Calvin Sandborn is the author of a book on parenting called Becoming the Kind Father: A Son’s Journey. This book is focused on improving the often-difficult relationship between fathers and sons.
Too often fathers raise their kids like Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, who boasted:
My father was frightened of his father.
I was frightened of my father.
And I am damn well going to see to it
that my children are frightened of me.
Too often fathers teach their sons to exercise power — and to bury their own feelings. “Take it like a man,” Dad admonishes; “Big boys don’t cry,” he warns.
Unfortunately, this forces the boy to ignore his inner life and inner self. He learns to hide his real feelings behind a Male Mask. Later when he confronts life’s natural shocks, he can’t even feel his heart’s response. He can conjure “manly” anger, but is blind to his own sorrow and fear and joy.
There is a cost. Recent studies show that the macho repression of feeling damages men’s health. It’s a major reason why men’s lives are far shorter than women’s and why men have:
- twice the rate of heart attacks, prior to old age
- double the rate of alcoholism
- four times the suicide rate
- nine times the rate of ulcers
Macho repression cripples men psychologically. Close to 80% of men find they are unable to consistently identify what they are feeling. The mechanic who knows every nuance of the internal combustion engine, the physicist who unravels secrets of the universe, the lawyer who recalls two centuries of common law – each may go home puzzled, unable to distinguish whether that big feeling inside is anger or sadness. Most men simply don’t know what they feel.
Life is empty for such a man. Exiled from his own inner life, he comes to treat himself like a machine, like a body with a job to do. And since he is cut off from his own feelings, he can’t relate meaningfully with his family. Too often, he makes up for this lost intimacy by adopting addictive behavior – workaholism, alcoholism, habitual anger, compulsive control, and obsessions with TV, sports, drugs or gambling.
Such dysfunction is rampant in a society that is divorced from its own heart — about half of men are covertly or overtly depressed.
Fortunately, men can change. We can learn to identify our feelings and share them with others. We can break the male anger habit, and forgive ourselves and people we love. We can choose to live in the Country of Love instead of the Country of Resentment.
But first we have to change the cruel self-talk that sons learn from fathers. When the traditional father trains his son to have “power over” others (as opposed to “connected relationship”), the father addresses his son from a height and treats him harshly. The son learns to treat his inner child the same. He learns to speak harshly to himself, using the same voice that his father used. (“Show him you’re boss!” “Suck it up!” “Don’t be a wuss!”)
As a result, the son’s inner life becomes a place of harshness, coldness, sometimes cruelty. The ugliness of patriarchy is played out in his head, as he spends a lifetime warring against his true self. Just as patriarchy brutalizes women, it brutalizes him.
But a man can choose to treat himself differently, with compassion. He can send away the Harsh Father that dominates his self-talk. And he can begin a daily discipline of speaking to himself with the encouraging, nurturing words that he tries to use with his own children. He can become his own Kind Father.
This makes all the difference. By treating himself with compassion a man allows his heart to re-emerge — he re-establishes a relationship with self. And for the first time, close relationships with others become a real possibility. By becoming Kind Father to himself, he can become a Kind Father to his own kids.