If you have fathered a son, you influence how he ultimately comes to define himself as a man. The image he carries of you in his soul will in some way guide his steps. He may follow in your footsteps, intentionally choose a different path, or journey through a wilderness of ambivalent feelings concerning your relationship.
Many of us adult sons are still piecing together the mixed bag of what we received from our fathers—and some of us can’t find much that’s positive in the bag. Many of today’s fathers are caught in the bind of trying to model something to their sons that they never experienced with their own father.
But there are some positive signs, as seen in a study from Arizona State University. The researchers looked at men’s feelings toward their sons and toward their fathers, and found that the men felt more satisfaction in their relationships with their sons than with their fathers.
With recent cultural shifts in the expectations for men and fathers, that’s probably not surprising. Still, many dads are not as involved as they could be, and we all have room for improvement in relating to our sons.
Who you are and what you do today will impact your son. Here are six suggestions that will help you be intentional about the way you relate to your son:
– Have the courage to engage his emotions. The more we affirm and expose our sons to healthy expression of emotion, the better men they will become. Rather than dismiss his next emotional response, see it as an opportunity for greater connection and relationship. When there’s conflict, do what it takes to work it out right then and there.
– Love and respect the women in your life. Your son learns how to treat women by watching and listening to you. Your modeling here is a huge factor, but there are also great benefits for fathers and sons to talk about the opposite sex and how to relate with them in healthy, positive ways.
– Play on his field. Have fun with your son by following his interests and his lead. Psychologist and author Samuel Osherson has some good advice here: “You need to be aware constantly of not making your son into a more heroic version of yourself. You need to let him be who he is.” Affirm his positive qualities—especially in those areas that are not like you.
– Find something that together you can call “our thing.” Discover or create a tradition, hobby, ritual, activity … something that has meaning for both of you and can be done repeatedly over time. Ten years from now you will be amazed at the results!
– Help him discover and pursue a mission beyond himself. Frederick Buechner writes, “The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” If you can help your son discover that intersection of his joy and others’ needs, you’ll be giving him—and, really, the world—a great gift.
– Encourage him to develop and maintain friendships that inspire him to be his best. Peer relationships play a powerful role in the life of your son. You can influence his decisions about friends through the quality of your own relationship with him, through direct advice, by getting to know his friends and what they stand for, and by facilitating or limiting peer connections.
Relating to your son may come pretty easily on the surface. But Rich’s points have challenged me, and I hope these points have challenged you to dig deeper and be even more intentional with your son.
Rich Batten is married and the father of a daughter and three sons and has years of experience training fathers and leading fatherhood initiatives. He and his wife live in Colorado.