Howard spent his thirties uneasy. Despite his new faith that told him superstition was just superstition, experience left him increasingly anxious as his fortieth birthday approached.
His father died of a heart attack at age 40. His father’s father died of a heart attack at age 40. His father’s brother died in a horrific accident at age 40.
Obviously, Howard was next.
Mike’s dad was an abusive alcoholic. Though he denied it, Mike’s older brother was just like the father they both despised. Mike, on the other hand was so afraid of inflicting on his own family the pain he, his siblings, and mother endured, he avoided conflict at all costs and allowed his passivity to destroy his family.
How many men spend their lives feeling inadequate as they strive to live up to their father’s expectations?
The Question of Masculine Identity
If you Google information on masculinity, you’ll find that there’s a lot of confusion over what masculinity is.
What does it mean to be a man?
Truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. And that’s a good thing.
The first source for boys to learn what it means to be a man is their fathers. Not all boys have fathers, or strong male role models. The effect of absent fathers on children’s development has been a subject of much study in recent decades. It’s possible that when it comes to delinquency, girls benefit more by quality time with a parent, while boys benefit more by quantity of time with a father.
A man’s relationship with his father, or lack thereof, is critical to the development of his identity. How he perceives his father and interprets his father’s expectations form his beliefs about what a man should be or do. And what a man shouldn’t be or do.
If a son takes his father’s example as the opposite of what he wants to be and do in life, he is likely to always look for signs that he is like his father, and feel guilty.
What’s a dad to do?
How can what we know about a father’s effect on his son’s identity benefit you as a dad raising a son?
Think. What did your father get right? What did your father get wrong? Are you following the good stuff as an example? Are you accepting the caution of your father’s shortcomings? Are there patterns you’re following without realizing it? Are you the type of man you want your son to become? Do as I say, not as I do is about as far as you can get from a good parenting model.
Show up. All fathers should do what they can to provide for their children’s needs, but kids need more than money. They need attention. Whose needs are more important to you, your family’s or your own? Your presence is important to who your son becomes, and how he feels even as he grows up. A study released in 2010 by the American Psychological Association indicates that boys who enjoy a strong father-son bond grow up to be men better able to deal with stress. It’s common for men in therapy to sooner or later link professional and interpersonal struggles to strained relationships with their fathers.
Parent. There are four basic types of parenting: neglectful, permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian. We’ve all seen the negative effects of permissive and authoritarian parenting. A permissive father allows his son to do pretty much anything he wants, which is the polar opposite of the authoritarian father who seeks to control behavior and punishes his son to fit into rigid expectations. Do what you want versus Do what I say, or else. Most of us believe there’s no excuse for neglect. Abusive parenting overlaps other parenting types and is often based in unrealistic expectations, like that your son’s needs will never be inconvenient. An authoritative parent sets rules and consequences, and responds to his child’s needs. It’s okay to have expectations of your kids, but make sure they have the resources to live up to them.
Forgive. If there’s anything we learn when we become parents, it’s that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. You will make mistakes; use them as motivation to keep improving, not as an excuse to withdraw. Don’t hold onto bitterness over your father’s failings. You only hurt yourself more by allowing bad memories victimize you. When you tie yourself to the negative in your past, you tie your son to it.
Be a man; raise a man.
My grandfather often told me what he considered the most important thing his father taught him: Be the best man on the job. If you don’t like it quit, but always leave it so you can come back if you need to. They were both skilled at many things, but each had his own way of doing things. As men, they didn’t always work well together, but they respected each other.
Don’t expect your son to be just like you, but be a man worth emulating.
Melinda VanRy writes about mental illness and faith on her Fruit of Brokenness blog. She wants everyone to know they have inestimable worth, though she often fails to believe it for herself. Bouts of severe depression have nearly destroyed her but instead make her stronger and give her a desire to help others who struggle with mental illness and faith as she does. Melinda lives in New York with her husband, their three kids, and more cats than she ever wanted. If you’re thinking big city, don’t. The VanRy family makes their home in rural Central New York. Way closer to Canada than New York City. And not far from Lake Ontario, which she loves.