Daniel Huerta says it’s not uncommon for fathers to tell him they’re worried that they’re “messing up” their kids.
Huerta, vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family, says many of the fathers he works with have “fears around the gender issues [and] sexuality issues” in today’s culture, and says dads “don’t know where to start and how to counter the messages that are out there.”
Fathers today are also having to navigate heightened levels of anxiety among kids and teens, says Huerta, a licensed clinical social worker.
“And then there are dads that have [a] tremendous amount of … demands on their life, from work and from the home, with multiple kids, and just a variety of things that are surrounding them, and they just find themselves tired, worn out, and distracted,” he says.
Fortunately, there are practical tools, such as asking simple questions, that Huerta says can help fathers connect with their children in a significant way.
With Father’s Day around the corner, Huerta joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to offer dads a practical road map for how they can move toward having stronger relationships with their children and navigate the parental challenges of the current culture.
Listen to the podcast or read a portion of the transcribed interview below:
Virginia Allen: It is my pleasure to be joined by Focus on the Family’s Dr. Daniel Huerta. Daniel is vice president of parenting and youth for Focus on the Family. Dr. Huerta, thanks so much for being here.
Daniel Huerta: Hey, thanks for having me on the show, Virginia. Excited to be with you.
Allen: Can you share just a little bit about what you do at Focus on the Family?
Huerta: I get to oversee everything that has to do with parenting and youth at Focus on the Family. And so that includes, many people have heard of Plugged In, Clubhouse, Club Jr. magazines, get to also have Brio Magazine for young girls and teen girls.
And then, I’ve got Live It Challenges for families and Bring Your Bible to School Day, and then our website focus on the family.com/parenting. … We have tons of articles and videos, and then Instagram reels, all the social media sites and YouTube, all of that.
And we get to provide content for parents on topics, age and stage topics and then topics that are of top concern to parents. And those are, like, mental health issues, sexuality, technology and entertainment, everyday parenting, and of course, spiritual growth in their kids.
And I’ve gotten to be a therapist for families now for more than two decades, a family therapist, and absolutely love that. And I’m also a dad to two teens, ages 20 and 18. And then, I’ve been with my wife now for 25 years, going toward 26, and love what I’ve been doing here at Focus on the Family.
Allen: There are so many unique challenges that families are facing today. And so, with Father’s Day being this Sunday, I’m really excited to dive in and have a bit of a conversation about parenthood, and specifically ask you to offer some advice for our dads.
In all the conversations that you have with fathers, what do you think are maybe some of the most common fears that you’re hearing from dads these days? What are they worried about when they think about parenting their kids?
Huerta: Well, I’ve heard a lot of dads say, “I think I’m messing up my kids. I don’t think I’ve done enough,” or, “I don’t think I’ve guided them spiritually enough for this culture in this day and age.”
There are a lot of fears around the gender issues, sexuality issues. They don’t know where to start and how to counter the messages that are out there.
Some dads have also expressed a lot of concern around kids that are struggling with anxiety and not knowing what to do with that, with kids either with panic attacks or anxiety overall with culture, not knowing how to lean into that.
And then there are dads that have a tremendous amount of, just demands on their life, from work and from the home, with multiple kids and just a variety of things that are surrounding them and they just find themselves tired, worn out, and distracted.
And the more important things, being able to have intentional conversations or one-on-one time with their kids, they’re saying, “Man, I want to, but I just don’t have the energy or the time.” And mainly it’s the time to be able to fit that in their day to day.
And I do hear a lot of dads really wanting to do well, but their main anxiety is, “Am I doing it enough? Am I good enough? And what do I do when I just don’t have enough time to be able to invest in the family?”
Allen: That’s a hard one. It really is. I think it’s something, like you say, so many people in our culture and society face. What do you tell those dads when they’re sitting in front of you and they say, “I want to be a good dad. I’m scared that I’m screwing my kid up. I want to be present. I want to give them time, but I’m stretched thin. I don’t know that I have any more to give”?
Huerta: A lot of times I’ll ask them, “Who are you comparing yourself to as a dad?” Because dads carry insecurities, everyone carries insecurities into relationships and places they go. And I go, “Who are you comparing yourself to? And where have you learned some of the parenting and what it means to be a dad, where did you learn that along the way?” And so, just taking some time of self-reflection for them.
And then I asked them, “What is success to you? How would you know if you’re doing enough? If you’re saying, ‘I don’t think I’m doing enough,’ what would be enough?” Because it’s not perfection. Being a dad is not about being a perfect person or that you’re performing at a certain level. It’s about being relational.
And all dads have listening skills, some better than others, but it just takes practice. So, you begin with that. “As a dad, can you listen to your children when they’re talking to you?” Because you now have to stop your brain, you have to be right there in that moment. And it can be 10 seconds, a minute, 10 minutes, an hour. “Can you start with that? Can you work on your listening skills?” Most dads will say, “Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I’m distracted, but I can work on that.”
Start with the small things and the things you already have skills on and improve those. And then, being intentional on growing and increasing that.
Then there’s validation. Dads can validate. That doesn’t mean you affirm and you agree with things that your kids may not be doing well, but validating and saying, “Hey, I can see why you see it that way.” And try to see the world from your kids’ eyes because each child has a different personality and a different point of view.
As a dad, it’s powerful when you take the time to get to know your child all the way down into their emotions and perceptions and beliefs. So ask questions. “Hey, so, why did you think that? And what do you think about this?” And asking those questions, those are two things you can immediately do starting today.
And then, if you can find a time to maybe take a walk or have a meal together, to carve out even more intentional space and time with your kids to do those two things, then now you’re taking some really active steps toward influencing them in a world where they’re surrounded by multiple influences, either through the phone or through their friends, through social media, through television.
