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Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons

Between 1992 and 1997, 17 young orphaned bull elephants were relocated to a park in Pilanesberg, South Africa. Their behaviour was extreme, destroying anything in their path including killing 40 white rhinoceros. Soon afterwards, six older bull elephants were relocated from Kruger National park and the out of control behaviour of the 17 young bulls ceased. Having the older bulls around kept the younger bulls in line. The old bulls were able to show the younger ones in no uncertain terms, how to be a male.

Enough said? Older men are critical at this time and ‘too busy’ does not cut it.

Steve Biddulph wrote his bestseller Manhood back in 1995 and since then it has sold 4 million copies in 15 languages. Interestingly, in the first year it was 90% women that purchased the book and in subsequent years more and more men bought the book. Many men have said they read it and then bought copies for their brothers and fathers. I am one of them. It is the women that we must thank for this, as in publishing terms if a book doesn’t move quickly from the outset then it is history!

I am not surprised at this statistic. Many of our programs for men and boys have a woman at the back delivering her menfolk through the door. Women seem to get the importance of the father son relationship and indeed the timing of it. There comes a certain time in the life of the boy, when mum needs to step-back and dad (and other older men) need to step-up. But how to do it is the question!

Not too many people argue with this, instinctively it makes sense to us. I recently interviewed Warren Entsch the federal Member for Leichardt. He has a fascinating story of quitting politics for a term so he could spend time with his 13 year old son. The promise had been made many years ago and he is a man of his word! This promise was born somewhat out of pain, as Warren has 2 older sons, one of which has been effected by the marital breakdown and the absence of his dad. I could hear the anguish in Warren’s voice as he stated that he got an ‘F’ on that report card.

So what is it with Fathers? Why are they so crucial in the health and wellbeing of their sons? Why does it make such a big difference in the lives of many men? Steve Biddulph recalls that when he began his speaking tour of Australia, that there were men leaving earlier on in the night. Upon checking it out with the ushers at the back of the room, he discovered that the men leaving were in tears. The topic was fathers and the often problematic relationships.

Biddulph claims that 30% of men never knew their father, 30% have a strained relationship, 30% have a tolerant relationship that lacks depth, and only 10% have a great relationship.

In mythology, the boy goes to his father (often the king) and deeply wants him to see the king in him, he seeks a blessing…. and invariably ends up with a curse. This sets him off on a journey or a rite-of-passage. This is a journey out into the world, full of challenges, hopefully meeting a mentor and overcoming his inner demons and outer challenges, to return back to where he began and seeing it with fresh eyes. A coming home…

Unfortunately today many men just get stuck in the challenges of life without a good relationship with dad and few healthy mentors to support them. No return, no coming home, stuck forever in a life of challenge and desperation. Many men begin to look at this in their mid – thirties onwards. Robert Bly in his book Iron John says ‘have you ever seen the look on the face of the 35 year old man?’ It is in midlife where the journey begins for many men to take stock. They want to get back some of their natural joy for life, their passion, and stake claim to a healthier and more vibrant experience of living life as a man.

Visit a prison and look for a man who has a good relationship with his father. I doubt you will find any. It’s an extreme example but valid nonetheless. For each man in prison there are scores existing in quiet desperation and living and unfulfilled and underachieved life. There’s little question that their socialisation contributes to this from a number of sources AND how different would each man be if regardless of life’s trials and challenges, that older men were there to see him for who he is, challenge him in healthy ways that suit his character and temperament, and help him navigate his experience of life.

How many men go through life quietly wondering and wishing for something to change? For many men, becoming a father begins a process of looking at their own father and what he taught them about being a dad. Is there any unfinished business with their dad? How can he deliver a river of masculinity to this child, when all he got was a trickle? Many men report their model for being a good dad is to do everything their father didn’t do.

Some have managed to make it through successfully but more ‘in spite of’ rather than ‘because of’ a healthy relationship with their dad. So will it be manhood by default or design for your son?

What can be done here by fathers and older men today? Knowing the story of your father is a great place to start. However difficult the story is, we cannot avoid that something has been passed down. Like it or not, fathers hold a significant key in how men are in the world. I have heard thousands of stories of fathers and one thing that remains constant, is knowing this story assists us to interpret him as a human and then to reframe the story. In essence to turn whatever curse may have been handed down, into a blessing.

Our children will carry whatever we pass down and so it is a gift to us and our families for this work to be done. If he’s still alive, then there is a process of opening up the communication lines. If he has passed away or unwilling to talk, then the job becomes more like a detective, searching for the other stories of him so we can understand and know him. I have seen many men come to the realisation that the story they hold around their fathers is actually their mothers’ story of him, and it then becomes urgent to author their own story.

Many times I have witnessed this process as the launching pad for being a better dad. From this place we see more clearly and love more dearly. Our capacity for love and ‘being there’ grows in leaps and bounds. Our children experience us as present and attentive, fun and loving.

For men in the 10% your story is still worth telling. All stories become good stories and really good stories can be a gift to others and a benchmark for what it is to be a good father.

For single mums we are building an audio library of men’s stories that can be shared with your son. These stories are not your average stories; they are an insight into the inner world of a wide variety of men. Many boys today don’t relate to men, they see them racing around in their busyness and importance, they have money and power and for some this is all they think there is to being a man. For some boys they simply don’t want to grow up and be like that, so why grow up? Stories help boys see themselves as men and realise that men are indeed human with feelings and needs, challenges and struggles. It connects them to their masculinity and potential. Stay tuned! We are excited by this and not just for boys without dads.

So, one of if not THE biggest impediments to healthy relationships is the ‘B’ word – busy. When this happens, children grown up on computer games, have a proxy and stressed out dad, and they are not sure how to get on with him even if he can find the time. This window of opportunity in the early teen years needs to be large and consistent. Going missing during this time will come home to roost after the boy is 14-15. After this it can be too late, they are already moving on and your story will be put on ice for a decade… or longer.

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  1. A family member referred me to your site. Thnx for the details.

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