“Young males rise to the occasion under the approval of men they respect. As fathers, we hold in our hands the opportunity to inspire our sons to achieve, offering support and modelling what it is to be a man.”
– Ian Grant, Growing Great Boys (2007)
There has never been a better time to be a dad. The softening of societal norms have allowed fathers to step forward with tender hearts and genuine commitment to being an involved, loving parent.
Over the last 15 years that I have been running seminars nationally and internationally, I have noticed more and more fathers not only turning up, but also asking deep questions. The other beautiful thing I have noticed is how often I see tears in the eyes of the men in my audiences at times. This softening of the collective male heart towards children is so wonderful.
In my research for my book From Boys to Men, I discovered that having a warm connection to your father can be measured scientifically! In Paediatrics 2017, it was reported that children with father loss have shorter telomeres in their cells and telomere length in early life can predict lifespan.
“Boys who have had significant father loss by age 9 have telomeres that are 14% shorter.”
William Farrell and John Gray in their book The Boy Crisis, explore in depth fatherless boys and the tendency they have to struggle more in school, with addictions, with criminality, with mental illness – especially depression and violence. Boys who have had some form of ‘absent father syndrome’ feature more highly in dropout figures, gangs and in the US – mass shootings and the joining of extremist groups. Sadly, not only do these hurt boys have a tendency to hurt others, they are also more vulnerable to being hurt themselves – particularly to being sexually exploited.
Before I go further I want to be clear about this, because I know for a lot of solo mums whose kids don’t have their dad with them, that will be worrying:
Other men can be ‘father figures’ for boys and this can definitely fill the void for boys who have a poor connection or no connection to their biological father.
We must keep this reality in the forefront of our minds as we watch our boys step onto the bridge to manhood. This is a critical window that can help reshape a struggling boy, and it definitely can give guidance to a boy who has had little connection to his father.
In my work over the years as a teacher and counsellor, I have heard many tween and teen boys explore their regrets around having a dad “who doesn’t care”, or a dad who “is never around”. Some express this through anger and others, quite simply, have sobbed on my shoulder. The hunger for a loving connection with their father or another good man is probably hiding inside every tween and teen boy.
I surveyed men for my book From Boys to Men (2020) about things they wished their parents had done for them in their teen years and here are some of their replies:
- I would have liked my dad to be a bit more open in his love and support, I know he loved me in his own way, but he often used teasing/humour instead of being openly loving and supportive.
- I wish my dad had said he loved me, just once. I wish he had encouraged
- me to do things and told/showed me that he believed in me.
- I wish I felt that he had had the time to support me and engage in my
- ideas and dreams. I wish we had had more meaningful conversations.
- I wish my father had been more involved, open and honest and not
- parented with fear. Been more supportive.
- I wish my dad had been more present. He was there but never really
- in the moment or situation.
Fathering a tween or teen boy is very different from fathering a young boy or a primary school aged boy. Many dads tell me they really struggle with the moodiness, the sass, the incoherent communication, the lack of respect towards both parents and generally anything that they don’t like.
Fathering like your own father
Given that most fathers today were raised with fathers who were very tough disciplinarians rather than warm connected parents, the underlying unconscious father expectations and behaviours are often responsible for the lack of patience and tolerance towards their sons.
Many get triggered really quickly and no matter how hard they try to be different, they hear those same words that came out of theit father’s mouth, come flying out of their own.
In many ways the digital world is making it harder for all parents to stay connected to their tween and teens, especially our boys. I have spoken to teen boys who said they don’t need their parents to teach them life skills like changing a tyre or how to cook a recipe, because they can watch YouTube or maybe ask Siri. When I asked what might happen if they had lost their phone or if it was flat when they needed to find out something important, they did look at me with concern. So, it still does matter that we prioritise teaching our kids, especially our teen boys, the difference between right and wrong and how to be respectful to themselves and others. We can only do that through a connected relationship.
Some dads have told me that they notice they are harder on their sons than their daughters, because they don’t want their sons to make some of the really poor choices that they made themselves during their teen years.
Most dads still have a tendency to want to punish their sons when they make poor choices. When they continue to make poor choices, they can feel they are doing it deliberately rather than unintentionally and impulsively. In that hot moment of frustration, they can forget about the underdeveloped teen brain that is prone to taking more risks.
Sadly, many dads as little boys, were hit, hurt and shamed when they made poor choices. This can make it easier to be the father who lectures, shouts, hits, uses ridicule and sarcasm and shaming. The cycle of emotional abuse can continue and I have worked with many dads who want to end this cycle.
Often it is the stored shame and anger from boyhood that drives this toxic behaviour as a dad to a teen boy. Thankfully due to groups like The Fathering Project, The Making of Men camps through The Rites of Passage Institute and many others, dads are having opportunities to share their stories and to find pathways to healing and wholeness.
What was your most challenging experience when you were a teen?
- Not having my dad be there for me
- Not having a father figure to guide me
- Not being able to connect with my father. Only saw him once a year up to the age of 16 when I moved into his house. I always felt that my brother and I were not important enough.
- Living up to my dad’s expectations.
– Men’s Survey, Maggie Dent, From Boys to Men (2020).
Earlier this year I received a beautiful email from a mum of a 14-year-old boy who had been getting into a lot of trouble at school. They had tried to ban him from his phone, technology and even denied him playing his favourite sport. None of the punishments were working.
One afternoon when dad came home, he told his wife that he had heard the conversation I had with Richard Fidler that outlined other ways of communicating well with your non-communicative son. So, he called out to his son – with a term of endearment he hadn’t used in a long time – “Dude let’s go get some chips!” They walked, they ate chips and on the way home the boy opened up to his dad about what was really happening at school. A couple of older boys had targeted him and were bullying him and physically harassing him. They had a good conversation about what they could do to resolve the issues. After his son had headed into his bedroom the dad turned to his wife and said something like:
“Who would have thought a walk and a bucket of chips could make things better?”
If you are a dad and would like a stronger connection with your tween or teen son, consider having a one-on-one chat with your son, and work out the ‘dad plan’.
The dad plan
What’s the dad plan? Write down three things that your son would like you to do to be a better dad. Keep this written plan close by, and work on it for a month. Then have another father-son date, and review how you have gone. This becomes like a project and we know that men like projects.
Another tip is to write your son the dad message. Because sometimes it can be hard to express words of love and affection, especially if you are having a difficult relationship with your son or had a distant relationship with your father, consider buying a card. Write him a message that resonates with you.
One dad, after attending one of my adolescent seminars wrote on his son’s bathroom mirror, “I am really proud to be your dad. Love, dad.”
Ten minutes later his 14-year-old son came running into the bedroom with tears in his eyes, saying that he didn’t even think his dad liked him let alone was proud of him. They hugged. That one dad message changed that relationship and indeed the dad caught up with me after another seminar to tell me.
“Thank you – you have changed my life and my son’s life.”
He said now in the afternoon after school when he hears the front door bang open his son calls out loudly ‘where is my dad?’.
“Instead of ignoring or avoiding me, he actually comes looking for me. We then have an afternoon snack together. Seriously I cannot believe how happy I am because I am now the dad I wanted to be.”
The voices of the men in the Men’s Survey again speak volumes:
- I wish Dad had made more opportunities for me to speak to him. I was fearful and ashamed of things and thought he’d be disappointed in me.
- I wish my dad was more present; he was there but never really in the moment or situation.
- I would have loved for my dad to have spent more time with me when he got home from work/on weekends. We never really did much together and I feel quite disconnected from him.
Find the fun
Having a dad with a good sense of humour that is not racist or sexist can make life so much easier for a moody, crabby teen son. Striving to find and share funny things – especially funny cat and dog videos – can really lift a teens angst! Even if they call you lame – keep at it.
Dad jokes are famous for being a bit lame and yet it is still a form of connection and that is the hidden gold beneath them.
Another way to keep connected in a positive way is including their friends and mates. Offer rides to things and yes swing by and grab an ice cream or hot chips for all the lads. Taking teen boys on camping trips where the man-boy antics can happen away from the worrying eyes of mammas can also deepen relationships. Campfires and fire pits often allow boys and men to come to a place of safety, where true stories can be shared and lessons learned in an ancient way. Better still, such a gathering that includes lots of marshmallows, or damper and a guitar or ukulele!
We need to remember that blaming your dad for being less loving or less involved is not helpful. He did the best he could given attitudes and social norms of the time, or he fathered from his wound. One of the best books to read to help you become the dad you want to be and maybe the man you want to be is Steve Biddulph’s The New Manhood.
We can only do the best we can with what we know – when we know more, we can do more.
Our tween and teen boys are starving for a warm connection with their father and the father figures in their world. They tell me they just want to hang out with their dad – doing stuff. It’s great if you can share a common interest like fishing, football, cars, bikes, music or surfing, however it is just spending time in their dad’s company that matters. This helps them feel they matter in some way. Having a regular date with dad, or an uncle or grandfather can make a huge difference in the wellbeing of our confused teen boys. They need this now more than ever.
A wise man I worked with in rural men’s health many years ago once told me that he believed every son wants to get to a place in their life where he gets three things from his dad – acceptance, respect and love – without conditions.
Imagine how different the world may be if all boys were given these from dads who also received them from their dads.
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Maggie’s 2020 book, From Boys to Men: Guiding our teen boys to grow into happy, healthy men published by Pan Macmillan Australia is out now in ebook, audiobook and print.