There’s one set of terms that keep coming up as ones that have brought people to my blog, even thogh it is not a topic that I have specifically addressed. Why are some fathers so mean to their children? Especially when it comes to their sons? For the readers who have come here looking for help in father / son relationships, I am going to do a two-part post on the topic. The first will talk about why fathering is a very different role than mothering, and demands a different approach, The second will give you some strategies to help men who have difficulty balancing the hardness that fathering requires with love and compassion.
Keep in mind that this post simply does not have sufficient data to help you with genuinely violent and abusive men. That is another topic entirely. But for men who are cold toward their children, male cuttng remarks, punish harshly, and don’t give praise, this should give ou a basic understanding.
What is a Father?
Across every culture that has a concept of fatherhood (all but two that I am aware of), fathers have three common jobs: they are expected to protect their children from harm, they are expected to provide food, clothing and shelter to their children, and they are expected to prepare their children to be functional adults in their cuture. The first two roles are simple, but they tell you very little about how to interact with the children themselves. It’s that last job that defines how a father relates to his children.
A mother must show kindness, gentility, and sympathy throughout a child’s early years – after all it is her body that provides the child with nourishment. The kind of soothing, caring emotional bond a mother forms with her child is biochemical – it might express a little differently from culture to culture, but underneath it will always have that essential quality to it in healthy woman. It is down to someone other than the other to teach the child strength, resilience, reasoned empathy, and strong boundaries. Namely, the father.
The importance of the father’s role cannot be under-estimated. Children who have a strong father-figure do better in almost every measurable category of social success. A child who has active fathering will earn more money as an adult, will have longer-lasting relationships, perform better in school, find better jobs, and be physically fitter. Fatherless children are more likely to live in poverty, to suffer from major illness, to become divorced, and to experience anxiety or depression. Over 90% of gang members and around 80% of the prison population in Western countries were fatherless.
Father as Teacher
This is why fathers relate poorly to very small children – babies cannot really learn the lessons a man has to teach. Mot men find very small children boring and uninteresting; even their own. It is only one a child becomes mobile, capable of communicating, and ready to learn that a strong father-child bond can start forming. That is when a father can begin teaching.
It bears mentioning before I continue that this doesn’t mean a father has no bond to a baby early on. The first few years of life are critical to a father bonding with a child. If a man is kept away from his infant son or daughter when they are still helpless, he will have a hard time forming the emotional investment that will make him want to teach his child. One of the most destructive parts of Western culture as it has evolved in the last few years is a tendency to push fathers away from their small children. Mothers often don’t trust their husbands and boyfriends to hold, feed, or change their babies. Many men also receive significant criticism for “doing it wrong” when he does parent, making it a negative experience. These are new behavioural trends that have evolved since the 1970s that are toxic to creating a healthy emotional-chemical bond between fathers and their children.
Once a child is old enough to be taught, a father’s relationship suddenly changes. At first the teaching is very physical – playing ballgames, running wrestling and roughhousing all teach a child core survival skills, as well as restraint and empathy. Fathers tend to wind children up with exciting play, helping them discover their own physicality and enthusiasm. From a very early age fathers also focus on teaching skills like tying shoes, riding bicycles, throwing balls, etc. to their children. My dad taught me how to write computer programs. Reading to children is traditional a fathering activity, as is leading children in major religious rites of passage.
Roughhousing is a critical positive activity between fathers and their children. It is important not to mistake roughhousing with violence, abuse, or unkindness. It is a primal way of teaching children self-defence, play, restraint, body-language comprehension, and empathy.
As children get older, a father tends to focus on ensuring they are fit to fill their roles. In harsher societies, this often means training a daughter to be obedient and a son to be brave and withstand fear or pain. Fathers in many cultures have to prepare their sons for warfare, hard labour, or surviving starvation. That means teaching them to swallow down their emotions, fight for themselves, and channel anger. This means a father often feels that it is his duty to haze, bully, or intimidate his son. Likewise, in cultures where life is hard, a father may have to teach his daughter to protect her virginity and reputation, which can mean being critical, and dictatorial towards daughters.
Walking the Line
Every culture has a way of doing this that is acceptable. In some a father is expected to be harsh enough that his own children resent them. In others a father sends his children away to be taught by other men in the community. In our own culture, fathers are expected to walk a perilous line and trust their intuition to know when they are becoming too hard. He must mix expressions of love and compassion with ways of pushing his children away from the nest and to become independent. It is a bittersweet moment of triumph for a father when he knows his children no longer need him.
The problem is that not all men know how to walk that line. We live in a softer, more forgiving culture than our forebears. One hundred fifty years ago, a father had to teach his son how to kill without hesitation to make sure his son could survive a duel or life on the frontier. He had to punish his son for crying, because that was something that only could be done with your most intimate male friends, or he could be reject from male society. A father had to be strict and harsh with his daughter to make sure she could still marry, because a woman could not survive without a husband. Many of our practices from that time still linger in families – a man often fathers exactly as his father did, who fathers exactly as his father did, making them harder and colder than our time needs. It takes a wise man, or one with wise friends to change his fathering style to suit the times.
We are also experiencing for the first time in history, an era when many young men are growing up completely without male guidance. Even boys who lost their fathers to war, accident, or disease in the past could rely on a grandfather or uncle to father them (this is why we have the practices of fostering, godfathers, and marrying our brother’s widows in our recent past). Today there are men who have been raised with absolutely no fatherly presence in their lives. They know intuitively that they need to prepare their children for adulthood, but knowing that they have to do it and how to do it are two different things. One of the thin a father in our culture teaches is how to intuit when to be loving and when to be hard – and how to be loving, for that matter. Without that understanding it is easy for a man to fall to hardness and bullying to teach his children. Trying to teach someone how to stand on their own two feet and stand up fo themselves is not easy, especially when you have to be gentle. Trust me.
There are also men who have been bullied – by their own fathers or others – who don’t know how to relate to their children except through shows of power. These men have to learn how to be loved before they can be loving, and they have to be shown how to be restrained before they can walk the line that fathers need to walk.
In my next post I will talk about how we can help a father who is struggling to relate to his children develop a more balanced approach.