Fathers and Empathy
You may be surprised to learn that one of the earliest lessons baby boys learn about empathy comes through active play with their fathers. Experts theorize that being stimulated in this way allows a baby to be aware of both his father's emotional state (“Is he just playing?” “Is he mad?”) and his own (“Am I tired of bouncing?” “Is this fun?”). Babies can learn to send signals such as crying or pulling away when they need less stimulation. And throughout a boy's life, his father can be one of his best teachers in the art of empathy and emotional connection.
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
Whether you know it or not, if you are a father, every moment of your life with your son is a lesson. You teach him what to do — and what not to do — every time you have a conversation, offer discipline, or spend time playing together. Interestingly enough, even boys without active fathers in their lives appear to master the concept of masculinity as they grow up. After all, their peers and the prevailing culture will take care of that. What they lack is the sort of nurturing and affection that fathers can offer — when they choose.
A 2009 University of Texas study about mothers' attitudes revealed that most moms believe they could do a better job of balancing work and family if dad provided more help. Moms also said that “work responsibilities” were the biggest obstacle to a dad's success in fathering.
Our cultural stereotype of the strong, silent man can have a crippling effect on a man's ability to offer his son compassion, warmth, and tenderness. Yet that is often exactly what a boy needs from his father. Boys who do best in studies of psychological adjustment are those with warm, loving fathers, fathers who, perhaps ironically, have qualities often thought of as feminine. Boys who do the worst in psychological adjustment are those whose fathers are abusive, overly harsh, or neglectful.
Know Who Your Son Is
When you're a father, it's tempting to focus on behavior, on teaching lessons, and on encouraging your son to achieve success (or at least to stay out of trouble). Certainly providing discipline, setting reasonable limits, and following through is an important part of fatherhood. No one, however, can nurture empathy and emotional literacy in your son as well as you can.
True empathy means understanding the feelings and internal experience of another person; it involves awareness not only of what that person is doing or feeling, but who that person truly is.
One gift a father can give his son is unconditional acceptance and understanding. (This is not always easy, especially when your son turns out to have dreams very different from your own.) Another gift is the truth about your own feelings and experience. Remember, you and your son (and all human beings) have mirror neurons that enable you to read another's physical movements, emotions, and nonverbal messages. When you express your feelings clearly, simply, and in nonthreatening ways, your son has the opportunity to learn from your feelings and his own.
Simply put, your son needs calm, clear information about what you think and feel. You can say, “I'm pretty angry at you right now,” instead of yelling. You can say, “I'm disappointed because I didn't get the promotion I wanted,” instead of stalking off to the garage alone. When you demonstrate emotional honesty and empathy, you offer your son the ability to nurture those qualities himself and to become a stronger, happier man.