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Father & Sons — Some Observations

13Sep 2009

Most of the work I do is with families — family-owned businesses, families who work together, families who have sold businesses and now manage the resulting assets together, and just plain families. And in my everyday life I have the opportunity to interact with and observe families of all configurations. Add my own personal life, of being a son, and the father of four adult children, and I have a fair amount of data to draw from.

Fathers and sons are interesting in how they relate. Dads, especially when they are younger and are raising young children, seem to focus largely on providing for their families (a home in a safe environment, good schooling opportunities, and other life experiences which they value) and on character development. Dads (and moms) tend to what to make sure their children are obedient, not whiners, tell the truth, are hard workers, and become responsible for themselves as they grow older.

When sons become older teens and young adults, the dynamic changes. Since dads want their sons to become independent young adults (and the sons want this, too!), a tension is created — how to continue to give input and guidance into their sons’ lives while also respecting their independence and individuality. And this is often a difficult balance to maintain. I have seen men who totally “back off” out of their sons’ lives to the point that their sons have felt almost abandoned. That usually wasn’t the father’s intent; they just didn’t want to be overly controlling with their sons. But sometimes the sons would like more input from their dads (when they ask for it) and can get frustrated of not really being able to learn from their dad’s experience. (This sometimes happens when the father had an overly controlling father themselves and they don’t want to repeat the pattern with their children.)

An interesting fact to remember is that guys tend to build relationships by doing something together. That is why they get together to watch sports (or go to sporting events together) and the variety of things that guys do — hunt, fish, shoot hoops, play video games, work on cars, go biking, work on a remodeling project together, and so forth. Guys tend to talk while doing something else — as opposed to most women, who value getting together just to talk.

So a challenge for dads and their sons, as both get older and their lives become separate, is finding activities they still can (or want to) do together. And this can be especially challenging if the father and son work together (because the son usually doesn’t want to “hang out” with dad after work.)

My relationship with my dad was largely built around working on projects together, especially on Saturday mornings.  I learned a lot of practical skills but it was also challenging because my mechanical skills are virtually negative, while my dad was a self-taught mechanical engineer and designer.  Since his death fourteen years ago, I have frequently missed the opportunity to call him up and ask his advice on various home projects or repairs I had to do.

Largely from his modeling, much of my time with my sons was also on working projects. Ask my guys about “Saturday mornings” when they were growing up, and you may hear moans, see their eyes roll, and one of them will launch into what a slave driver I was (which is probably partially true). I also enjoyed playing basketball, football or soccer with them, and going to their practices and games. We still enjoy watching some sports together.

The difficulty with this approach is that it can become largely task-focused (getting the job done) or the sporting event doesn’t really allow for much significant conversation to occur. Finding time to talk about important topics in life is still an area I find difficult. Probably the most significant discussions occur when my kids come home for dinner and we have some time to discuss deeper issues during and after the meal.

A key point (and one made by many authors of parenting books) is that sons (and daughters, too) really are looking for affirmation from their dads. Kids (regardless of their age) want to know that their dad likes them — that he loves them, accepts them, and is proud of who they are becoming.

Most of us dads (myself included) are pretty lousy at communicating acceptance and affirmation of our kids. We are so anxious about them “turning out bad” that we are constantly prodding them, pushing them, correcting them, and encouraging them to learn to make good choices, that the message our children receive is one of conditional acceptance.  I know this either is or has been an issue in my relationship with each of my children. I personally find the tension of helping them develop the character qualities that are important to me, while at the same time demonstrating love, affection, affirmation and acceptance to be a difficult line to walk.

I am open to hearing your thoughts and input on building healthy relationships with sons, as you both move forward in your walks toward maturity.

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