The Man of the Family

By Betsy Brown Braun September 7, 2011

Betsy Brown Braun is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant.  She is a frequent speaker at educational and business conferences, has been a guest expert on The Today Show, The Early Show, Good Morning, America Now!!, Dr. Phil, Rachel Ray, and on NPR and has been cited in USA Today, NY Times, Family Circle, Parents, Parenting, Working Mother, Cookie, and Woman's Day among other publications.  As the founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc. she offers private consulting and parent seminars.  Betsy is the author of Just Tell Me What to Say and You're Not the Boss of Me

Preparing to leave for deployment raises issues a plenty—for parents as well as for children.  Being away from family for an extended period of time is a whole different story from being gone for just a few days or even weeks. Emotions run high as parents attempt to anticipate what the separation will bring, to account for all possibilities, and attempt to tie off all the loose ends.

Even in the best of circumstances, there is no way to prepare for all possibilities in a parent’s absence. After all, no one can do the Daddy or Mommy job quite as well as the real thing. And certainly no one can predict everything that will happen in his or her absence. But parents can and should put their children (and remaining parent) in a position to handle the parent’s absence with the least amount of emotional upheaval.

Inadvertently and in an effort to replace himself, it is not uncommon for dads to tell their oldest boy, “Son, you are the man of the famly while I am gone.” It is as if he is bestowing an honor.  And, believe it or not, this time worn phrase has been spoken to kids as young as 4 years old, and only with the best of intentions. Truth be told, these 12 words can cause a whole lot of problems and turn a family up-side-down, even when the son is old enough to actually be a father. Not only does your son not truly know what that means to be ”the man of the family,” but most think Hah Hah! I am in charge! I am quite sure that is not what Daddy had in mind.

Putting one child “in charge,” though well intentioned, can be problematic for the whole family.  For the anointed one, it is confusing at best. He is not really sure of the extent of his power and can easily abuse it. Imagine the stress he feels when a problem arises that he cannot solve. Imagine his fear of disappointing his father by doing a less than adequate job. Imagine the pressure he feels to perform in a role for which he has neither the skill, the experience, nor the maturity. The self doubt and criticism can be devastating. Dad thought I could do this, but I can’t. What’s the matter with me?

Putting one child “in charge” disrupts the siblings’ relationships, too. The brother is no longer the brother; he is in a new role, man of the family. He is bossy and pushy and no fun at all.  Singling one child out over the others can create not only competition and jealousy, but also hostility. Acting out, negative, and sometimes regressive behaviors can emerge. And the child who was not anointed man may think, “Why didn’t Daddy ask me to be the man? What’s the matter with me?” or “Does Dad not think I am capable and trust worthy? Why does my brother need to watch over me?” It can inadvertently erode his sense of self, too.

And then there is mom... Can she really rely on a twelve year old? How is she supposed to treat this new man of the family, who may expect extra privileges along with his added responsibilities?  And what if he shirks these? Does the man of the family get punished?! Mom is often left cleaning up the mess when the siblings are no longer getting along, when the little one is acting out, and the new man is too big for his britches.

Dads are not replaceable. Rather than elevating your child to an impossible standard, think about ways you can help your children to deal with Dad’s absence and with their feelings. The family will be whole lot healthier and happier.

  • Be realistic about the expectations you place on your children with respect to Dad’s leaving.
  • Have open, honest, and frequent conversations about how everyone is feeling with Dad gone.  Children need to let the big feelings out in order to manage them.
  • Share your own feelings, but do not make the children feel responsible for your happiness. Help them to see that adults can take care of themselves.
  • Enlist your children’s help, but do not require it. Often children who know that their help makes a difference and isn’t just expected, are quicker to jump in and lend a hand.
  • Praise the children often when they do demonstrate maturity in Dad’s absence.  Keep a list of things you want to be sure to tell Dad about the great ways the kids were responsible.
  • Remind your children that you are still a family, even if Dad is deployed. And families take care of one another.
While you look forward to the day when you child is mature enough to be the man of the family, let it be of his own family. Right now he is still a child in yours.