“Fathers and Sons – A Sorry Lot.” Carl Whitaker, Psychiatrist, and Family Therapist
My mentor in graduate school remarked about the difficulty fathers and sons have in having meaningful and intimate relationships. It was certainly the case for my efforts to relate to my father from early childhood into young adulthood. My father was a poster child for the silent generation. He never discussed his experience in the second world war flying bombing missions over Germany. But beyond this, it was impossible for me to feel a closeness to a parent who never shared anything personally:
- Struggles with being a father, man, or husband
- Disappointments in life
- Painful experiences
Although I could tell my father had feelings in how he treated my mother, I never saw him cry except at his mother’s funeral. He seemed comfortable expressing affection to my mother and sisters, but the best my brother and I got was a handshake. Even that felt a bit awkward.
Why Fathers & Sons Fail to Connect
There are many opinions about why fathers and sons don’t connect or often have strained relationships. There are generational differences with more and more disconnects from a changing world that sons understand, and fathers don’t. It’s scary to hear the similarity of my dad’s Lawrence Welk world disgust with the Beatles and my response to Rap music. We can get upset with our son’s texting, cell phone usage, or playing Xbox video games because we never had that experience and can’t relate. But differences aren’t about right and wrong or even fundamental values per se – they are just differences.
Many of the parents I counsel complain about their son’s seclusion in their rooms playing video games online with friends even though in an era of COVID, it may be the only social connection they have. A son’s need to establish their own identity may be a source of conflict and frustration for fathers who had an opinion of who or what their sons should become. Again, differences are not right or wrong, and dads must allow their sons to take path in life of their choosing.
Competition is another source of strain in father-son relationships. With his Oedipal theory, Freud may have been on to something in that sons often want to compete and defeat their fathers in games, sports, and accomplishments in life. I remember the first time I beat my father in arm wrestling and remember the hurt look he had on his face. Although I took a certain pride in this victory, at some level, I thought this shouldn’t have happened. Fathers are always stronger than their sons – until they are not. As difficult as it is for sons, whether it is arm wrestling, choosing a career, or indicting the father on past shortcomings, they must stand up to fathers, and fathers must be willing to absorb this and not be defensive. If fathers are unwilling to hear their son’s complaints and apologize, both parties will live with open wounds.
Preparing for Life Outside the Family
Fathers play an essential role in preparing sons for the experience of life outside the family. Another mentor of mine, a therapist named Frank Farrelly, said the following:
“Mothers teach children about unconditional love. Fathers teach children about conditional love.”
The latter type of love is what sons and daughters will experience in the outside world, and if they don’t learn this at home, it will be harder in the real world. By the way, I think both parents need to teach both lessons, especially since women have become more a part of the world of work, they certainly know something about conditionality. But dads, I find, are often the ones who hold back on the message of unconditional love. Maybe it’s part of teaching this lesson about the world, but sons are desperate to hear that their fathers love them no matter what and that they matter. Sons often live with a repressed longing to hear these words of affection and affirmation. I often longed for my dad to say he was “sorry” for past neglect or shortcomings. Fathers, if we want to heal the wounds of our sons, whether these were intentional or not, saying we are sorry and expressing unconditional love will go a long way.
“Would You Cry if I Died?”
These were the words of a young adult son to his father in a counseling session. Dianne Dovenberg, a therapist, and colleague of mine at Wilder Child Guidance Clinic, related this story. She was seeing this older adolescent who had been acting out and had gotten into trouble with the law. His father, a big burly laborer, expressed his anger and frustration at the son’s actions when the son interrupted him and asked this question. The father didn’t hesitate to respond:
“There are not enough buckets in the world to hold the tears I would cry if something happened to you.”
This was a healing moment for this father and son. Do our sons know how much we would cry if we lost them? They need to know this.
My recommendation on this blog is to ask moms to forward this to dads and dads who read this to share it with their sons and ask to have a conversation about points I have made. It just might break the sound barrier, if one exists or, at a minimum, facilitate a greater understanding and appreciation of each and the importance of the relationship.
I’ve not offered various tips for relating to young adult sons in this blog, but if you wish to learn more about building a better and closer relationship with your young adult son, click on the links below:
- Tips for Healthy Relationships Between Fathers & Adult Sons
- Ways Dads Can Stay Close to Their Young Adult Kids
- Father-Son Relationships: The Things Every Boy Needs From His Dad
- A Letter from A Grieving Mother - November 14, 2023
- Book Recommendation: Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict - November 13, 2023
- When a Young Adult’s Transition to Independence is Complicated by Special Needs - October 27, 2023