Dad’s Eye View: Nurturing Healthy Father-Son Relationships
The question of how a man develops his own sense of masculinity becomes especially important for the fathers of sons, since young boys instinctively look to close older males as role models. Dr. O’Connell doesn’t provide a bulleted list of activities; rather, he explains that men must learn to father “from the inside out,” which means paying attention to their own internal promptings of what a father should do. In a sense, it means trusting fatherly instincts before trying to act according to the characteristics of “sensitive” or “real” men, or trying to live out idealized father-son interactions.
What Our Boys Really Need
Given boys’ biological predisposition to aggression, hierarchy and power—and the social forces that reinforce them—it’s vital for fathers to actively teach their sons to “come to know, respect, and harness [their] drives and instincts,” in Dr. O’Connell’s words. The following is a bulleted list of what dads can do to help their sons become complete, responsible men.
Safe Roughhousing: Steve Biddulph, psychologist and author of Raising Boys, states that boisterous play gives young boys a socially acceptable form of physical touch and closeness. It also provides dads with a powerful way of teaching their sons the physical self-control they’ll need later as boyfriends, partners, and fathers. Men can find the balance between their young sons enjoying themselves and getting frustrated or hurt by using rules (no punching, kicking, etc.) and by asking how their sons are doing as the play-fighting progresses. By doing so, dads model that concern for others’ feelings can be maintained during physically engaging play.
According to studies the US, UK, and Russia, young children whose fathers play in a rough-and-tumble way with them—and provide firm but fair discipline—are rated as more popular and less aggressive than their peers.
Empathy and Engagement: An implicit key to Dr. O’Connell’s model of masculinity is that men don’t have to be either sensitive and nurturing or competitive and authoritative—they can (and should) be both. This combination is hinted at in the concept, described above, of fathers being emotionally attuned while wrestling with their kids.
Empathy may have been traditionally viewed as a mother’s quality, but it’s also necessary for fathers to have a complete relationship with their children. Adam Chapman, a counselor in Perth, Australia, has done pioneering research and work reintegrating families in which domestic violence has occurred by reuniting abusive fathers and their children as part of the healing for both.
“The key is for these fathers to learn how to develop empathy for their kids. We teach them to be able to see the world from the child’s perspective and recognize how it feels,” Chapman says. “It’s a hard road for most abusive dads, but those who learn to feel empathy for their children are usually able to progress toward engagement with them. With engagement, the father and child are interacting—for example, working together or playing—and the child feels safe. Not just physically safe, but actually content to be with the dad.”
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