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Figuring Out How Best to Be a Father Figure

Times Staff Writer

When Jim Trujillo was a young child, he recalled, “My mother took care of us (four children). Our dad never bathed us. It just wasn’t accepted that a man would get that involved in raising his children.

Today, Trujillo, a 33-year-old salesman from Garden Grove, regularly bathes his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Richelle, and shares other child-rearing responsibilities with his wife, Rhonda.

“I love my father and I respect him, but I think he lost out on a lot of our growing up,” Jim said. “I want to be a part of my daughter’s growing up.”

Echoing this view, Thomas Kent (T.K.) Brimer, the father of a 4-year-old son and 15-month-old daughter, said, “I think fathers of today can do so much more with their young children because there’s more educational assistance available to show you how to be an effective father.”

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“My dad did a great job with his limited knowledge, but like other fathers of yesterday, he relied on folklore,” said 37-year-old T.K., owner of the Frog House surf shop in Newport Beach.

Jim and T.K. are examples of the so-called “new fatherhood” movement in which dads are interacting more with their preschool-age children. Although the Trujillos are a dual-career family and the Brimers are not, both Jim and T.K. have taken on child-rearing responsibilities that men traditionally have eschewed, and both have turned to parenting classes such as those offered by Dorothy Apel at Coastline Community College.

Apel, 47, disagrees with those who say that the “new fatherhood” is more cosmetic than real: “Sure, there are some families where the mother still does it all--putting in a full day at work and then coming home to cook and clean. But I think things really have changed.”

Six years ago, Apel began supplementing her regular parenting classes by offering daylong “Daddy and Me” workshops just for fathers and their preschool-age children.

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‘Not That Insensitive’

“Most fathers are very aware that their wives are just as tired as they are when they get home after work,” Apel said. “Modern mothers and fathers are not that insensitive to what it takes to keep a house running.

“Sure, some of the men in my parenting classes are well-to-do and have hired a housekeeper and gardener, so the husband’s doing his fair share of the household work is not an issue with his wife,” said Abel, a credentialed parent education instructor who holds a master’s degree in early childhood education. “But these men still interact a great deal with their children.”

Even in households where the wife is a homemaker, Abel believes husbands are taking on child-rearing tasks traditionally in the wife’s domain.

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Although Linda Brimer, 32, is the part-time bookkeeper at T.K.'s surfboard shop, she is essentially a full-time homemaker. They share their Huntington Beach home with 4-year-old Dane and 15-month-old Criley.

A surfer and builder of surfboards, T.K. started taking parenting classes a year ago at Linda’s suggestion.

“Linda could see I needed the classes,” recalled T.K., a laid-back Florida native who during a recent interview at Apel’s home sported the surfer’s trademark polo shirt, shorts and thongs. “I didn’t have the ability to handle parenting problems when they arose.”

Friends Not Much Help

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“It used to be that young parents had extended families living nearby to give you some pointers,” interjected Linda, who had taken parenting classes before T.K. did. “Today it’s more difficult to pick up parenting skills.”

Nor are T.K.'s friends sources of knowledge about fathering techniques. Like a lot of young fathers, he’s found that most of his friends don’t have children.

“By going to these classes,” T.K. explained, “I was able to draw on the past experiences of the other parents in the course. With the new approaches I’ve picked up, I’ve been able to get better results in dealing with Dane and Criley. It sure beats parenting by the seat of your pants.”

T.K., who had experienced particular problems in relating to Dane, said, “Kids have fits in restaurants all the time. My reaction was to spank Dane to show the other people there that I could control my kid--that I’m a good father who’s not going to let my kid misbehave in public.

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“I’d been expecting a 4-year-old to act like an adult. I hadn’t understood his end of the problem. I’m now more patient with Dane, and I’m more realistic in my expectations of how a 4-year-old should behave.”

T.K. believes his new-found sense of serenity in handling Dane has been achieved in large part because of the highly structured two hours a week they’ve been spending together over the past year in Apel’s class. There, fathers and their children play typical preschool games designed to show the fathers how young children learn and how they view the world differently from adults.

Through Child’s Eyes

“Fathers are required to paint pictures alongside their children using a preschooler’s brush and easel, to ride a (specially built) tricycle with their children and to do other hands-on activities so that they can begin to see the world through the eyes of a small child,” explained Apel, who is the mother of a 21-year-old daughter and 19-year-old twins.

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While Dane and the other children play outside during the concluding hour of the three-hour session, Apel leads T.K. and other parents in a discussion session to supplement their hands-on parenting training and the required reading.

Much of the conflict that formerly arose between T.K. and his son, he now realizes, came about because he didn’t know how to communicate with a small child. When Dane would ignore his requests to do something, an angered T.K. would loudly order Dane to comply with his wishes, which only prompted Dane to throw a temper tantrum.

T.K. said he failed to realize at the time that these flare-ups invariably occurred while Dane’s eyes were glued to the TV. T.K. learned that he first had to get Dane’s undivided attention by eliminating distractions such as TV.

