Reflections on Fatherhood with John Suhar

Fatherhood can have many forms: whether it’s your biological dad, or father figure, or even a network of friends and family that take on a paternal role. Regardless of how they earn the coveted “Dad” title, it’s an important presence in anyone’s life — but what about the perspective of what it’s like to actually get to be a father? 

So in celebration of Father’s Day, we wanted to hear from someone with firsthand experience: talented photographer and environmentalist John Suhar. John shares what being a father means to him, as well as important lessons he learned from his own father — from the value of curiosity, to how important it is to care for our planet — that he’s now passing down to his son, River.

Father son sunset beach John Suhar

What does being a father mean to you?

Father is one of the greatest identities for a man, and making the most of fatherhood for me means pursuing my creative dreams and continuing to build a life that integrates professional and personal endeavours. In saying that, I’m often reminded of this quote, “A master in the art of living draws no distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his excellence through whatever he is doing.” — L.P. Jacks, an English educator and philosopher. This quote and this philosophy is something my wife and I try to live by: incorporating it into our work and play, and having them dovetail with our passions for environmentalism and conservation and yoga, movement, and mindfulness, and into our son River’s life and upbringing. 

To me being a father is much more than a name, it implies life and community. Being a father is only possible with a strong, supportive, and loving community. Since having our first child, River, and even leading up to his birth, I received advice from my paternal father, my father in law, new fathers, experienced fathers, pet fathers, and unconventional father relationships. It all proves useful, helpful and wise and I’m grateful for all the guidance I received and am happy to share this with others. I truly believe it takes a village to raise kids, and think this community aspect is extremely important and can be lacking in some cultures today.

Father son forest walk John Suhar

How has your own dad influenced you?

When I see how much my parents have done with their lives with three children, that has always inspired me to do the most I can with my life. While I didn’t choose it, I won the birth lottery when I came into this world. With two middle class white parents, being born as a white male, I am the most privileged creature on the planet, and I believe I can be doing a lot more as an activist to combat systemic racism. My parents always taught me to treat others how I want to be treated regardless of race or skin color, and that value carries through with me today. 

My parents taught me the value of unconditional love and respect, they taught me to work hard and fight for what I wanted, to be persistent and to never give up on my dreams. They taught us the value of having an innate curiosity and sense of wonder (balanced with a few rules of course), the value of asking questions, developing theories, and experimenting. They taught me the value of the natural world and how I can use this at a young age to explore all my senses. My parents taught me about the healing power of nature and the interconnectedness of all living things. They taught us to always carry out what we carried into our camping site and to pick up any trash that was already there, even if it wasn’t ours. The lessons are endless, with the common denominator to all of them being love.

Nature walk John Suhar son fathers day

What are some special childhood moments you remember?

I have many fond memories growing up, but the ones that always come to mind first are those where I was immersed in nature with my family. Whether it was the empty lot behind our house or a National Forest, I always cherished my time with family in nature. We moved around a lot as when I was a kid, but we would spend extended periods of time during the summer at our family cabin with grandparents, relatives, and cousins. Here I learned more about valuing native and indigenous cultures, and to this day find myself referencing native maps (like the one linked here) to learn more about the land we’re inhabiting. Our cabin was near the Seneca land, a group of indigenous Iroquoian-speaking people native to North America within the Six Nations or Iroquois League (Haudenosaunee). Spending time learning about the Seneca during the formidable years of my youth inspired me to honor, respect, and learn more about indigenous cultures as an adult.

Other special moments I remember are frequent visits to nature centers, farms and wildflower fields. Bonfires and backpacking trips, and even road trips where we would pull to the side to look at cows and horses or to smell wildflowers. On rainy days, when not jumping in puddles, we would spend hours at the library, and when the skies cleared we would go outside and examine worms up close. We were little explorers and spent lots of time on our hands and knees examining the critters in our front yard, ants in the driveway, and butterflies out back.

