Many of us look forward to weekends, but more and more I’m saddened by a particular phenomenon. It’s the great number of young men out with their children with no mum in sight. It’s pretty clear that most of these men no longer live with the mother of their children.
There would be as many reasons for this as there are couples, but one factor would be the man’s inability to be soft and vulnerable. I’m not one to absolve responsibility by blaming the parents of these men, but there are certain realities that need to be named before they can be remedied. The young men who lack emotional finesse were raised to be that way.
The great Dr. Carl Rogers spoke of what he called conditions of worth. The traits that were discouraged in us as children disappear over time to a point where we cannot even access them. We respond inappropriately when these emotions are called for. Mothers of the war generations, for example, might not know how to speak their heart’s pain so would instead cook your favorite meal when they knew you were hurting.
Men who are middle-aged today were probably raised by men who fought in World War II. Their fathers in turn were in World War I. It would have been irresponsible to raise soft, vulnerable children. While the men I speak of in their 30s and 40s today are less likely to have had war fathers (with some exceptions), there is still the reality that culturally conditioned grooves run deep. Even though men no longer have sole responsibility to fulfill the roles we once had – providers and protectors, warriors and disciplinarians – we will not, in one or two generations, overcome thousands of years of cultural patterning. When the father eats sour grapes, the child’s teeth are set on edge (Ezek 18). And here’s another truth – for the sake of men, women and children, we need to try. It’s no longer okay for men to be tough and distant at the expense of their personal well being and those they are in relationships with.
I could as easily write of women who were raised to be charming and compliant. That’s another strong theme but women can be proud of the fact that they have made tremendous inroads against that patterning and now stand strongly in the world which once belonged to men.
Boys are supposed to separate psychologically from their parents in order to form their own identities. I would like to propose that being hard on them is not the only way to accomplish this. In my work I see so many men overwhelmed with grief and hurt because the fathers they adored didn’t recognize who they were on the inside. It causes shutdown. It’s cold comfort that it’s easier for the parent not to see their child’s pain. That emotional isolation comes at too high a cost to them and their families.
Young men can find their individuality through being affirmed and accepted for who they are from the earliest age. We need to get over ourselves and our lack of willingness to open up, or maybe our expectations and self-glorification. Each child has his or her own destiny to fulfill. They’ll get their knocks in the world to toughen them up. They don’t need to get it at home from those who are supposed to love them.
We can’t undo the way we were raised. We can only accept it with grace for the well-intended spirit in which it was given. But we can equip our children to create a more generous and loving world for the future.
Fathers be good to your sons. Be vulnerable. It takes courage. It’s a great strength and a powerful legacy for your boy.
I’ll leave you with the immortal words of Kahlil Gibran. Godspeed.
Speak to Us of Children
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; for even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet