Raising Boys To Become Good Fathers
June 14, 2019
Father’s Day can be a complicated occasion for many. Many children have not had the benefit of a positive relationship with their fathers for varying reasons. It could be family dynamics, mental illness, substance use, separation and divorce, bereavement, immigration and migration (not to mention less than family-friendly work schedules in many male-dominated professions). The diversity of families today means that children may also have multiple Dads, or other father-figures (like Grandfathers, Brothers and Stepfathers) in their lives which we also celebrate.
Much has been written about the benefits that a loving, nurturing father can have on the well-being of a child. Click here for an interesting read. The key to those benefits is directly related to the ‘loving and nurturing’ part; something that is not always fostered within boys and young men growing up in our communities.
Recently, I was invited to present at Texas A & M University in Texarkana, TX with my colleague Deinera Exner-Cortens as part of a series on Gender Issues. Our presentation, entitled Complex Masculinities in a Dynamic Age: Understanding the Risks and Working Towards Change got me to thinking about the challenges of raising boys and young men in an age of complex masculinities – and specifically about the role of good fathering in all of this. While it is important for boys to have a number of positive male role models, fathers (in whatever forms they take) may be uniquely positioned to teach boys about masculinity.
Recent events, such as the controversial Gillette advertisement, which focused largely on fathers and openly challenged all men to be better, resulted in a lot of public backlash in defense of a certain type of masculinity. This surprised me at first, wondering how an ad that was advocating for gentler, kinder ways of constructing manhood would be so threatening. Delving into these issues further has helped me understand how confusing, hard and sometimes very unsafe it is for our boys and young men to try on these different forms of masculinity in the face of such public pressure to maintain the status quo of other more rigid forms of maleness.
A recent Budweiser ad is also encouraging positive masculinity with this ad about Step-Fathers.
Even when it comes to fathering and our traditional sense of who gets to be considered a father, there can be tension (click here and here to read about the perspective of several Trans Dads). But it's important to recognize that these points of tension inevitably lead to points of possibility.
It certainly is positive that conversations are now being had about masculinity in our communities. In fact, the University of Calgary has their own Masculinities Scholar, Dr. Michael Kehler who has recently facilitated a number of presentations and activities to encourage conversations about what it means to be male. He has also been weighing in on what we might do differently within our families and communities. The backlash for the Gillette ad was swift, but it was missing the point.
“This is not only an advertisement about men and boys, it’s an advertisement about power, about gender arrangements, and about the ways we can actually change these arrangements,” Michael says.
In addition, Kehler suggests that we need to move away from this idea that there’s only one way of being a man and that by failing to do so we entrap our boys and young men in an untenable place that has both overlapping and competing rules about maleness.
“Allowing for this pluralistic idea of the male acknowledges how diverse boys and men actually are, reflecting elements like race, economics and sexuality…Being male isn’t this one essentialized thing… There is actually a vast depth to masculinity.”
Click here to listen to the full interview.
There is a growing interest in engaging men and boys in gender-transformative work. Important programs such as WiseGuyz, created in Calgary by the Centre for Sexuality, is offering up such possibilities for change in schools and communities across Alberta, and is currently being piloted at Wood’s Homes.
In his book on engaging men and boys in violence prevention, Michael Flood (2019) emphasizes that if we want to engage young men in this conversation, we have to start where men are at now, personalize the issue for them, build on their strengths and appeal to higher values and principles of what it would mean to be a positive male role model. Flood suggests encouraging men to develop a counter-story and to engage each other in supporting those men who choose to take a stand outside of the narrow script that has been traditionally held for males. I’ve written about this issue before in addressing gender-based violence against women and girls (click here) and the work that we still need to do in our societies to ensure that all genders are given the chance to be their very best selves.
There is a powerful film about the harms of rigid masculinity norms on boys and men that is occasionally available on Netflix, so keep your eyes open for it – watch the trailer here:
In their early book on protecting the emotional life of boys, Kindlon, D. & Thompson, M. with Barker, T. (1999) suggested a number of ways to foster healthy emotional development in boys, focused largely on helping boys develop and feel comfortable with expressing their emotions and equating courage with emotional empathy. More importantly they emphasized the importance of developing healthy relationships with other men that were at a deeper level than simple teasing, competition and athletics. They also pointed out that narrow definitions of masculinity harm everyone.
This Father’s Day, think about what you have learned about fathering; perhaps from your own, but also others, and ask yourself which of those behaviours you hope to pass on to your own children. Then think about what small thing you might do to change the traditional narrative of masculinity. It could be as simple as comforting your son when he is distressed, and changing that age-old phrase of, “boys don’t cry” into one that recognizes that feelings are valuable, and tell us when we are hurting, when we feel connected, and when something is wrong. When we cry, we are learning something important about what matters to us, and being open to that teaching is what will grow our children into the people and parents that they want to be.
The memories we have of our fathers, or the men who held that role in our lives, may be joyful or painful, they may include feelings of pride, love, loss and longing or result in smiles, laughter or tears. Whatever you feel this Father’s Day, and whoever you feel it for (we all know that in many families Moms have had to play both roles) take that emotional learning and use it to seed the growth of the next generation of those who may someday want to become a Dad, in whatever form that takes.
Kindlon, D. & Thompson, M. with Barker, T. (1999) Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Ballantine Books, New York. (287pages)
Flood, M. (2019). Engaging men and boys in violence prevention. New York: Palgrave McMillan.