Fatherhood and “masculinity” are changing. You can see it in real time, as I did recently, at Maui Family Support Services’ weekly meeting of the Kāne Connections men’s group. Under fluorescent lighting at the Hale Makana O Waiale Community Center, on plastic fold-out chairs, I sat with a group of about 20 men who ranged in age from early 20s to late 50s. We introduced ourselves, mostly fathers, and connected our pasts to the reasons we were there that Monday night, while sharing our hopes for the future.
The stories were varied. Some were, or had been, estranged from their children. Others were involved in custody disputes. One man, with heavily tattooed arms and a crushing handshake, was three years out of the revolving door of prison and rehab and is now a mentor for others stuck in the painful cycle of crime and addiction. Another was waiting out a three-year-long Temporary Restraining Order. He was taking the time to be the best man he could be, he said. A couple men were new fathers, freshly navigating life with children less than a year old. More than one person had spent time in jail and struggled with addiction. One man was just there for the positive community.
But they had at least one thing in common: They came to the hui kāne (men’s group) to change. To better their lives and relationships. To be the best men they could be. And to support each other on their journey.
“I’ve had to be humble,” one man shared, as he talked about how the Kāne Connections program changed his life. By putting his ego aside, he’d come to see the way his past actions, learned from his own upbringing, hurt others and impacted his relationships.
“I used to think my kids were good kids, that they had respect, but actually they were just scared,” he said. The program taught him that true strength, masculinity, and fatherhood didn’t come from “cracking” his kids – they come from nurturing and being secure with vulnerability and sharing emotions. “I just hug my kids now,” he added with pride.
At the center of the U-formation of tables stood Kawika Mattos, the program administrator for the Kāne Connections program and a commissioner for the Hawai‘i State Commission on Fatherhood. Mattos, 57, is a father himself, having raised five kids (two of which are biological siblings he adopted) and over 30 others from the foster care system. He has six grandkids now too, and for many years has worked with children at the Boys and Girls Club.
For 10 years before Mattos came on board, Kāne Connections was known as the Fatherhood Involvement Team. Mattos quickly observed that single men were turned off by the name “Fatherhood Involvement,” so he convinced his boss to open up the program’s services to all men.
“If men want to learn fathering skills and life skills, then it’s good – especially before they go into a relationship. And, we support them if they do,” Mattos told me when we talked ahead of Father’s Day, just before the June 10 Kāne Connections meeting.
“We have this motto,” he explained. “We believe men should be respectful, responsible, accountable and honest, have integrity, be healthy partners, and be nurturing fathers and role models in our community. So this would include any man, whether single, dad, grandpa, uncle, so on.”
Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Axel Beers: Who is Kāne Connections for?
Kawika Mattos: For anybody. People tell me – and I feel confident – that I was a nurturing father and a sensitive partner. But still, what we talk about, I had to learn on my own. Now we got, not only a great curriculum, but a bunch of guys who are like-minded and are pulling in other men and teaching them.
The goal, unlike when they would come for just three months if they were court ordered for example, is that we’re not going to have time boundaries. So that’s why we have Sam, who was awarded Father of the Year last Saturday – he’s been coming for three years. We got these guys now, who are in this mindset and have gone through this, like Sam. Now he’s in a place where when he speaks, he speaks positive. And guys know him in the community. People see the changes, and now our guys are modeling that change can happen. So it’s for anybody, but I especially want to help guys struggling with addiction and incarceration, and try to break the cycle. And it’s proven that it does work.
AB: What are some of the goals of Kāne Connections?
KM: Because of the way we were raised, a lot of guys struggle with parenting, struggle with relationships, struggle within the community. Oftentimes it’s a lot of pain that men have gone through from childhood that makes them do the things that they do and even struggle with incarceration. So the main goal, which is why this program started, was to support fathers, especially for children in early childhood development stages. That was the intent. It still is; in fact, right now I’m funded by the County of Maui under Early Head Start. It’s also to encourage, support, and help men improve their relationships, to help them figure out if there is addiction.
Also, it’s support. The group is one thing, and then, depending on time and availability, we also do one-on-one sessions with the guys who cannot come in the night, or are uncomfortable, or they’re working. For some guys, walking into a group setting gives anxiety.
AB: What kind of topics do you cover?
KM: We use this curriculum called 24/7 Dad. This 24/7 Dad curriculum is through the National Fatherhood Initiative and there are 24 different topics. We look at men of the past and ask, “What does it mean to be a man?” This is important stuff that men don’t talk about: Showing and handling feelings, communication, the father’s role. We look at discipline and their style of discipline, teaching them that discipline means to teach. It doesn’t mean cracks [i.e., hitting].
I convey strongly that you don’t need to hit your kids. But in order to replace hitting the kids and thinking that’s the way to teach them, you got to teach skills and understanding of how those cracks actually affect them – short term and long term. The prisons are full of guys who got dirty lickins. So lickins never work. It’s all the other things, like constant nurturing that makes our children go from dependent to independent.
