What Sons Need From Their Dads

Copyright 2008 by Neil Chethik www.NeilChethik.com

I recently finished writing a book called FatherLoss, for which I had the opportunity to interview 70 men about how they dealt with the deaths of their fathers. In the course of those interviews, I also had the chance to ask about the fathers' lives. Specifically, as the father of a 7-year-old son myself, I wanted to know: What makes a good dad? How does a father's role change through the life-span? And what, if anything, can a father do to help prepare his son for the father's death?

Here's what I learned:

In childhood, boys need from their fathers something that can broadly be called "affection."

The men I interviewed didn't always use that term. Affection has the connotation of holding, cuddling, hugging, kissing, and other forms of physical contact. And indeed, when that occurred between a father and son, it seemed to have an unusually positive effect on the child.

For many of the sons I spoke with, their fondest memories of childhood were wrestling with their dads, being tossed into the air or carried piggy-back, or some other form of direct physical play.

One son told me: "On Saturday mornings, when my dad had been gone all week, I'd climb into my parents' bed. He had horrible breath in the morning. We played a game where he tried to breathe on me, and I hid." This son actually remembered this game with fondness! It's an indication of how much sons want to be close to their dads.

I wondered why wrestling, bad-breath games and other physical affection so warmly remembered by sons. I eventually came to see it this way: Physical contact between a father and son gives the son a close-up view of the beast he will one day become: a man. The boy experiences, in his body and bones, how a man moves, feels, smells. Just as importantly, when the father's touch is playful and loving, the son learns that men are strong, but that strength can be harnessed, restrained, and used in a safe way.

Of course, some fathers do not easily go to physical affection. Perhaps they were raised without such contact with their own fathers, and find it alien, even unmanly. Fortunately, I discovered in my conversations with sons that affection could be administered in a variety of ways. Ultimately, affection was less about physicality than about loving attention by a father toward his son.

Some fathers show affection by simply talking with, and listening to, their sons. Others showed it by playing chess, checkers, and other games with their sons. Still others played catch, coached little league teams, helped with confirmation or Bar Mitzvah preparations, took their sons to concerts, ball games and the like. The key was to focus attention, especially on activities that the son initiates.

When a son doesn't get affection, in any form, from his father, the resulting wound can be deep and lasting. Second only to the abuser in generating resentment among the sons I interviewed was the faraway father, the distant dad, the patriarch who was unavailable or uninvolved. Whether the father meant it or not, the message to the son was clear: You don't matter.

One man's comment struck me a little close to home because I love to read. A man I spoke with told me this: "One of the memories I carry from childhood is Dad's bookshelf. My dad read a lot. He would come home from work, sit in his chair, and read for most of the evening. Maybe it was his escape.... Sometimes, I'd go to that wall of books, and try to figure out what was there that was more fascinating than me."

Now, I'm realistic. I don't expect myself, or any other parent, to always be attentive to our children. It's not possible, or even healthy. But it has been good for me to pay attention to how much I pay attention to my son, and to remember how good for him it is to have my active presence in his life.

If "affection" was the key word that arose when sons described what they needed in childhood, another single word captures the essence of what adolescent and young adult sons need from their dads: Blessing.

One man I interviewed, a business executive, said he received a traditional Mexican blessing - a bendicion - from his father when the son left Texas at age nineteen to look for work in California. The blessing, which his father gave to him in Spanish, affirmed that the son was ready for the journey ahead, and called upon God and humankind to look after him. It also softened the son's feelings toward a father who had often been harsh and uncompromising.

In the introduction to my book, FatherLoss, I speak of a blessing I received from my father when I was 27. I was living at the time in Miami, near my grandfather, my father's father. My grandfather died suddenly, and I spent a day going through my grandfather's apartment alongside my father. In the course of the day, my father recognized that he never heard his father express pride in him -- and with the death, never would. So my father offered me a blessing: He told me how proud he was of the life I was creating, the choices I was making.

