For some guys, the topic of father-son relationships brings to mind Harry Chapin's sad ballad "Cat's in the Cradle." The song's speaker is a dad who never spent much time with his son. The neglect comes full circle when his son becomes a busy young father and won't make time to see the dad. In the final verse, the old man realizes, "As I hung up the phone it occurred to me / He'd grown up just like me ... My boy was just like me."
To avoid learning this lesson, it's crucial for men to have insight into their own ideas about fatherhood and masculinity as well as their boys' emotional needs.
Why We're Afraid of Fathering
Not all future dads are scared of fatherhood, of course, but those who are will do well to explore instead of ignore their fears. Guys who clashed with their own dads growing up are prime candidates for parenting concerns: the fact that kids grow up to parent the way they were parented has been observed not just by Harry Chapin. Psychologist Dr. Jerrold Shapiro, PhD, author of the book The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Man You Wish Your Father Had Been, notes that many men who say they want to be the opposite of their own fathers actually end up resembling them in all the ways they've tried to avoid. Dr. Shapiro lists ten aspects for men to examine, including their fathers' histories, self-perceptions and relationships with women, as well as the men's own feelings towards their childhood. Ultimately, the aim of understanding these relationships and challenging parenting fears is to make men aware of other options for how they can act as fathers.
What Confuses Us About Masculinity
In the mid-1900s, the stereotypical American dad ran his family by giving orders and advice. The rewards he sought from home were peace and quiet to read the paper or watch the game and respect and admiration for his abilities to provide and protect.
The ensuing social changes of the 1960s and '70s led to what psychologist Dr. Mark O'Connell calls the "sensitive man" movement of the '90s, as well as its backlash, the "real man" movement. In his book The Good Father: On Men, Masculinity, and Life in the Family, Dr. O'Connell observes that "sensitive men" seek to correct the traditionally masculine "aggression, hierarchy, and power" by being "empathic, connected, caretaking, and understanding"—qualities typically associated with femininity and motherhood. In antagonistic response, says Dr. O'Connell, "real men" exaggerate their traditional masculinity.
Both the "sensitive man" and the "real man" concepts fail to represent a complete man, Dr. O'Connell argues. Men need to acknowledge that their biology (body size, testosterone, and brain structure) predisposes them to aggression, hierarchy, and power, which does enable them to commit horrific violence and abuse. However, men must also recognize that their aggressive, powerful sides can impel them to motivate and protect others. Dr. O'Connell gives examples of how fathers have kept their children from self-destructive behavior in assertive ways. Rather than utterly rejecting aggression, hierarchy, and power, Dr. O'Connell believes that "If we are to be better men, and better fathers, we'll have to own these elements, value them, and yet keep them in scale. Because one thing is certain. A father needs to feel solid in his own sense of masculinity if he is to help his children."