Today some conversations I had with men on my forum got me thinking about the relationships young men for with their fathers, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts. Namely about the two-part relationship fathers have with their sons.
Manhood is not something a boy gets just because he has hair on his chest and shaves his face in the morning. Manhood is something we earn by showing strength of character, courage, and the willingness to try to make the world around us a better place.
Boys look to their fathers both to learn how to be Men and to see whether their fathers judge them as being worthy of being considered Men. A father’s approval tells a boy that he is growing into a good man, and is worthy of all the trust and duties we give to men as they come to adulthood.
Many fathers are too reserved in giving their approval. Some think the world is a hard and cruel place and the more they are tough on their sons by holding back their approval, the tougher their sons will grow up to be. Others seem to believe that if they are too generous with approval their sons will become soft and lazy, and that they should make their son work hard for every nod and pat on the back.
The biggest danger in this comes if the father is not an expressive man. Some fathers only know how to show their love when they are also showing their approval. A father’s love for his son is powerful. In a father who is a healthy and whole man, that love is not conditional. In fact, love is why some father can be so reserved in their approval – because they care about their sons and want to make sure that they are as prepared as they can be for the world.
But a boy can easily get his father’s love and approval confused. If a father is a healthy man, but doesn’t know how to say “I love you” to his son in the little ways, he often only lets his son know about his love when he gives him approval. The son never learns the difference between love and approval. And if the father is not healthy and whole – if he has only ever known conditional love – then he may feel the need to put conditions on his love for his son. He may convince himself that he only loves his son when his son lives up to the father’s standards of manliness.
And even more problematic still, many fathers don’t know how to express to their sons what Manliness really means. They expect their sons to learn from examples without explaining to them the whys and wherefores. Imagine how hard it must be to feel like your father will only love you if you follow a set of rules, and he won’t tell you what they are.
This can leave a terrible hurt in a boy or a young man. He ends up forever worrying that he is a disappointment to his father. He pushes so hard he exhausts himself trying to be like his father in order to feel like he is worthy of being loved. He can feel like every mistake he makes, and every little moment of weakness proves he is not really a man and not worth caring about. This can turn into painful emotional struggles into adulthood.
A father’s love always belongs to his son. And his approval is something he should always strive to make sure his son has the power to win – otherwise it is more a failure of the father than of the son.
Knowing that there is a difference can be a great healing experience for many men I have worked with.