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. So instead of knowing what to do and moving ahead, much of my approach was to “do no harm” by hanging back.
I ask myself now if that approach created voids for my sons. I wonder if at times when I backed off, giving them their space, I should have been pressing in. How do we know what our sons need and when they need it? It is a question to keep in front of us as we raise them.
As I raised my sons it was important to me that they develop a strong sense of self, take ownership of their masculinity, and step into their rightful place in the world of men. I think they have done that despite wounds received from me along the way. As I’m sure you remember yourself, growing from a boy into a man, finding your own masculine self, is not without its challenges.
Raising sons is a tricky endeavor as well. Fortunately for me my sons, who are now adults, are intelligent, engaged men who were able to develop a strong sense of masculine self despite my own mistakes with them.
Camille Paglia, an American academic and social critic, 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”.
I think her quote is loaded with plenty to talk and debate about. What I believe to be true from my own experiences growing up, and experiences raising my sons, is that masculinity is deeply confirmed 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? Who were they with?
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 masculine affirmation from women isn’t important, I believe it is.
The problem I had was that I didn’t fully trust it. They weren’t male so how could they know? What I let count with me, what I took deep into my soul, were the words and actions of other men. The caveat here is that those words and actions can both build and damage a boy’s masculine sense of self.
As a dad or another influential man in a boy’s life, using the right words, taking the right actions, can be fraught with potential wounding. As men we carry a sword, a masculinity sword of types, that our sons see, and it’s very sharp.
Used correctly, it cuts cleanly and helps the boy grow into a well adjusted man. Wielded without care or consciousness, it cuts deep and creates wounds that may bleed for a very long time as the boy searches for his own masculine identity and place.
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 in which the boy now calls himself, man. How many of these “rites of passage” did you experience with a man in your life that helped confer 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, having the “sex talk”.
- Support of skill development by being taught to drive a car, build or repair something, use of power tools.
- Conveyance of recognized responsibility through use of the car, staying out late for special occasions, being paid for work done well.
- 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? Some, but certainly not all. I don’t believe there is a definitive “list” for masculine demonstration and connection that occurs 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 acknowledgment 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 the life of the boy.
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 of them doing that together on Facebook. He made a big deal of his son’s maturation and the masculinity they share. 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. Oftentimes it means asking for help. A man 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, and in support of raising a good son into a great man? And with your commitment, what legacy will you be creating in the process? Isn’t this well worth your cost to do so?
You may also like to read the first part – “Fireflies Are Found in the Dark”.
Fathers and Sons