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Making Men Out Of Sons

Although we’ve come a long way from thinking the only real man is a Marlboro Man, many in our generation still have trouble embracing the full spectrum of manhood. Therein lies the rub between many fathers and sons. Fathers of grown offspring have to deal with leftover cultural stereotypes, boundary issues—if a son is named “Junior,” isn’t he supposed to be a mini-me?—and sometimes plain and simple jealousy: “Thanks to me, you’ve had it so easy compared to my early life. . .”

When the website Quora posed the question, “Do fathers ever get jealous of their sons?” Alan Hall, who said he was “both a son and a father,” responded about his own dad: “He put down, minimized, or actually made fun of every accomplishment I ever did. Sure, he would boast to all his friends about how great I was because that reflected well on him but, to me, it has been nothing but insults and put downs.  His father criticized him too, so I have no doubt he was insecure about his abilities. Why he felt better by putting me down, I’ll never know. I am very proud of everything my daughter does and I tell her that constantly.

“When I graduated with honors at USC with my MBA, he was resentful at all the attention I was getting. He told the whole family at the reception right after the ceremony: ‘Sure, he has some “book” smarts. He is good at taking tests, but he doesn’t have any “real” smarts, the kind that I have, to make money! I am rich but he has nothing. He will be paying off his student loans for years. I could have paid for his college, but instead, I invested that money in a piece of real estate. In ten years, that property will be worth millions, and he will still be working his butt off in some cubicle, just another corporate slave. His education was the far worse investment. You will see.’

“I was the only one of his kids to go to college. I went on to a great career making 6 figures. I paid my loans off in 5 years. The piece of real estate he bought? He lost the entire $127,000 he invested when he allowed it to be foreclosed. The funny thing is, I advised him it was a bad investment to begin with. When a USC MBA gives you good advice, you should take it. LOL.”

When the son is gay, father-son relations get even trickier. Writing in Psychology Today, Ronald F. Levant, Ed.D. cited this example:

“In the Broadway play “Kinky Boots” the two lead actors are preoccupied with their struggles with their fathers’ expectations. Charlie was the scion of four generations of shoemakers. His father expected that he would take over the business, which Charlie did not want to do. Simon grew up as a Black man in small town near London. His father wanted him to be a prize fighter like himself, and taught his son to box at an early age. But Simon had other ideas, and was more interested in being a drag queen, taking the name Lola. Charlie’s and Lola’s paths crossed while Charlie was being accosted and Lola stepped in to defend him, breaking the heel of her boot in the process. Charlie, being a shoemaker, offered to fix it, and in the process they formed a collaboration to make boots for men in drag – kinky boots. Together they sang “Not My Father’s Son,” in which the following lines expressed the dilemma they shared: “It was never easy/To be his type of man/To breathe freely/Was not in his plan/And the best part of me/Is what he wouldn’t see.”

Dr. Levant attributes a lot of the angst to fathers’ sense of obligation to create sons who are men in the classical/traditional sense of stoic, aggressive, self-reliant, stay-calm-in-the-face-of-danger manhood. Fathers feel it is their job to wean sons of their neediness, and to put a hard shell around the children’s vulnerable emotions, such as fear, sadness, hurt, and loneliness. The dads are constantly disappointed when the boys don’t fit their rigid stereotype, which in turn breeds the anger, frustration, and low self-esteem that dogs them into adulthood. Dr. Levant concludes, “Parents need to be aware of the potential harm that could come from beliefs that the fathers’ role is to make men out of their sons.”

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Barbara Greenleaf
Barbara Greenleaf
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