Dad’s Eye View: Nurturing Healthy Father-Son Relationships

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Father-son relationships have come a long way in recent years. Dads, how can you ensure that you and your son have a successful, happy, and loving relationship? Learn important tips that will enrich the relationship between father and son.

For some guys, the topic of father-son relationships brings to mind Harry Chapin’s sad ballad “Cat’s in the Cradle.” The song’s speaker is a dad who never spent much time with his son. The neglect comes full circle when his son becomes a busy young father and won’t make time to see the dad. In the final verse, the old man realizes, “As I hung up the phone it occurred to me / He’d grown up just like me … My boy was just like me.”

To avoid learning this lesson, it’s crucial for men to have insight into their own ideas about fatherhood and masculinity as well as their boys’ emotional needs.

Why We’re Afraid of Fathering

Not all future dads are scared of fatherhood, of course, but those who are will do well to explore instead of ignore their fears. Guys who clashed with their own dads growing up are prime candidates for parenting concerns: the fact that kids grow up to parent the way they were parented has been observed not just by Harry Chapin. Psychologist Dr. Jerrold Shapiro, PhD, author of the book The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Man You Wish Your Father Had Been, notes that many men who say they want to be the opposite of their own fathers actually end up resembling them in all the ways they’ve tried to avoid. Dr. Shapiro lists ten aspects for men to examine, including their fathers’ histories, self-perceptions and relationships with women, as well as the men’s own feelings towards their childhood. Ultimately, the aim of understanding these relationships and challenging parenting fears is to make men aware of other options for how they can act as fathers.

What Confuses Us About Masculinity

In the mid-1900s, the stereotypical American dad ran his family by giving orders and advice. The rewards he sought from home were peace and quiet to read the paper or watch the game and respect and admiration for his abilities to provide and protect.

The ensuing social changes of the 1960s and ’70s led to what psychologist Dr. Mark O’Connell, PhD, calls the “sensitive man” movement of the ’90s, as well as its backlash, the “real man” movement. In his book The Good Father: On Men, Masculinity, and Life in the Family, Dr. O’Connell observes that “sensitive men” seek to correct the traditionally masculine “aggression, hierarchy, and power” by being “empathic, connected, caretaking, and understanding”—qualities typically associated with femininity and motherhood. In antagonistic response, says Dr. O’Connell, “real men” exaggerate their traditional masculinity.

Both the “sensitive man” and the “real man” concepts fail to represent a complete man, Dr. O’Connell argues. Men need to acknowledge that their biology (body size, testosterone, and brain structure) predisposes them to aggression, hierarchy, and power, which does enable them to commit horrific violence and abuse. However, men must also recognize that their aggressive, powerful sides can impel them to motivate and protect others. Dr. O’Connell gives examples of how fathers have kept their children from self-destructive behavior in assertive ways. Rather than utterly rejecting aggression, hierarchy, and power, Dr. O’Connell believes that “If we are to be better men, and better fathers, we’ll have to own these elements, value them, and yet keep them in scale. Because one thing is certain. A father needs to feel solid in his own sense of masculinity if he is to help his children.”

The question of how a man develops his own sense of masculinity becomes especially important for the fathers of sons, since young boys instinctively look to close older males as role models. Dr. O’Connell doesn’t provide a bulleted list of activities; rather, he explains that men must learn to father “from the inside out,” which means paying attention to their own internal promptings of what a father should do. In a sense, it means trusting fatherly instinctsbefore trying to act according to the characteristics of “sensitive” or “real” men, or trying to live out idealized father-son interactions.

What Our Boys Really Need

Given boys’ biological predisposition to aggression, hierarchy and power—and the social forces that reinforce them—it’s vital for fathers to actively teach their sons to “come to know, respect, and harness [their] drives and instincts,” in Dr. O’Connell’s words. The following is a bulleted list of what dads can do to help their sons become complete, responsible men.

Safe Roughhousing: Steve Biddulph, psychologist and author of Raising Boys, states that boisterous play gives young boys a socially acceptable form of physical touch and closeness. It also provides dads with a powerful way of teaching their sons the physical self-control they’ll need later as boyfriends, partners, and fathers. Men can find the balance between their young sons enjoying themselves and getting frustrated or hurt by using rules (no punching, kicking, etc.) and by asking how their sons are doing as the play-fighting progresses. By doing so, dads model that concern for others’ feelings can be maintained during physically engaging play.

According to studies the US, UK, and Russia, young children whose fathers play in a rough-and-tumble way with them—and provide firm but fair discipline—are rated as more popular and less aggressive than their peers.

Empathy and Engagement: An implicit key to Dr. O’Connell’s model of masculinity is that men don’t have to be either sensitive and nurturing or competitive and authoritative—they can (and should) be both. This combination is hinted at in the concept, described above, of fathers being emotionally attuned while wrestling with their kids.

Empathy may have been traditionally viewed as a mother’s quality, but it’s also necessary for fathers to have a complete relationship with their children. Adam Chapman, a counselor in Perth, Australia, has done pioneering research and work reintegrating families in which domestic violence has occurred by reuniting abusive fathers and their children as part of the healing for both.

“The key is for these fathers to learn how to develop empathy for their kids. We teach them to be able to see the world from the child’s perspective and recognize how it feels,” Chapman says. “It’s a hard road for most abusive dads, but those who learn to feel empathy for their children are usually able to progress toward engagement with them. With engagement, the father and child are interacting—for example, working together or playing—and the child feels safe. Not just physically safe, but actually content to be with the dad.”

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