I will turn 50 in June of this year which, strangely, does not bother me a bit. I still feel like I’m young and in my prime. Well, except after a day of putting in a new ceiling for the kitchen. My back is telling me I am definitely not in my prime anymore!
As I approach the half century mark (Okay, that did it, now I do feel old!) and as my children are producing grandchildren, I think more about my father and all the things he taught me. My father, pictured to the right, taught me a lot of things, some he probably never meant to. He was a hard drinker, a fighter, and a hell raiser with a bad temper. He was also fiercely protective, loving, and had a heart as big as the world.
I learned a lot about life from watching him, and the things he taught me played a huge part in making me the man I am today. Now that I’ve raised my kids, and they are starting to raise their own, I think about all the kids I know who have grown up or are growing up now without fathers to teach them these things.
And that worries me.
I know that these days it is fashionable to think that a child doesn’t need a father; that single parent families are just as valid as two parent families, or that two moms are the same as a mom and a dad. The idea that a two parent, male-female family is the best for raising children is considered antiquated, archaic, and intolerant.
Well, call me antiquated, archaic and intolerant because as I watch our culture sinking into a morass of violence and ignorance, I believe one of the major causes is the lack of fathers in families. Both boys and girls need a strong male role model in their lives. Boys need it so they an learn how to handle the strength and power of being a man, particularly during the adolescent rush of hormones that can cause even the best of kids to pull stupid stunts that could get them or somebody else hurt. Girls need a strong male role model to show them how a real man acts, and how he treats a woman. And personally, I believe a young woman also needs that strong male figure to counter the endless stream of sexualizing images that inundate our children and to demonstrate to her that she is more than just her reproductive system.
I’m not holding myself above reproach here, nor am I saying that a mother is unimportant. I was a single father for a lot of years, and despite my best efforts, I am certain that the lack of a full time mother hurt my kids. Both parents are equally important when it comes to raising kids.
But today, we’re talking about fathers, and as a father/stepfather, I want to pass along a few things my father taught me about being a man to other fathers/stepfathers out there. There’s a good chance that some of you were raised fatherless yourselves, and don’t have a good example to follow. (Important tip: TV fathers are almost always bad examples to follow. There are no scripts in real life. Or laugh tracks.)
Let’s face it — when they are little, boys are easy to raise. Get ‘em some Lego’s, a puppy, a bicycle, and you’re good for several years. But when they start getting older, when those hormones start raging, if you haven’t done some serious work with them, they can spin out of control in a second, sometimes with life-altering effects. Even with all our best efforts, they can still make decisions that leave us scratching our heads and saying “I know I raised you better than that!”
In my opinion, a father’s job is to provide his sons with the ability to withstand that onslaught of hormonally induced insanity without incurring any facial scars, long term enemies, or criminal records.
So here are 12 things that I think every father should teach their sons. Some are skills, some are attitudes. Some are general and some are specific, but they all work together to help turn a boy into a man. Some you will teach directly, but most of them you will teach by doing. Show your son the kind of man you are, because that is the kind of man he will aspire to be.
nggallery template=’carousel’ id=’2′
1. Teach Him How to Compete. 1 of 12Competition teaches us so many tools that we need later in life. Not just how to win with class or lose with dignity, but how to work for a goal, and how to be part of a team while striving for individual excellence. It teaches us how to submit to discipline, how to discipline ourselves, and how to persevere through disappointment. Perhaps most importantly, it teaches us that we rewards that are earned are sweeter than those that are given. It's not a popular idea anymore, but it is absolutely true. We value something in direct proportion to the work we put into getting it.