A typical lesson would start off with open-ended questions. Like tonight we’re gonna go over children’s growth. It’s all open-ended questions to create some dialogue, and then we give them information. And in addition to that, I have a whole bunch of local stuff that I teach and a lot of culturally sensitive stuff.
AB: How do you think fatherhood and the idea of what it means to be a “man” has changed over time?
KM: Before, the father’s biggest responsibility was providing financially and providing cracks to the kids to keep them in line. What has absolutely shifted – which is awesome – is that women have become stronger and more independent, and are playing a dual role. And it’s sad, too, that there are more single moms and dads. So the role has changed, where men also have to nurture. We try to teach the guys: What does that actually look like?
What we’re going to talk about tonight is that the same-sex parent or role model is the biggest influence. Sometimes you might have a “mommy’s boy” or a “daddy’s girl,” but a boy learns how to be a man by the men in this kid’s life. They’re constantly watching, and how we react to each other is how kids react to each other and how they will treat each other or their spouse. There are all these dynamics going on that most of us don’t even think about. So, getting the fathers involved is really to teach them – not the old school where, you know, boys are told at 6-years-old “Don’t cry, be a man.”
Throw that out the door and be there to nurture, because I feel strongly in the evidence that relationships end quickly because of the way we’re raising – that we’ve been raising – boys for many years. And likewise for girls. They can’t understand each other because she wants to be nurtured and he doesn’t know how. That’s a big deal. Getting the men to understand it’s OK to nurture is the key. It’s OK to bend down, to not overpower. Bend down, talk to your kids, be nurturing, because if you nurture your boys, especially as a role model, then the boy’s going to be nurturing to their other half and they can show sensitivity.
AB: What are some of the challenges facing modern dads?
KM: One is that they may not be as up on social media as most women and moms are, so we encourage them to be. If they’re resistant to social media or technology in general, we try to help them understand that it’s an important part of today’s world. We understand technology is not bad, however, what we’re doing is bad when we’re using technology to babysit kids. Kids are not developing life skills, and even worse is that social media is influencing them. In my generation, the TV shows were positive, it was all about family. Today, it’s lessening where kids don’t feel connections. They long for role models. They long for all these positive things, but if they pick up social media and all the stuff that sits on the internet, [the disconnection is] gonna get worse.
AB: I was a little hesitant to do this story, because in this era when we are becoming more conscious of the struggles women face, it seems strange to write about men. What are your thoughts about the #MeToo Movement?
KM: I’m glad that this #MeToo Movement is happening because women need to have a voice. By the same token it cannot go so extreme, like some of what’s happening in court. It’s gone from women being victims to men being victimized because they don’t ask for help right away.
I honor Women Helping Women and the work that they do that supports women. But it went from “I don’t want to file that Temporary Restraining Order” to it becoming a culture where the first one to file the TRO has the upper hand within the court system, even if it’s a false TRO. And there are many TROs that get dismissed by the judge.
So the concern is, men don’t ask for help right away, and then they get hit with a TRO. Now they’re emotionally and psychologically damaged while they’re already going through chaos with a partner. And then they can’t communicate with the kids or their other halves. They get angry because growing up, they weren’t taught to take care of themselves. They were taught to stuff all their emotions, “Men don’t cry,” and all these things. Then they go to court and in this quick window of time, they’re supposed to express themselves and they don’t know how except to just blow up and then – boom – now they get the TRO confirmed by the judge, sometimes even longer than expected.
So now they got their kids taken away, they may not want the relationship or may be struggling with the relationship, and over time there is a longing for connection. It becomes crazy for kids and for men, and in my first year there were two men that said that they were considering suicide. They were in that scenario.
It was a positive thing that both of them got therapeutic help and we were able to help support them through that process. But most men have a hard time handling their emotions, and they’re going to react because that’s what they were taught.
So coming here we dialogue stuff like that and we – not only me but the other guys in the group – help the men to understand that they can do this and they’re OK, and when times get tough, we’re here to support each other. We teach them to honor women. We need women in our lives. The kids need moms. Kids need both mom and dad, and grandparents, and family in their lives. They really do. And that’s what we teach.
AB: Any final thoughts?
KM: Guys should know that there is help out there. Before giving up, reach out. This is about helping all these guys, regardless of their struggles. It’s a brotherhood – a brotherhood of support. I know that some of this stuff that they’ve been through takes time – sometimes because of the trauma it takes years. If we’re supporting each other, we can make a difference. When you’re raising your son or daughter, you’re really raising your grandchildren. Everything you invest into your kid is what they’re going to do with their own children.
Kāne Connections meets on Mondays at 6pm in the Hale Makana o Waiale Community Center. To learn more, visit Mfss.org/fatherhood-involvement-team, email Keikimatters@mfss.org, or call 242-0900.
Cover design by Darris Hurst and Brittany Skiller