My father's blessing was especially important to me because I was concerned that I'd disappointed him. He'd put me through college, and then, five years into my career, I'd quit a good job with no plan for what I'd do next. When my father told me he was proud of the choices I'd made, I took it to mean that he supported me in my decision to stop and re-evaluate my career direction. I felt the pressure lift, and began to trust myself to make the right next steps.

My father's expression of pride was straight-forward, but blessings can be subtle too, delivered, like affection, in ways unique to the father and son involved.

One son told me he felt blessed when he was asked for business advice by his father. Another appreciated it when his father showed pride in the son's selection of a wife, when the father enjoyed playing with the son's children. Sons often felt blessed when the father asked for help from the son when he's sick or having a problem of some kind.

One man I interviewed, who'd been beaten by his doctor-father in childhood for failing in school, steered clear of his dad for nearly twenty years after leaving home. Then, when the son was in his late thirties, he invited his father to visit him at the son's home 2,000 miles away. The younger man had become a carpenter, and during his father's visit, led his dad on a tour of one of the million-dollar homes for which he had crafted oak staircases and cabinets.

The son recalled the awestruck look on his father's face, and a blunt apology from his dad: "I've underestimated you." In the years following, the son accepted from his father fine tools as gifts, and offered the older man advice on how to build things out of wood.

And that was enough for the son. It seems, in fact, that most sons will forgive almost anything if they can hear - in whatever way, and at whatever age - the genuine affirmation of their fathers.

In the course of my many interviews, there was one more thing that sons said they needed from their dads: a proper farewell. This need is illustrated by the story of a man named Clyde.

Clyde was 34 years old when his father informed him just before dinner together one night that he was dying of cancer. The news "knocked me back like a boxer," Clyde recalled. It had been just five years since the two men had begun a reconciliation following a long period of anger and estrangement. In the weeks after his father's diagnosis, Clyde visited the older man regularly, first at his father's home, later in the hospital. And then the father, a physician, took a sharp turn for the worse.

In the father's hospital room one evening, a memorable incident occurred. Clyde told me that retelling it was "like walking on sacred ground."

In the hospital room, Clyde had been sitting on a couch a few feet from the side of his father's bed. Clyde had been there for most of an hour, as his father alternated between turbulent coughing fits and labored breathing. The older man still maintained his barrel chest, and full gray-black beard. The skin on his face, however, as Clyde could see from the couch, had become pasty and drawn.

During a break from his coughing, the father reached out a hand toward Clyde. Clyde rose from the couch and clasped the hand. He stood beside the bed. For a long moment, the father gazed at his son's face. Clyde noticed that father's eyes, normally brown, had gone gray.

Then, in a gravelly voice, the father forced from his ravaged throat the few words he felt he had to say. Clyde recalled that they went like this: "You've got a beautiful wife, and a gorgeous child. You've got a good life. You're going to be fine." The father then beheld his son's face again, brought it to his own, and pressed his lips against Clyde's cheek. Then he said: "Good-bye. Now get out of here! Go, go, go!" He then released his son toward the door.

Clyde left the room without looking back. He wept as he drove home. Several hours later, his step-mother called. Clyde's father was dead.

In retrospect, Clyde marveled at "how much selfless effort it must have taken" for his dad, "being pulled in the other direction," to offer such a good-bye. Had the encounter not occurred, Clyde told me, he would "probably have doubted a lot of things. I would have wondered if he was still angry. But I never worried about it.... (The good-bye) reduced my mourning to the sadness of losing him."

Indeed, we may think that it's hardest to lose family members we are close to. But my research indicated that the sons who struggled the most with the loss of a father, and for the longest time, were those who were at odds with, or estranged from, their dads. Instead of dealing with their sadness after the loss, these sons were weighted down by regrets, resentments, and guilt.

Which is why it matters that we fathers, if we have a chance, offer this last gift to our children - the gift of closure, completion, forgiveness, good-bye.

Indeed, if we are able to be affectionate with our young sons in whatever way is most comfortable to us; if we can bless our children as they grow into adulthood; and if we can say good-bye when the time comes, we will, in my mind, have been the best fathers we can possibly be.

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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at neil@neilchethik.com or at www.NeilChethik.com .

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Copyright 2009 Neil Chethik