2. Teach Him How and When to Fight. 2 of 12I know I'm going to lose a lot of you with this one, and that's too bad because the world is not a fair place. There are always people in it who will take advantage of those who aren't prepared to defend themselves and adults aren't always going to be around to prevent fights. Bullies are excellent at finding targets who cannot fight back which means a boy who knows how to defend himself is not a likely target. He doesn't walk like a victim. Ironically, being capable of fighting very often insures that you never have to. Just as importantly, there comes a time when a man may be called to fight to defend somebody else. It would be nice if he had the tools to win that fight. Picture by Konrad Malka
3. Integrity. 3 of 12This one you can only teach by example. No matter what you say or how often you sat it, your son will learn more from your actions than your words. Keep your promises, even if they seem trivial. Apologize when you come up short. Accept the consequences of your own actions with grace, not resentment. Be unfailingly honest with your son. Show your son that you are worthy of his trust and he will learn to be trustworthy as well. Integrity cannot be taken from you, but you can give it away all too easily and once lost, it is exceedingly hard to regain. Photo by Ned Horton
4. How to Fix Things. 4 of 12Tools give power. My dad could fix almost anything, at least it seemed that way to me. He didn't have to know anything about it; something would be broken and he would just look at it for a few minutes, push, pull, or hammer something, and it would start working again. I figured it was some kind of father magic and couldn't wait until I got it. I didn't. Instead, I got knowledge through experience. I took broken things apart and found what no longer worked and figured out how to make it work again. And that's what my dad did; I just didn't see it at the time. Get your son some tools and teach him how to use them. If nothing else, it will add some excitement to your life as they 'fix' things! Picture by Sanja Gjenero
5. How to Shoot. 5 of 12Again, I'm going to lose some of you here. Shooting a gun or a bow is a skill, one that teaches many things beyond hitting the target you aim at. It teaches respect for the power of a weapon, and about how fragile life can be. It teaches discipline, both physical and mental. You have to be in control in order to shoot well. Shooting teaches teaches a young man how to concentrate, how to shut out all the noise and focus on a small target. This kind of focus is a life skill that far too many of us never develop. Photo by Tom Pickering
6. The Meaning of Honor. 6 of 12It's an old fashioned word, and one that has been wrenched out of shape in current usage. Integrity, duty, and honesty are all part of it, but a man can be all of these things and not have honor. You can be compelled to do your duty or to be honest, but honor, like integrity, comes from within. It is based on self esteem in a sense. A man with honor will do what he perceives as right, not for recognition or personal gain, but because it is right, and he holds himself high enough in his heart to insist that he not sully that image. It isn't pride, because integral to honor is the knowledge that it can be easily lost. It's another one of those that can only be taught by example. Photo by Thad Zajdowicz
7. How to Build. 7 of 12It doesn't matter what you build; it could be a bird house, dog house, or out house. I'm a woodworker, but I also knit and crochet. There's a deep satisfaction involved in taking raw materials and producing something useful, beautiful, or both from my own skill. Creativity should be valued and far too often, our culture keeps that for women only. Boys should know the feelings that come from making something, whether it is a painting or a toolbox or a sweater.What is important is that you show him how to plan the project, gather supplies, plan the work and follow the plan. Even more important, you get to demonstrate patience when the plan (or the project) falls apart and you have to adjust to circumstances.
8. How to Earn Money. 8 of 12In this world, we all work for a living. The idea that somehow the world owes us something simply because we exist is one that will certainly drag us down to the dustbin of history. Everything has a cost, and that cost is valued in the effort it takes to meet it. The earlier a boy learns this, the sooner he begins to value not just his own labor, but the labor of others. He learns that honest work, no matter what the task happens to be can never demean the man who does it. Yeah, he'll also learn the value of a dollar, and may be less likely to waste it on silly things. Photo by Dave Dyet
9. How to Care for a Pet. 9 of 12Boys and dogs go together, but my kids had dogs, cats, lizards, fish, a frog, birds, and for a very brief moment, a hamster. It escaped once and was immediately banished to another home. Keeping a pet teaches compassion, love, companionship, caring, responsibility, and sadly, how to deal with loss.
10. How to Love. 10 of 12Love isn't ownership; it's a partnership, and that partnership can take many forms. Husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, or even between best friends; love builds elastic bonds that strengthen, but should never restrict. Loving somebody does not mean controlling them; nor does it mean mindlessly serving them as if they were royalty. Instead, like Robert Heinlein wrote, it means that you value their happiness as much as your own. Or as the Bible puts it, you should love your neighbor as yourself. Love is giving, not taking.
11. How to Give. 11 of 12The house at the end of my street caught on fire one Christmas eve. The family was out of town so nobody got hurt, but they returned Christmas morning to a pile of ashes where their home used to be. My wife and I put together some food and supplies to take down to them. My father was visiting us that Christmas morning, and he walked down the street with me, and as we walked, he pulled a few 100 dollar bills from his pocket and slid them into napkins on the tray with the food. He wanted to help the family out without hurting their pride or letting them know it was from him. That's what charity is all about. Photo by MArco Michelini
12. How to Be a Patriot. 12 of 12Patriotism is not mindless acceptance of everything America does. 'My country, right or wrong' is overly simplistic and potentially dangerous as WWII demonstrated. At the same time, it is important that our sons understand exactly what makes America unique in history. It is important that they understand the legacy of freedom left to us by the men who fought and died to give it to us, and it is just as important that they understand the responsibilities that accompany that freedom. Patriotism is loving your country enough to want to recognize and honor what is good while correcting what is wrong. Photo by Alfonso Romero
So, tell me what things you think fathers should teach their sons. And before you ask, I do plan on doing some companion pieces to this one, covering things fathers should teach their daughters, and I’ll look for a partner to give the mother’s perspective. Let me know what you think!