Learning to be a better father, of course, has meant setting aside three hours a week for the classes he attends with Dane.

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“I’d rather be surfing or playing golf, but I guess I’ve developed into a concerned parent,” T.K. said with a sheepish grin.

At his surfboard shop now, whenever T.K. sees a father frustrated by his misbehaving son, he pulls the father aside and recommends that he take a parenting course.

Favorable Reaction

“Fathers really react favorably because they’re interested in making things easier on their sons and themselves,” T.K. says. “Something like this wouldn’t have happened in a surf shop 10 or 15 years ago.”

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Perhaps the greatest transformation in the father’s role has taken place in two-career families like that of Jim Trujillo and wife Rhonda, 31, who live in Garden Grove with daughter Richelle. Jim is a salesman and Rhonda a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service. They both recently completed a nine-week parenting skills course taught by Apel.

Jim wants Richelle to feel as comfortable with him as she does with his wife, which has not always been the case. For the 1 1/2 years following Richelle’s birth, Rhonda stayed home.

“Richelle became very attached to Rhonda and would only let mommy do things for her,” recalled Jim during a recent visit with Richelle to the Peterson Learning Center in Huntington Beach, where he plans to attend the “Daddy and Me” workshop this coming Saturday. “When I’d try to put Richelle to sleep, she wouldn’t let me. That hurt a lot.”

Jim, whose hours are more flexible than his wife’s, greeted her return to work with joy because “this gave me the opportunity to take more of the responsibility for raising Richelle. I’d get her up, dress her, drive her to the baby sitter and bathe her in the evening.”

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Child Felt Resentment

Yet, there were things Jim was doing that were counterproductive. When Richelle used to get angry or upset, Jim, like many parents, would try to change her mood by telling her that she should feel better, causing Richelle to resent his controlling approach.

Explaining her philosophy that young children should “own their own feelings,” Apel said, “if a child falls down, scratches herself and starts to cry, a lot of parents will try to comfort her by saying: ‘Oh, you’re not hurt so bad.’

“Or if the child says she’s hungry, the mother will try to convince the child that she’s not really hungry, instead of simply saying, ‘I know you’re hungry honey, and we’ll be eating in an hour.’ ”

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Recalled Jim, “When I’d get Richelle up in the morning, sometimes she’d want to stay in bed. But I’d get her up anyway, and she’d fight me as I dressed her. I’d tell Richelle, ‘You’re mad at Daddy,’ and she’d say, ‘Yes.’

“And what made it even worse is that she’d stay mad at me all the way to the sitter’s and not kiss me goodby.”

Only after Jim discussed this problem in Apel’s class one night did he realize that he wasn’t really listening to what Richelle was telling him when he was dressing her or understanding the feelings behind her words.

“I was rushing to get Richelle ready for the baby sitter so that I could get to work on time,” Jim confessed. “When Richelle would say, ‘I want to do it'--do that part of the dressing she could manage--I’d ignore it.

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‘Why Such a Hurry’

“But after doing some (of the parenting class-assigned) reading and participating in classroom discussions with some of the other parents, I began to ask myself: ‘Why am I in such a hurry? It’s not going to hurt to slow down and give Richelle the extra time she needs so that she can dress herself.’ ”

Even before Richelle was born, Jim had decided that he wanted to be as involved as possible in the growth of her early years. But in retrospect he realizes he didn’t fully appreciate the commitment he was undertaking.

“We waited five years before having Richelle, and we discussed the amount of time it would take to raise a child,” Jim said. “We realized that as a couple (without children) we were free to do pretty much as we pleased, and we understood that having a child was going to change our life dramatically, and we were ready for that. But we’ve been surprised by some of the problems we’ve run into.”

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Most of the Trujillos’ close friends, as with the Brimers’, don’t have children but have reacted favorably to their taking Apel’s parenting course, Jim said. In fact, several of the Trujillos’ friends who are considering having children are planning to take a parenting class before they have children to get a better feel for what to expect.

Contrasting his father’s limited involvement in how he was raised with the large role he has played in rearing Richelle, Jim said, “I don’t think my father didn’t get involved because he didn’t want to; it’s just that in the back of his mind he didn’t think it was right.”

Shops for Daughter’s Clothes

Free of the constraints of his father’s generation, Jim added, “I’ll be over at my in-laws and the women will be talking about kids and I’ll join in while by brother-in-law is watching sports on TV.

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“I shop for Richelle’s clothes. It doesn’t bother me what people might be thinking.”

What does a two-career family do when the baby sitter isn’t available? The Trujillos recently were faced with that problem when their baby sitter had to go out of town one Friday. Employing an increasingly common solution, Jim stayed home to care for Richelle, and Rhonda went to work.

“My job’s a lot more flexible than Rhonda’s,” Jim said. “Sure, we could have called grandma. But I see it as part of my responsibility as a father to take care of Richelle at times like that. And Richelle and I had a great time together.”


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