Dr. Gregory Popcak, an internationally known marriage and family expert, radio host, and author of more than 20 books, discusses the importance of fatherhood, and some practical ways for men to understand the love of God and then apply that love to being a better father.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today, in anticipation of Father’s Day, which is June 18, we are going to be discussing the importance of fatherhood, and some practical ways for men to understand the love of God and then apply that love to being a better father. Our guest today is Dr. Gregory Popcak, who is a psychotherapist and Executive Director of Pastoral Solutions Institute. An internationally-known marriage and family expert, radio host, and author of more than 20 books, Dr. Popcak drew on decades of counseling experience, as well as his own experience as a father, to write his newest book, BeDADitudes: 8 Ways To Be An Awesome Dad, which we will be discussing today. Dr. Popcak, welcome to Family Policy Matters, it’s great to have you on the show!
GREGORY POPCAK: Thanks for having me, John.
JOHN RUSTIN: It’s our pleasure. Dr. Popcak, we know that one of the greatest tragedies of our present day society is the breakdown of the family. We see it, unfortunately, on a daily basis. Much of this has been driven by the absence of a father in the home. But I know that you have talked about a sense of family loss even in circumstances where a father is physically present. As we begin our discussion today, talk about that a little bit if you would.
GREGORY POPCAK: We’ve kind of lost the sense of family in society. We tend to think of family as more of an accessory than an activity. It’s something that we have, not something that we work at. It was really not that long ago, a generation or two, where we thought of family life as the place that socialized our kids, where we got together for working together, praying together, playing together, talking together, and then if we did any other activities they had to fit around family activities. Well now, what’s happened, because of the divorced culture and so many families have broken up, […] we really see that it’s society’s job to socialize kids. So, we have our kids enrolled in 20,000 activities on a Wednesday night to make sure they can just be normal and healthy and grow up to be able to do stuff. And that sense of family as an activity has been lost. So we end up with families that are defining themselves as a bunch of people living under the same roof and sharing a data plan, instead of people who are actually creating a life together.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s a tough way to put it, but very true. I think there are a lot of our listeners who can probably relate. And I know, Dr. Popcak, that we see so many different family structures in our culture today. What is so unique and important about the role of fathers in those families?
GREGORY POPCAK: There’s a lot of really interesting ways to answer that question. I’m going to start with a really fundamental principle, which is that fathers and mothers really do bring different things to the table, even just in terms of how our physiology affects our kids development. For instance, there have been some really interesting studies recently on rat pups. Now you may say, what do rats have to do with humans. Well, because they’re a higher order of mammals, their brains work similarly to how a human brain works, and you can extend findings that you get from that kind of research to human interactions as well. And what we’ve been able to see in these studies is that when a mom rat is present to her pups that actually stimulates the pups brain in a way that teaches that brain how to down-regulate from stress. So if the rat pup is stressed, that present mom helps the rat pup de-stress. But if a dad rat is present to his rat pup, it actually stimulates the brain in a different way that teaches that baby’s brain to down-regulate from aggression. So if that if that rat pup is more aggressive, then the presence of that loving, attentive father enables that brain to learn how to calm down from aggression. And we see that anecdotally in the culture, where fatherlessness has led to a real chronic issue with male aggression, gang violence, increased violence in urban cities, where you see that lack of fatherlessness. So, I think it’s not unreasonable to extend that out. The reality is, fathers and mothers do bring different things to the table, not just because of cultural and social programming, but physiologically for who we are and how we actually affect the development of our children’s brains.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Popcak, what do you think is the most challenging part of fatherhood today, considering some of the issues that we’ve talked about, the pressures, things that vie for our time and attention in our culture?
GREGORY POPCAK: The biggest issue is that there isn’t anything to really look at to give us a good template for what a good father really does. Our culture sends a lot of different messages, everything from fathers aren’t needed at all, like the old feminist slogan that women need a man like a fish needs a bicycle. And even though that’s an old saying, the reality is that it’s still relevant and a lot of men feel that sense of obsolescence. And I know you have a lot of different models where the culture presents fathers as idiots, as incapable of being fathers or knowing how to do marriage or family life. And then we grow up in homes where dads aren’t present and so we have to make it up on our own. So there isn’t a really good template to follow and that’s one of the reasons I wrote BeDADitudes: 8 Ways To Be An Awesome Dad.
JOHN RUSTIN: We definitely want to talk about your new book, BeDADitudes. I know that the book has an interesting format. Each chapter really discusses one of the Beatitudes as it relates to a man’s relationship with God, with his wife, and with his children. And then, you offer questions to reflect upon at the end of each chapter. I’d love to learn more about why you’ve selected the Beatitudes as really the structural context for a book about fatherhood?
GREGORY POPCAK: When Jesus gave the Sermon On The Mount, He was presenting the very counter-cultural vision of what Christianity ought to look like, about what disciples of Christ ought to look like in their daily lives. He presents a radically different idea of what fulfillment requires from us. But if we’re going to live the Christian life, we’ve got to start with what our Lord gave us as that blueprint for living differently. And so, that’s going to apply to everything. Those Beatitudes don’t just apply to how I think or how I approach work or society, it approaches my relationship. It’s got to re-order how I think about my most intimate relationships, with my spouse, with my children as well. So just thinking about that, it just occurred to me it would be a really good idea to look at what do the Beatitudes have to say about my fatherhood—and fatherhood, in general. And then, building on that as you said, it leads to this triptych structure to the chapters, where the first part of the chapters begins with my relationship to God the Father, because I can’t give what I don’t have. If I don’t have a good relationship with my heavenly Father, I can’t be the father God wants me to be to my kids. And then secondly, I look at my relationship with my wife and the reader’s relationship with their wife. Being a father presumably means having a relationship with a woman, and so I’m going to teach my children how to have a healthy relationship. That’s an important part of fathering as well. So, looking at that relationship with my wife helps me to be able to get a sense of how do I live out my fatherhood in that relationship. And then finally, how do I convey all those things I get from that relationship with God the Father and with my wife, to my children, which is the third section of each chapter as well.
