I talked recently with Terrence Neff, MD, an Idaho pediatrician and father of three who says that modern dads would probably be criticized if they parented like their own dads did. Dr. Neff told me that his father used to drop him off alone in the woods to hunt rabbits all day in sub-zero temperatures when he was 12 years old–a practically implausible parenting scenario in today’s world.
“My father was a rancher, and his experiences led to his parenting style which was basically that I could go out and I could explore the world on my own, and he trusted that I would be safe doing that,” he said. “He would drop me off at the bottom of the Yellowstone River Valley in the morning as soon as the sun came up so I could hunt cottontail rabbits all day long. It may be 40 degrees below zero–that was my limit–40 below zero,” he said with a chuckle. “And as long as it was above that temperature, he’d let me hunt rabbits; otherwise, he said it was just too cold out there. And when I got too cold, I would walk to a ranch house somewhere along the river bottom, call him on the phone, and he’d come pick me up.”
“The way my father parented– letting me go hunting all day and explore–might be called ‘child abuse’ in this day and age. But again, it was different back then. Our role as fathers (back then) was to let kids experience things in safe ways, and we have to keep doing that. We can’t keep our kids in the house all the time assuming they’re going to be safe there, because I don’t think they will be (safe) because they don’t learn about themselves and about the world and about things that go on in the world,” he said.
Asked for his opinion–as a doctor and a dad–about how men can be successful fathers, Dr. Neff said this: “First of all, trust yourself; if you do things that seem reasonable, then you know what? That’s probably okay. The second thing is, don’t try to second-guess yourself all the time. Never go back and say, ‘Geez, I should’ve done something different.’ As parents we do the best we can at the time. You cannot do better than the best you can. If you had to do it again, might you have done something differently? Yes, but at the time you were doing your best, and you should never beat yourself up for doing the best you possibly can,” he said.
“I think we, as parents, are too much into having our kids experience what we think they need to experience–to be successful, whatever success is in this world. We force our kids to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities when truly what they need the most is to just be kids,” he said. “Your kids grow up too darned fast. Enjoy every single minute you get.”
Dr. Neff graduated from medical school more than 30 years ago, so he’s seen many children and parents in his doctor’s office. “The interaction we’ve had with fathers has changed a lot since I started practicing medicine. Years ago, it was mostly moms bringing their children to the doctor. Nowadays, fathers play a bigger role at home. It’s been a big switch,” he said.
Asked what practitioners, educators, and child-and-family advocates can do to help parents keep kids healthy, the Idaho pediatrician said there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned in-person visits to the doctor. Some parents, he says, want to rely upon what they read online and try to self-diagnose their child based on apparent symptoms.
“Today’s modern technology–the Internet–is an absolutely wonderful thing, but it’s also awful for parents. There’s so much [medical] information out there, and it’s very difficult for parents to sort through what that information is. I would recommend that if you do have questions, please talk to your [medical] providers. If you have questions about what they’re doing, or why they’re doing something, or why they’ve recommended one thing over another, it’s okay to talk about it. We’re big people; you’re not going to bum us out or make us feel bad if you ask us questions about what is going on.”