Fathers raising sons
There is a special bond between father and son, perhaps in part because a son will carry on his father name or maybe because of shared interests or simple blood ties. Regardless of the reason, the bond is strong and the relationship full of joy. Former major league baseball player Harmon Killebrew said, “My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. My mother would come out and say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass.’ ‘We’re not raising grass,’ Dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’”
All boys benefit from a strong male figure in their lives and it’s a father’s greatest privilege to be the man that not only gets to enjoy “tearing up the grass” with his sons but also to teach them how to become good men.
Ian Grant, parenting expert and author of Growing Great Boys, believes the role of a father in his son’s life is crucial and that dads can never be too involved with their sons. “Boys whose dads are involved with them from a young age do better in lots of ways — academically, emotionally and socially,” says Grant. “Well-fathered boys show the positive effects years later with an improved capacity for empathy and the health of their social relationships. You have to do whatever it takes to be there for your kids.”
New Zealand’s Nigel Latta, a respected clinical psychologist, parenting expert and author of Before Your Kids Drive You Crazy, Read This!, also stresses the importance of dads being positively involved with their sons and not just physically present. “It’s not as simple as just having a dad. What matters is having a good dad,” says Latta. “Parents have a big influence on how we see the world and develop, so it’s really important that parents teach boys that there are different ways to go about solving problems and that relationships are based on respect.”
While very small boys often express a preference for their mother over their father, this often alters between the ages of two and four when Dad suddenly becomes the main attraction. It’s at this age that little boys get excited about cars, boats, tools and tractors, and as Dad increasingly becomes their partner in play, being just like him becomes their mission.
Many dads rev their boys up with raucous physical play and boys love to wrestle and bounce about with them. This rough-and-tumble is not only a whole lot of fun for a small boy but vital to masculine development. During physical play, boys learn how far they can push and how much they can handle, as well as the all-important “rules” of playing with other males in a physical way while keeping boundaries intact.
As they grow a little older, boys begin to look to their fathers for a model of what “manliness” is and this influence will stay with them even once they become fathers themselves. All children learn from imitating the behaviour of others and it’s only natural that boys will emulate their fathers in the same way little girls do their mothers.
Latta says, “As a general rule, boys like dirty, dangerous things and if you let them do a little of that dirty and dangerous stuff, you’re probably going to have a pretty good relationship. Your role as a parent is to keep the balance so they have enough room to go out and make mistakes and skin their knees, but not so much that they’re roaming the streets and growing up feral.” Play time with Dad arms young boys with the knowledge they need to understand what their limits are.
A father’s role as playmate, guide and confidant is vital throughout a son’s whole life and the adolescent years are no exception — just a whole lot more troublesome. As with teenage girls and their mothers, tensions can arise between father and son when boys hit the complicated and confusing teenage years. At this time, a boy is trying to become his own person and find his own way in the world.
Often a boy sons will seek the confidence and wisdom of his father as subjects increasingly arise that he’d prefer not to discuss with his beloved mother. Latta suggests, “Dads are often better equipped to deal with adolescent boys than their mothers are because they remember what it was like.”
However, it’s not unusual for teenage boys to reject their fathers’ ideals and break away from their influence for a time. Mark Twain famously wrote, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could barely stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
Fathers need to realise they can never be as great as their young boys think they are, nor could they possibly be as stupid as their teenagers think they are. Grant concurs, “Boys at a certain age simply believe their dads are dumb. As a parent you can’t be threatened by that, but a lot of men are.”
It’s up to the father to nurture the relationship with his son during the awkward teenage years as best he can to stop it from weakening irreparably. Sharing a hobby or sport is a great way to connect and that common interest can assist in carrying the relationship through those tumultuous years. Sport is an excellent way for dads to connect with and enjoy their boys. Nothing will motivate a boy to finish his chores or eat his greens as effectively as the promise of a game of backyard cricket.
At the end of the day, the real focus is not what you do but that you do it together. Common interests are about more than just spending time together, though. Boys learn by apprenticeship to their dads and it’s often during these times that a father has the opportunity to teach his son valuable life lessons and skills such as perseverance and the importance of hard work. The care and love of a father during this time can help a teenager become independent and responsible and have good goals in life.
Boys know their mother loves them — they instinctively know that Mum will hang in for them come what may — but they often feel they have to earn a father’s approval. So dads must learn to tell their boys that they have what it takes. Men have a tendency to use put-downs as humour and must try to avoid using sarcasm with their boys too often, and when they do use it to compensate with plenty of positives.
Fathers need to tell their sons how proud they are of them and this is something some men, because of the way they were parented, can find hard. Raised by their own fathers with fear and criticism, a lot of men haven’t learned the skill of inspiring without putting down. Young males will rise to the occasion under the approval of their fathers and fathers hold in their hands the gift of opportunity to inspire their sons to achieve.
“A boy I helped was at university and got two As. When he showed his dad, he said to show it to him when he had four As. That’s too hard. If instead he’d said, ‘Two A’s? You’re good — I bet you can do a third next time’ the boy would have done four. It’s about being the inspirer, not the crusher,” says Grant. “I’m learning still from my grandsons to be the guy who believes in and inspires them. My eight-year-old grandson is a perfectionist. He recently got bowled out playing cricket and he got the pip. Everybody ignored him but I said, ‘Sammy, you’re a good cricketer’, and when he argued I told him that when you’re learning it’s OK to make mistakes. Everyone does. That’s all he needed to hear to get straight back out there.”
Grant suggests that positive reinforcement shouldn’t stop when the kids are grown-up. “I write to my adult children every Father’s Day, just a page telling them how much I admire them. When I first started, my daughter called to tell me she thought it was beautiful and my youngest son emailed me from Great Britain to thank me, but my eldest son said nothing for seven years. He’s a Rhodes Scholar and CEO of a company in Shanghai with 1500 staff. I was talking to him about strategic meetings one day when he suddenly said, ‘Dad, I really appreciate the Father’s Day letters you’ve been writing. I’ve still got the last one in my pocket — it’s been in my suit for a month.’ That blew me away. He’s a very successful man but he still longs for his dad’s approval. I think there are too many fathers who haven’t clicked on to that.”
One of the most important influences a father has over his son is in teaching him how he should treat women. A boy gets much of his attitude towards women and his own future partner from the way his father treats his mother.
Grant tells the story of early 20th century explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who solicited for men to join him on his trip to the Antarctic. His advertisement is said to have read, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Poor wages, long months of darkness, bitter cold. Survival not guaranteed.”
“He wanted 37 men and over 5000 applied for it because boys have always been attracted to risk and adventure,” says Grant. “The trick is that a boy also needs to learn that at the end of his life there should be two rocking chairs on the veranda and that, while it’s OK to enjoy the boys’ own adventures, he also has to know how to treat his partner right and be an equal in the adventure they take together.”
There’s a scene in film The Castle where the mum serves up sponge cake while the dad, Darryl Kerrigan, extols its virtues to his kids. “Why would you go out with your mum doing this high-quality cuisine at home?” he asks. And when he’s told the powder on top of the cake is icing sugar, Kerrigan asks in awe, “Who would have thought of putting icing sugar on a sponge cake?”
What is so right about this scenario is that Kerrigan is honouring his wife in front of his children. And he consistently and persistently affirms his wife during the movie. It’s a great lesson as boys learn how to treat their partners by the way their fathers treat theirs. Grant concludes, “A father who demonstrates his respect for women by honouring his wife is offering a wonderful gift to a generation of future spouses.”
The duty of a good father, and in fact of any good parent, is to lead by example — not to judge or dominate his son, but instead to nurture and guide him into becoming a good man. It’s about educating and encouraging a son to make his own choices, supporting and respecting whatever those choices may be and, if those choices turn out to be the wrong ones, being there to console and comfort him without judgement.