So many things are coming at our kids. You want to carve out a space where you are there, one-on-one with each of your children if you can. … If you only have time to take your kids as a group, then find a way to do that consistently. And start maybe with one time a month, then go to one time a week. And if you’re able to connect somehow one time a day with your kids in the evening, then, man, you’re doing fantastic. But start with those things.
And then, I encourage dads to focus on these three areas, and it’s very much within your wheelhouse as a dad. And one is to provide security and safety for your sons and daughters to be who they are, imperfections and all.
So, if a son fails at a sport or doesn’t do so well in something, you reassure your son and go up to him and say, “Hey, I still love you. You do these things well, just remember that.” And just being able to embrace your son and let him know that he’s got somebody in his corner.
And then, your daughter with insecurities, she may be caring and dynamics relationally that can just go upside down fast in school and other places. Being able to reassure her that you believe in her, you love who she is, but taking the time to listen to her emotions. That gives a sense of safety and security that a dad can provide in powerful ways.
And then, giving your kids a smile, affection, warmth. That can be a simple smile that is just genuine or walking up to them and saying, “Hey, you know I love you. I would die for you and I want you to know that today.” And that only takes about five seconds right there. But it’s a huge, huge step toward loving your child.
And then, remembering something about them and bringing that up to them, telling them, “Here’s one thing I really love about you.” And just saying that, that shows love. And that all sets the table for you to provide guidance and growth.
You have lots of things to teach, from your relationship with Christ to things that you have learned along the way. And if you can hone in on those three areas, that can help you as a dad as you’re impacting your kids.
Allen: I know as kids grow, go through their teenage years, and especially in this culture, there’s a lot of challenging conversations that parents have to have with their kids. What have been some of the hard conversations that you have had with your kids and how have you navigated that? What tools have you drawn on to be able to speak life and truth into some of the things that they’re navigating as young people?
Huerta: Boy, that’s a fantastic question. And I really—one of the big ones has been the topic of sexuality, with both my son and my daughter. To prepare them, to not only be contributors in their relationship instead of consumers of another person, but contributors in another person’s life.
But learning what God’s design is around sexuality, how to date well and what’s an unhealthy way to date and a healthy way to date. Just all that topic of sexual identity, identity of who they are in Christ.
And I’ve drawn from many different resources, including mentors. And then, I remember reading some of, just starting off with “Sacred Marriage” with Gary Thomas and a long, long time ago and reading that, and then Renovation of the Heart from “Dallas Willard,” and what it means to have a heart that’s deeply rooted there. And just going into Scripture and Deuteronomy and Proverbs and Colossians, those three books have been fantastic in drawing some wisdom along the way on this topic and others.
And my kids and I have talked about the culture and the presidential dynamics, the LGBT things that are happening, and racial, when [critical race theory] was and continues to be a part of cultural conversations, and other news things that are happening. How do we know what’s true, what is not true, what’s politically driven? How do we enter into that prayerfully?
And that’s been me just praying about that as I had that conversation. My wife and I have tried to be intentional around that as stories come up.
Then, the topic of depression and anxiety and how we can have compassion on people that are struggling and wrestling with that. Because all of us have some type of moments of depression and some types sometimes of anxiety and stress, where we can empathize with people that truly have it as a full-blown severe disorder. And how can we come alongside friends and have compassion and really guide them in loving ways toward help?
So, those have been kind of main ones. And then the topic of family and how important it is to be intentional with the time that we’ve got and the importance of a family system that culture seems to be trying to unravel and why that’s important and what God may have for them.
And I do remember having a recent conversation with my daughter. She was 15 at the time, she’s now 18. And I asked her for the first time, I said, “What is it that you actually believe about prayer? Do you believe that when we’re praying, you’re actually talking to a heavenly father that’s listening to tons of prayers at the same time, he cares about what you’re thinking about? That’s a big thing to believe.” And she goes, “Well dad, I don’t know. That’s a hard one to believe, I’m wrestling with it.”
So we, for months, just kind of wrestled through her beliefs and what it means to believe. They got to go to Summit Ministries here locally to deal with worldview topics. From that point forward, we were digging into all the, what are the different world views that are out there and how do we know that the Bible and Christian faith that are true?
And so, we would just carve out whenever we could. It wasn’t a daily thing. It wasn’t even weekly. It was whenever we could, we would do that. Yet we would continue to pray daily and read God’s word. And I would continue to tell her, “This is what this means to me as a dad, and I realize you’re on a journey.”
So, we’ve had powerful conversations that way. And a big one that my daughter’s appreciated is me just listening to her wrestling match of her beliefs and being present, not trying to change it or panicking, but allowing for her to be on this journey of discovery and exploration of what it means to believe in God herself.
So, those are a few of the things we’ve done together as a family.
My son is currently in Taiwan on a missions trip, on a basketball missions trip. And it’s just exciting to see him sharing his faith along the way and seeing him own his faith. It’s been a fun time of discovery and lot of imperfections along the way. I don’t want to present a picture that’s all just beautiful. We’ve had our moments of disagreement.
I still ask my son, “So, what does it mean to have a clean room? What does that look like to you at 20 years old?”
And so, anyway, we continue to have some fun, lighthearted conversations and also just now being able to teach them how to own the life they’ve got in a way that’s a healthy balance on the area of spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, relationally, how can they be healthy human beings?
And I’ve been asking them, “How can I be of support now as your dad? Because I love you, I would die for you, I want you to know that. So I want you to do life well and let me know how I can be of help.”
Allen: Excellent. Dr. Daniel Huerta, thank you so much for your time today and happy Father’s Day.
Huerta: Thank you, Virginia. Thanks for having me on the show.
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