It didn’t take long for the generation gap to surface when the fathers started talking.
One 20-something complained that once he became a teenager, his parents stopped taking him on trips and, instead, started placing expectations on him. Another young dad lamented that there were no pats on the back after grammar school, because nobody cared anymore.
But the old-timers were having none of it. As one put it, his generation didn’t excel "so our parents could give us something; we did good for ourselves."
Yet despite those differences in how they were brought up, all the men have one thing in common: They want to learn what it takes to be a better dad to their own kids.
In fact, most of the nine men gathered this night are part of one of society’s most maligned groups: black fathers, too often erroneously stereotyped as AWOL and no one’s idea of a role model.
But this Nurturing Father's Program in the Delavan-Grider Community Center is the type of self-help initiative that most of those critics don’t even know exists. It’s one more example of a program already addressing an issue that those outside of the black community think is being ignored.
"The more we normalize things like this, the more we’ll see a change in our community," said Sherman D. Webb-Middlebrooks, a 27-year-old father of two young girls.
The men meet every Thursday evening for 13 weeks with a workbook as a guide. On this evening, they watch part of "Spit’in Anger: Venom of a Fatherless Son," a documentary delving into how men feel about growing up without a dad in their lives and what they learn from it.
The film makes one man realize how angry he was as a child and why he bullied other kids: because he never had a father who came to parent-teacher conferences like the other kids’ dads. It wasn’t until later in life that he learned it wasn’t his father’s fault; his father already was married and his mother didn’t want to break up that family, so she took the boy and came to Buffalo.
Unpacking that kind of emotional baggage is one way this initiative of the Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network helps the men become better fathers.
So are discussions like the one that ensued after one dad recalled reading that black kids aren’t affected by bullying at school because they are bullied by their parents at home. It made him ponder whether his own kids felt bullied, and it sparked exchanges about the proper balance between discipline and love.
One father summed up the challenge of learning from what their own parents had done: "What would you keep, what would you toss, and what would you add? ... That’s one of the reasons why we’re here, because we all had such mixed messages from our parents. How can we improve?"
Xavier Graham, with children ages 11, 3, 1 and a fourth on the way, wanted to get a better understanding of "what it takes to be a father, having no father in my life."
He’s gotten a lot out of the program, including "how to listen to your kids instead of being judgmental, how to discipline without harshness, how to love," Graham, 41, said after the session. "But most of all, how to be that rock for your kids when you know your kids aren’t strong enough to do it on their own."
Michael McKnight, who considers his two grown children his "proudest accomplishments," learned about the program from a church member. Based on feedback from his kids, he thinks he was a pretty good father, but he’s here to learn tips he can pass on to others in classes at his church as well as other churches.
"We have so many young fathers out there, to give them any kind of help would be tremendous," said McKnight, 64. "Being a young father without a father, I didn’t have anybody to turn to. I didn’t have this kind of platform."
The program is based on a national model developed by Florida family counselor Mark Perlman, and is supported with funding from the Oishei Foundation, said Antoine Johnson, coordinator of the Delavan-Grider program.
But the monetary investment is more than matched by the investment the men make each week by coming to this East Side center to become better fathers and, in Graham’s words, "take what I’ve learned today and give it to the youth of tomorrow."