JOHN RUSTIN: How do you find that these concepts relate to men who grew up without a father in the home? I know that one of the things that we see and one of the things that we have concerns about from a faith perspective is that oftentimes, men who did not have a healthy father figure in the home may have a difficult time really conceiving of a heavenly Father who loves them. How do you address that issue?
GREGORY POPCAK: That’s absolutely true. In fact, it’s one of the things we look at a lot in the book: How do we actually get our heads around the idea that our heavenly Father does love us, especially if we’ve had a complicated relationship with our own father or even our own father is missing? The one thing I would say is, as Christians, we’re called to have God as our model. We’re called to be new men, to leave the world behind, and really ask God to transform our hearts from the inside out. So regardless of where we came from, whether our families of origin are wonderful or significantly lacking in some way, we’re called to be more, God calls us to something different. And so the BeDADitudes really look at how the Beatitudes can help us be that new man in Christ and live out the gospel in our homes in new ways, regardless of where we came from. And so, is it great if we have that healthy formation in our families of origin? Absolutely! That gives us a leg up. But either way, we have to be able to be humble enough to bring our whole experience to God and say, “Lord help me know what’s good and what you want me to hold onto from my past. And help me to let go of what I need to let go of so I can be the man you want me to be.”
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Popcak, some of the Beatitudes seem, at first glance at least, to be incompatible with what our culture may consider to be masculine traits. I mean, we want to be real men in our society today. And I’m thinking specifically about the Beatitudes that address mourning. That addresses meekness and mercy, things of that nature. How do you reconcile these virtues, which really are virtues, but how do you reconcile those with true, authentic masculinity?
GREGORY POPCAK: That’s a terrific question and I really go through that in the book. For example, meekness is a really good one because I think a lot of people think of meekness as weakness. But if you look at the original language of the gospel, the Greek word for meek as used in the scriptures is ‘praus’ (πραΰς), which is a Greek military term and refers to a war horse that’s been trained well to respond to its rider’s commands and not be spooked easily in battle. So, meekness isn’t about weakness. It’s about having a heart that’s receptive to God’s command. It’s willing to go in and fight the good fight, but who isn’t just going to charge in and do his own thing or run from the battle. The man whose heart is tuned to God and tuned to his wife and children’s needs and able to bring those needs to God in ways that even when it gets a little scary or complicated, we’re able to really listen to what God wants us to do so we can help our whole family meet its needs in ways that are godly and efficient. That’s one example. Mercy. You know, you talk about mercy. It’s not about just being nice. Mercy is ultimately the virtue that helps us treat other people in a manner that allows them to see their worth in God’s eyes. And I can’t think of anything more manly than to help my wife and children know what they’re worth to God and what they’re worth to me. So through my loving service, I’m able to bring that mercy to them and show them their worth and their value so that they can see that they’re a treasure.
JOHN RUSTIN: In BeDADitudes: 8 Ways To Be An Awesome Dad, you say that fathers ought to have serious conversations about serious issues. What kinds of serious issues should fathers be discussing with their families and what are some practical ways they can do that well?
GREGORY POPCAK: It comes down to, especially, faith and morals. There’s a lot of research that actually shows that unless the father is taking the lead in faith and character formation in the home, that the kids have a much, much less likelihood of owning those faith and values as adults. One really fascinating study took a look at the Second World War and whether people were rescuers of the Jews or collaborators with the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews or bystanders. And one of the things they found in that study was that those children who were raised in households where fathers took the lead in faith and moral formation were much more likely to be rescuers, to be heroic in their response to this terrible tragedy in society, than were children who were raised in households where dads were absent from that conversation. So, if we want to raise kids who are capable of standing up to the culture and really being able to present a godly way, a godly alternative to what society has to offer, then dads really need to be in there, having those conversations, leading prayer in the home, being present to their kids when it comes to modeling what it means to live a Christian life.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Popcak, if you had to boil things down to the most simple level, what would you say is the single most important thing fathers can do for their children and for their families?
GREGORY POPCAK: Listen. It starts with listening. I had a guy come to me once at a men’s conference and say, “You know Dr. Popcak, I know I’m supposed to be the head of my household but how do I know what the right thing is. How do I know what God wants me to do?” And my answer is, “Ask your wife and children what God is putting on their hearts and be willing to work with that.” That doesn’t mean doing what they tell you to do. It doesn’t mean saying, “How high?” when they say jump. What it means is, listen to what their needs are and then lead them in prayer and discussion to find the most godly and effective ways to meet those needs. Don’t impose your agenda on your family. Don’t tell them what they want and what you’re going to do for them. Listen to God speaking to you through the hearts of the wife and the children that God gave you, so that He can transform you into the man that He wants you to be, and enable you to be the husband and father that He’s calling you to be in your home.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Popcak, unfortunately we’re just about out of time this week but I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can learn more about your work and to get a copy of your new book BeDADitudes: 8 Ways To Be An Awesome Dad?
GREGORY POPCAK: They can check me out actually at my website exceptionalmarriages.com. They can also tune into our radio program on CNN XM130 that airs weekdays at 10:00 AM Eastern.
JOHN RUSTIN: Excellent. Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule, Dr. Gregory Popcak, and for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
GREGORY POPCAK: Thanks again for having me.
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