What Sons Learn from Their Fathers

Fathers are different from mothers. They look different, they sound different, they play in a different way, and they usually have a different approach to raising children than a mother does. And that's a good thing. A boy learns from his father, without even realizing he's doing it, what a man is and does. He learns about masculinity, about what men like and don't like. Many adult men report that they either wanted to be just like their dads or wanted to be the exact opposites. Fathers undoubtedly have a powerful influence on their growing sons, and it begins from the moment of birth.

Fatherhood in the Early Years

Imagine a couple who have just welcomed the birth of a son. Curt was thrilled when his wife Nancy announced that she was pregnant with their first child. He was even more excited when tests showed that the baby was a boy. Curt had wonderful memories of camping trips and fishing expeditions with his own dad, and he looked forward to giving his son a happy and loving childhood. He attended childbirth classes enthusiastically, listened to parenting books on tape as he drove to work each day, and was right beside Nancy when she gave birth to Alex.

Once Alex was at home, though, Curt began to feel unsure of how to behave. Alex was so small. Nancy nursed him and seemed to know just how to handle his burps, cries, and various physical needs. Curt loved watching his wife hold Alex and care for him; Nancy laughed and said they'd need to build an extra room to store the photos Curt was taking. But when it came time for Curt to hold Alex, to feed him, or to bathe him, he felt clumsy and insecure. The baby seemed to be his mom's territory, and suddenly those camping trips seemed a long time away.

Challenges for Dads

Fathers sometimes find their sons' infancy challenging. They love the baby and delight in his noises and new activities, but infant care can seem mysterious and intimidating. Devoted mothers sometimes unwittingly prevent Dad from taking a more active role by insisting that the baby be held, fed, and rocked in a particular way (usually hers). Dads often disappear, falling back on work and providing for their new family. Sometimes they don't reappear for years, if at all.

A father's role in the raising of his children has changed dramatically over the past century or two. In previous generations, sons were expected to follow in their fathers' footsteps, apprenticing in their work and in their approaches to life. During the nineteenth century, however, fathers began to go out to work, and the measure of a man's success slowly changed. Rather than the closeness of his family and the strength of his family business, a man's worth could be measured in his income, the value of his house, and the size of his car. Parenting became “women's work”; fathers were just too busy earning a living. And from then on, generations of boys grew up hungering for closeness with a father they barely knew, someone who came home only to eat dinner, look over homework, hear about the day's misbehavior, and watch a little television.

Fact

Ross Parke, PhD, at the University of California at Riverside, found that fathers are just as good at reading a baby's emotional cues as mothers are, but they respond in different ways. A father's active play and stimulation may actually help a baby learn to be aware of his own internal state and to tolerate a wide range of people and activities.

Research shows that without a doubt, fathers are an integral part of their sons' healthy emotional, physical, and cognitive growth from their first moments of life. Boys whose fathers love them and can demonstrate that love in consistent, caring ways have fewer problems later in life with peers, academics, and delinquent behavior. One study tracked a group of boys and girls for twenty-six years, exploring the roles of both mothers and fathers in nurturing emotional health and empathy. While the mother's role was important, by far the most influential factor in a child's emotional health was how involved the father was in a child's care. In fact, the benefits of having an active, involved father during infancy and early childhood appear to last well into adolescence.

Critical Dads, Hungry Sons

Sadly, many loving fathers never learn to communicate love in ways their boys can hear and feel. Think of this scenario: Paul was six years old when his mom and dad divorced. Paul had a close and loving relationship with his mom, but he adored his dad. They spent hours digging in the garden, watching basketball, and hitting baseballs together. Paul's parents worked hard at minimizing the effect of their divorce on their only son. Paul spent an equal amount of time with both parents, and his dad came to Scouts and to all of his soccer and tee-ball games.

Over time, though, things began to change. Paul's dad remarried, and his new wife found Paul's presence an inconvenience. Paul's dad began to appear less often at his games and school programs. Paul was a gifted student and a hardworking athlete, but his dad began to find fault with his accomplishments. No matter how hard Paul tried, his dad seemed to think he could have done more. He became so critical and demanding that even Paul's stepmother began to notice and to tell her husband to “take it easy on Paul.”

Essential

As boys reach adolescence, their inborn drive to individuate, to become independent people, may lead them to compete and argue with their fathers. Fathers often react by trying to control their sons' opinions and actions, causing conflict. As your boy grows, remember, his task is to become himself, and he needs your support and understanding.

By the time he was in high school, Paul began to avoid spending time at his dad's house, eventually choosing not to spend the night there. He airily told his worried mom that it didn't bother him, but secretly his dad's distance and disapproval broke his heart. Paul's grades remained good, he was never in trouble, and he had solid friendships with good young men. He even convinced himself that his dad's constant criticism was a sign of love. Still, there was an empty spot in Paul's heart. Deep down, he longed for his dad to be proud of him.

Chances are that Paul was right — his father certainly loved him. But fathers don't always know how to connect with their sons. As Dan Kindlon, PhD, and Michael Thompson, PhD, report in Raising Cain, “… they find it difficult to think in terms of ‘love’ or to express the love they do feel for a son. Instead, they tend to fall back on what they have been taught to do with other men — namely, compete, control, and criticize.”

In one study, male executives and managers were asked what single thing they would have changed about their childhood relationships with their fathers. Most of these successful men answered that they wished they had enjoyed a closer relationship with their fathers, and that their dads had been able to express more warmth and emotion.

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