyard with your kids can be good exercise and great quality time.
If you can’t incorporate a full workout into your schedule, you can develop your own parenting tricks to incorporate more movement into your day. Author Sebastian Junger chose not to use a stroller when his kids were young. When he was on the Daily Stoic podcast recently, he explained that he wanted to be physically closer to them, so he would carry them (or one, while the other walked). It also made for good full-body exercise.
What you can do today: Take a walk with your kids (and let them direct any conversation). It’s healthy for them, it’s healthy for you, and they will see what you see as you walk through the world together.
Dads can be hyper-focused on what needs to be done. The email that needs a reply, the gutter that needs to be cleared, and that sink that needs to be unclogged. But taking a few minutes every day to consciously practice gratitude can reframe all the challenges on your list.
The Stoics saw gratitude as a kind of medicine, that saying “Thank you” for every experience was the key to mental health. “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods,” was how Marcus Aurelius put it, “that things are good and always will be.”
Yes, it’s great to be thankful for the usual bounty of life: our families, our health, the food laid out in front of us. But we should also find a way to say “thank you” for the less obvious things: For the setbacks we fought to overcome; for the people who wronged us and taught us about grace; for having our life disrupted by a pandemic and gifting us this chance to spend more time with our kids; for the loss of a job or whatever other difficulties we might be experiencing that test our mettle and show us who we are.
When Epictetus talks about how every situation has two handles, this is what he means. You can decide to grab onto anger or appreciation. You can pick up the handle of resentment or of gratitude. You can look at the obstacle or get a little closer and see the opportunity.
What you can do today: Start your gratitude practice by taking a minute writing down three things you’re thankful for. Setting an alarm to do the same thing tomorrow. It only takes a few minutes of your day, and it can reframe the whole way you see your world.
Sure, our phones are magical and full of wonder. A zero screen-time rule is draconian and old-fashioned. But there is still a place for the printed word.
There are few better examples of focus and self-improvement we can set for our kids than to set aside some time every week to read an actual, physical book. We want our kids to read. What we don’t do enough is actually the easiest and clearest form of teaching: We don’t provide a good example.
We want our kids to explore their passions and curiosities, and one of the best ways to do that is to dive into a good book. But there is an even more valuable role that reading can play from a mental health perspective: books offer a return to timeless principles and universal virtues, and they become a refuge from the distracting, anxiety inducing pings and notifications of the modern, tech-driven world. Books can both literally and figuratively be salvation.
Reading is also another thing you can do WITH your kids. And as good as reading to them is, re-reading great books to your kids as they get older is even better. As the Stoics say, we never step in the same river twice, and nowhere is this more true than with books. Great writing stays the same…and is somehow different each time we dive back into it. Because we’re different. Our kids are definitely different, because they’re growing so much. We never step into the same river twice, but each time we do, we become better swimmers. So it is with books and being good readers.
What you can do today: Re-read your favorite kid’s book to them. If they’re old enough to read on their own, take 15-20 minutes before the bedtime routine, and you can each read your own book next to each other.
Being a parent means never being short of something to worry about or somewhere you need to be. It can be much harder to commit to being present in the moment when you have these little lives in your hands. But as Mark Twain infamously said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” By forcing yourself to be present, you push those worries out of your head, and fully focus on the task at hand. It’s an especially useful practice when you’re with your kids.
Yeah, it can be boring to play LEGOs endlessly with a toddler. But giving them that attention and letting them explore that unstructured time is invaluable to BOTH of you. And that quiet, small moment making a castle out of blocks is going to be the thing they remember more than any big “meaningful” moment that you try to plan.
Entrepreneur Derek Sivers has talked about how hard he works to improve his attention span. Because the truth is most of the stuff we’re rushing to is not that urgent. “Whatever he’s doing right now, that’s the most important thing,” Derek wrote. “So I encourage him to keep doing it as long as possible. I never say, ‘Come on! Let’s go!’ Of course my adult mind wanders to all the other things we could be doing. But I let it go, and return to that present focus.”
There is a certain amount of Zen in that, which is valuable to us for its own sake. But with regard to our kids, it’s also teaching them a valuable skill. Shouldn’t we want them to develop the ability to focus and pursue their curiosity? Isn’t it worth it for them to get a little dirty or for you to show up to the birthday party a bit late because they were really, intensely alive for a few minutes? Don’t we want them to be present, to not become someone who spends all their energy trying to organize perfect “quality” time when there is so much ordinary, wonderful garbage time to be had? When we think about the baggage we’ve carried into adulthood from our own childhoods, how much better off would we be if our dads had heard even a piece of this advice?
Our kids are always watching, which is why presence is the key to good parenting. It’s foundational to everything else. The house runs smoother, kids are better behaved, and you keep your feet firmly on the ground in front of you, making your parenting journey a little more stable.
What you can do today: Make it a point to spend some time with your kid after dinner (and after homework, etc.). You don’t need to do anything specific or grand, just go along with whatever they want to do. Whatever their favorite thing is, it’s now your favorite thing. When they get older, they’ll realize your actual favorite thing was just spending time with them.
Get Outside In Nature
Seneca wrote about the outdoors as a kind of medicine. In a notoriously loud city like Rome, peace and quiet would have been hard to come by. The noises of wagons, the shouting of vendors, the hammering of blacksmiths—all filled the streets with piercing violence. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” Seneca said, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.”
Marcus Aurelius loved the beauty he found in nature too. He wrote beautifully about the “charm and allure” of nature’s process, the “stalks of ripe grain bending low, the frowning brow of the lion, the foam dripping from the boar’s mouth.”
These wise old thinkers could only intuit the positive benefits that have since been confirmed by science again and again:
[*] Several studies show that nature walks have memory-promoting effects that other walks don’t. In one study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum, and the other took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees did almost 20% percent better than they had first time. The people who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve. A similar study on depressed individuals found that walks in nature boosted working memory much more than walks in urban environments.
[*] A 2009 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that students sent into a forest for two nights had lower levels of cortisol — a hormone often used as a marker for stress — than those who spent that time in a city. In another similar study, researchers also found a decrease in the heart rates of participants who spent time in the forest compared to those in the city. “Stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy,” the researchers concluded.
[*] The natural environment is “restorative” and can be an antidote to waning concentration. In one study, researchers worked to deplete participants’ ability to focus. Then some people took a walk in nature, others took a walk through the city, and the rest just relaxed. When everyone returned, the nature group scored the best on a proofreading task. The attention-improving effect of nature is so strong it might even help kids with ADHD: they’ve been found to concentrate better after just 20 minutes in a park.
You should get outside and spend time in nature every single day. Get the philosophical and psychological benefits hiding in the molecules of clean air, in the coldness of mountain stream water, in the green of a forest canopy. The peace, the quiet, the stillness of nature is an antidote to the disease of busyness, of urban chaos, of over-stimulation and reactivity. These things fracture our mental health. There is no scenario we can think of where deliberate exposure to nature won’t help you.
5 great quotes about parenting and mental health:
“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” — Robert Fulghum
“Regardless of who you are or what you do for a living or where you come from, it doesn’t discriminate, we all go through it.” — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
“Children don’t say, ‘I had a hard day. Can we talk?’ They say, ‘Will you play with me?’” — Lawrence Cohen
“My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say ‘you’re tearing up the grass’; ‘We’re not raising grass,’ dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’” — Harmon Killebrew
“If we start being honest about our pain, our anger, and our shortcomings instead of pretending they don’t exist, then maybe we’ll leave the world a better place than we found it.” — Russell Wilson
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