Fathering a Son

Rough and Humble: Dads and Their Sons

Fathers help boys become loving and wise men by modeling, being with and teaching them...

By Gregory Keer

I've been coaching basketball for my oldest son, now 9, for the last four years. The first season was utter father joy. Whether my 5-year-old grabbed a rebound or got hit in the head with the Spalding, he wore a permanent smile.

"That's my boy," I'd say to anyone within earshot.

The next year, my son became tentative. In the heat of a game, I shouted at him to get aggressive. Many times. Once, I made him cry. Later, I agonized over my callousness. I was supposed to be the kind of guy who could handle my child drawing flowers instead of throwing balls.

Last year, my kid took one miserable shot in 10 games. A stressed-out grimace replaced his ever-present grin. After the season, my wife thought he should take a break. Yet, despite conflicting emotions, I believed that continuing sports offered so many benefits to a boy.

David Kleiner, a pediatrician with two sons, has similar feelings.

"Sports are rough and competitive," he says, "but my older son is learning self-confidence, physicality, restraint and how to deal with adversity and loss. Last year, when my son was 7, he had a hockey coach who yelled frequently. Not used to this, my son talked through a lot of teary moments with me. The following season, when he happened to have this coach again, I asked if he would be OK. He said he knew how to handle his coach now, and smiled."

The Tao of Toughness

Toughness remains a key, though complicated, lesson that today's fathers teach their boys.

"Society and human nature expect boys to be tough. That will never change," notes family therapist Michael Gurian, author of Nurture the Nature and The Minds of Boys. "Toughness is not really a fault, actually, and we need to expect our girls to be tough too."

There are times, though, that hardiness for boys gets confused with anger, which builds up partly because of the ancient male directive of bottling emotion to prevent looking weak.

"Anger cannot continue to be the only emotion acceptable for males," says Mike DeMartini, a high-school teacher in Los Angeles and a lecturer on men's studies at California Lutheran University. "Boys must be allowed to have feelings and to share them with their fathers."

An important way to break down emotional barriers is to never relinquish the affection we give our sons. Many dads stop hugging their kids once they reach the school years, which can send the message that expressions of affection are somehow not manly. Continuing to hug and kiss our sons maintains the physical communication that our boys are loved and supported.

Sensitivity has long been a delicate issue for guys, at least since Marlo Thomas' 1970's Free to Be You and Me TV special featured boys who liked dolls. Despite steps the media has taken to embrace male emotions, it also perpetuates cruder models. DeMartini believes that, compared to past generations, today's "media images focus on materialism and 'boy psychology.' Everywhere you look, advertisements tell guys that what they really need are beer and babes."

View of Girls

With the media often reducing boys to hormonal urges, fathers also need to mentor their sons to see females as more than objects to obtain.

"Boys and girls are naturally different," Gurian states. "Our goal is to make sure they can get along for life - live together, work together, respect one another. Fathers help boys become loving and wise men by modeling, being with and teaching them."

In my home, I try to demonstrate ways of interacting with the opposite sex. I mess up plenty, but I show my wife respect by listening to her, telling her I love her and revealing what worries me. I want my boys to grow up to be gentlemen who are unafraid of their own or others' emotions.

"I teach my sons that girls will appreciate their kindness more than their looks or their financial status," says Jeffrey Hirschberg, a father of three boys.

These kinds of lessons are important as we realize that the gender gap isn't going to close anytime soon.

"My boys are obsessed with Star Wars and the concept of good vs. evil," says Hirschberg. "It's amazing how they gravitate toward those films and inherently understand their meaning."

My own sons share those proclivities. They go nuts for science fiction and fantasy stories, and are obsessed with anime and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.

Further setting themselves off from their female counterparts are boys' tendencies to do homework or art standing up, fidgeting and bouncing off furniture whenever they're indoors, and taking every opportunity to do something silly for attention. A female friend of my 5-year-old asked why he recently colored his hair with crayons and he responded with, "I want to surprise my Mommy!"

As much as my wife and I stare enviously at families with daughters, who usually sit still and eat neatly at restaurants, we know that our little XY types are wired differently. So, we adjust to their tendencies, giving them space to get messy, tempering our expectations when we get lack-of-cooperation notes from teachers, and throwing them onto playing fields to let them expend their energy.

Speaking of sports, this year, my oldest son played basketball and blossomed into a decent shooter and rebounder. He was proud of himself and basked in my approval, especially since I stopped bullying him.

Yet he's still a sensitive soul. In one game, after knocking down an opponent while hauling in a loose ball, he stopped to ask the other player, "Are you all right?" It was a prouder moment for me than any three-point shot my boy could have made.

Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of three boys. You can read his monthly column on life as a dad at the Family Man Archives .

More: Fathering Daughters by Joe Kelly.

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10 Ways that Parents Can Help Their Sons

Books on Fathering

Compared to just a decade ago, there are now plenty of excellent books on fathering. Among them: