In today’s #MeToo world, emotional literacy and balanced views of gender and empathy, are critical tools to equip young boys with. To this end, the father-son relationship and attachment can go a long way in enhancing boys’ and young mens’ capacity for developing emotional expressiveness, understanding how to manage their feelings in difficult situations, coping with stress, and normalizing the experience of having negative or difficult emotions rather than seeing it as a weakness.
In my practice, I saw a lot of mothers come in to actively seek help in adjusting to life post partum, to navigate difficult relationships with their children, and at times when they have lost a child to suicide or illness. This clinical trend is consistent with research on parenting that is overwhelmingly focused on mothers and the mother-child bond. But fathers in my office? Not so much. Equal focus on fatherhood is important as research indicates that early onset of behavioral problems in young boys has been correlated with issues such as fathers’ absence, history of violence with the father, negative and harsh punishment, and an engagement of 'macho' gender ideals or stereotypes1. There is growing body of research2. to show that nurturing and caring fathers can have a significant and positive impact on the emotional and social development of their children.
The role of fathers in shaping healthy masculinity in their sons cannot be discounted or ignored. Moreover, how do fathers navigate their own masculinity and self-identities, as shaped by their experiences and by their family structures and expectations? Gender roles, gender ideals, and gender identity are largely taught and passed on within the family structure and is taught to us through observation, conversation, and parent-child interaction. You see this in the typical saas-bahu shows of today, the stark delineation of gender roles and gender-based privilege.
Young boys may be frequently told what kind of a man they should grow up to be, and they may learn a lot about their own gender expression by watching their fathers go to work, take part (or not take part) in household chores, making the family decisions, and so on. Teaching children that there are behavioral and cultural ideals such as “don’t cry like a girl” or exceptions such as “he’s a boy, he will be naughty!” can often be communicated when trying to teach them ways to cope with difficult times (such as a fall off a bicycle) or to "toughen them up." This can also occur in the context of bullying, developing ones’ sexual and gender identity, or trying to fit in with friends or a peer group. At various critical points of the child's development, such displays indicate that toughness and emotional control are valued or acceptable, perceived 'feminine or girly' behaviors are unacceptable.
However, fathers can also have a monumental role in teaching empathy to their sons through the early as well as later years of their lives. Fathers who can actively model empathy and compassion in their own familial interactions, can demonstrate flexibility across masculine ideals, and can be attuned to their own emotions and express them. For instance, teaching their sons to acknowledge their pain (physical or emotional) by acknowledging it themselves, to freely express sorrow at the loss of a pet, and that parents or siblings and friends can have feelings too, is a way to bridge the gap between ideals of emotional strength and vulnerability.
Vulnerability is not a typically valued masculine ideal. However the consequences of teaching young boys that it is not okay to be vulnerable can restrict their emotional bandwidth in their relationships and self-identities. Outward expressions of affection and warmth, expressing genuine pride as a parent, and spending time together, engaging in father-son activities, is positively regarded and valued by sons, and deepens the bond they share. These behaviors detail an active and involved level of communication between father and son. Being able to share both verbal and non-verbal communication about emotions can be a positive experience for children. 'Emoting' in these ways are also effective in communicating gender equality and respect, and has a positive impact on non-traditional families, families where both parents have careers, and in families with diverse gender and sexual identities.
Advocating for a reconstruction of traditional or rigid masculine ideals and separating the idea of manhood vs fatherhood is a way to begin to redirect the father-son relationship and roles towards a more fluid, balanced, and gender aware identity.
Divya Kannan, PhD, is a clinical psychologist from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, where she has spent the last several years working with adult survivors of violence. She is currently a practicing clinician in Bangalore.
1. (Remmo, 2009; Yogman & Garfield, 2016)
2. (Lindsay, Caldera, & Rivera, 2013; Castro et al, 2015)