I also fondly recall engaging in art projects, finger painting, rock painting, and imaginative play with my dad, making tents and forts out of bed sheets, hide and seek games, and treasure hunts. In one of our homes we had a wide carpeted staircase leading to the lower level where my dad, brother and I piled all the pillows and pretended we were bears roaming the land. We’d have pretend campouts in the living room and tell stories by the fireplace, looking at the stars through the window.  

Father son backyard John Suhar

What are some lessons you've learned?

“Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write, and count. It’s a small window of time to learn and develop at the pace that is right for each individual child. Earlier is not better.” 

Magda Gerber, early childhood educator

Taryn and I have learned many lessons and both view education as a science and an art that includes intricate development knowledge with finesse, creativity, and imagination. I’ve learned many valuable lessons from my parents and my community. First and foremost, respect for others, respect for myself, and respect for the environment. In addition, the value of hard work, the value of education (both traditional and non-traditional), and the value of the journey and the struggle, which is essential to becoming a capable person. We want River to accurately assess risks independently, but we are there to support him when needed. My dad taught me, if at first you don’t succeed, try again and the true value of persistence. We also learned about the critical importance of play in a child’s life and how it relates to personal development, and the importance of language rich environments. We learned about the value of messy play and art education that incorporates rich textural experiences to help develop creativity. We also learned about Magda's Gerber's RIE philosophy and try to teach respect for, and trust in our son to be an initiator, an explorer, and a self learner. In alignment with this philosophy, we try to create:

  • An environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging and emotionally nurturing. 
  • Time for uninterrupted play. 
  • Freedom to explore and interact with other infants. 
  • Involvement of the child in all care activities to allow the child to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient. 
  • Sensitive observation of the child in order to understand his or her needs. 
  • Consistency, clearly defined limits and expectations to develop discipline.

Family in forest John Taryn Suhar

Although we incorporate RIE practices, we believe each child is inherently competent and has the right to be respected as an individual.In addition, we both learned the value of imagination at a young age and how it applies to our lives today as an artist, photographer and environmentalist for me, and a yogi, dancer, and movement educator for Taryn. This quote from Albert Einstein is a guiding principle for both of us, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

What is your philosophy on teaching your son about sustainability and caring for the planet?

Our son is going to turn two years old at the end of the year so what he’s learning about sustainability and taking care of the environment is through observation, understanding how we operate, and where we take him. A big component of his education comes from his experiences in the environment, whether that’s him playing in the yard, at the beach, or on the hiking trails as this allows him to create a personal relationship with nature that will benefit him for the rest of his life. Richard Louv talks more about this in his book Last Child in the Woods and part of becoming a responsible adult is having a sense of responsibility for the natural world as a child. A resource we love on this topic is The Outdoor Classroom Project.

In addition, we allow River to spend lots of free unstructured play time outside where he can create his own activities under our supervision from afar. This outdoor, uninterrupted play promotes mental and emotional maturity. We as adults can influence the imaginative nature of play, so we like to give River his independent time when he wants it and engage with him other times. River spends lots of time outdoors, even activities you might consider indoor activities, we try to move outside by putting a blanket down and setting up a safe environment to play in outside, even napping and eating (he loves picnics!). He also learns this through the foods he eats, visiting farms (establishing a connection with animals build empathy), and living a plant based life helps him create a healthy relationship with food.

Environmentalism John Suhar son

What we teach him about living sustainability also comes from the resources we’re consuming (books, articles, podcasts, movies, etc.) and also from the mentors we reach out to who inspire us. Traditionally our parents, but also people we meet in the neighborhood and even on social media. We believe children benefit from relationships with the larger society, so we try to take River all the places we go and have him interact with people like surfers to learn more about the ocean, or mountain bikers on the trails to learn more about our terrestrial habitats. 

In addition, we’re trying to teach our son about Intersectional Environmentalism through the people we gather with, the books we read him, the toys he plays with and proactively address diversity. It is explained by Leah Thomas as, “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet.” 

We find this approach authentic to how we live our lives, but we are also new parents, constantly learning and constantly navigating new lessons. The quote below sums it up nicely.“Play, while it cannot change the external reality of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.” — Patricia G. Ramsey, contemporary American educational psychologist.

All quotes and images courtesy of John Suhar

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