Dad, your guiding hand on my shoulder will remain with me forever.
I think it’s a very real challenge to be a great dad. I’ve raised two sons, and for me the father-son relationship was a tricky one. I messed up more times than I can count. It was never that I didn’t want to be a great dad, but how was that supposed to be done?
No one handed me a manual, “Being a Great Dad in 10 Easy Steps”. I didn’t have a “great dad” role model to draw from either. Much of my approach was more about “do no harm”, which in many ways now, I feel created voids when I should have been pressing in.
Freudian and Jungian thought holds the position that for a son to embrace his sense of self as masculine, he needs to be present and around the father’s body during his developmental years. The father’s body serves as a model for the son to break away from the attachment he holds toward mother. With this line of thought, one can see how the son has to be an active participant to claim his sense of masculinity. Differently than growing up into womanhood, a man must become. Camille Paglia, an American academic and social critic, was the one who expressed it in this way. She said “A woman simply is, but a man must become. Masculinity is risky and elusive. It is achieved by a revolt from woman, and it is confirmed only by other men. Manhood coerced into sensitivity is no manhood at all”.
Freud also proposes that all sons are in competition with their fathers, and even feel they have to battle against them, which the son then feels guilty about. In reading Greek mythology, one sees many instances of this type of tension in the author’s stories. So between two giants in thought like Freud and Jung, and a social observation by Paglia, I go back to my original statement that raising sons is a tricky endeavor. Fortunately for me, my sons are intelligent, engaged men who were able to develop a strong sense of masculine self despite my own mistakes.
What I believe to be true from my own experiences growing up, and experiences raising my sons, is that masculinity is confirmed only by other men. How does that sit in your gut when you read that? If you are a father or a son, where were your most impactful moments recognizing your own masculinity? Does this statement hold up as truth for you?
I had a hard time on the masculinity front growing up, and I distinctly remember during my teenage years discounting any affirmation of my masculinity from women. It wasn’t that they weren’t right, it was that I wouldn’t trust it. They weren’t male so how could they know? What I let count were the words and actions of other men. The caveat here is that words and actions can both build and damage a boy’s masculine sense of self.
Growing up male is a series of small events that somehow, when they are all said and done, create in the boy’s body an infused self-owned masculinity which the boy now calls himself, man. How many of these “rites of passage” did you experience with a male in your life that conferred a sense of your own masculinity? Acknowledgment of masculine “sameness” via showering, changing clothes, “locker room” type activities together? Recognition of masculine maturation and development by being taught to shave, being bought a jock, talking about puberty and sex? Support of skill development by being taught to drive a car, build or repair something, use of power tools? Conveyance of responsibility through use of the car, being paid for work done well, extended curfews? Inclusion into the conversations, discussions, and humor of a gathering of only men? Demonstration of masculine kindness, compassion, acceptance, and love through a solid, unashamed hug?
These are some of the “rites of passage” that come to my mind. Did I experience all of them growing up? No. Did I use some of these same “rites” raising my sons? Certainly, but not all. These “rites” are often experienced with other trusted men in a boy’s life as well. An engaged father, however, has a unique opportunity to claim first dibs on most of them.
I don’t believe there is a definitive “list” of masculine demonstration and connection that need to occur between a father and his son. I believe it is more about awareness and conscious intent to acknowledge, praise, demonstrate, share, and serve as the male role model that, I believe, every boy looks for growing up.
And to that point, I think it’s important to make a big deal, a conscious acknowledgement either in word or action, by a father to his son around these rites of passage. In doing so it helps anchor these important moments in both lives. I have a friend who I believe is a great dad. He shaved with his son during his son’s first shave and my friend posted the pic on Facebook. How awesome is that!?
As men, as fathers, our greatest investment in this life is our sons, and our daughters. Being a dad can be a daunting task but it is one worth fully embracing. Not having a good role model in no way means a man can’t be a great dad. It takes practice; it takes learning, both from others and from our own mistakes. Sometimes it means asking for help. A guy like my friend has a knack for being a great dad. Talking with this type of man can be a great help in making any dad a better one.
Ultimately it takes commitment to be a great dad. What are you willing to commit in words, in actions, in support of raising a good son into a great man? And by the commitment you are willing to make, what legacy are you creating in the process?