The father-son relationship can be complex. Fathers and sons with widely different interests can find it hard to relate to one another. Sometimes dads and sons feel competitive against one another. Sometimes their male tendencies to not communicate feelings are compounded as both want a better relationship but neither one quite knows how to go about it.
As I have watched my own relationships with my sons, thought about my relationship with my own father, and observed many fathers and sons interact with one another over the years, I have identified some key elements to creating and building a strong father-son relationship.
1. Recognize that sons are influenced by their fathers. Whether we know it or not, our sons learn about being a man primarily by watching their fathers. A father’s influence on his son’s personal development is often unseen but nonetheless real. As a young man watches his father interact with his mother, he learns about respect (or disrespect), about how men and women interact and about how men should deal with conflict and differences. As he watches his dad interact with other men, he will learn how men talk, how they relate with one another and how they deal with masculine issues. Understanding that a father’s influence on his son is unmatched will help dad think more deeply about his relationship with his son and take that relationship more seriously.
2. Develop common interests. This is a lesson I learned from my own dad. My dad was a law enforcement officer during my growing up years and he worked a lot of shift work. Dad was a man’s man in many ways. He played a lot of sports and enjoyed time with his friends (what little he had other than at work). I was more of a bookworm, was uncoordinated growing up and hated playing sports and physical education at school. He worked really hard to make me like sports and pushed me into things like Little League baseball, but I would have rather been sitting under a tree reading. But one thing we both came to love was camping, and we found some real commonality in the woods setting up a tent or cooking over a fire. When we started to maximize our time together outdoors and spend time together doing something we both enjoyed, our relationship grew.
3. Don’t be afraid of a little boisterous play. My boys, especially when they were young, loved anything that was active and rough. A little wrestling in the backyard seemed to go a long way. It seems like with boys, this little bit of wild behavior is a bonding experience. You have to keep them safe, but you can take some very small and calculated risks to give them a more physical experience. Later in life, this may translate into activities like rock climbing, skateboarding and ice hockey.
4. Get involved in father-son activities. In our family, I found myself getting closest to my sons as we enjoyed Boy Scouting together. We camped, hiked, worked on merit badges and advancement and just generally liked being together. I was the scoutmaster for my two younger sons and so we have quality time together with them and their friends and me every week and one weekend a month. Consider registering your son as a Boy Scout and then get involved as an adult Scouter volunteer. These structured experiences create opportunities to grow closer.
5. Take on a big project. There is something magical to a boy about being involved in something bigger than himself. That is one reason I enjoy working with my sons on their Eagle Scout projects. But these big, visible projects can really help a father and son bond. For my dad and me, it was rebuilding a couple of car engines and putting vehicles back in operation. Some dads and sons build planter boxes, landscape a back yard, build a vacation cabin or head off on a big summer biking vacation. Whatever it is, a bigger than life project done together can create a bond that will last a long time and make memories you will talk about together for decades.
6. Listen to your sons. Men seem in general to struggle with effective communication. I find that I always have a tendency to listen for just a minute or two before I decide what the problem is and then I go about creating a fix. Starting from the earliest ages of our sons to listen to them without judgment and without trying to fix things too soon will go a long way to building a lasting relationship. Look for opportunities to be with your sons when you can just listen. Fishing together, going to a sporting event, or taking a road trip can all be effective ways to create a listening environment. Then commit to spending only 25% of the time talking and spend the rest in an active listening mode.
7. Don’t be afraid of the big talk. Take the time to teach your sons about sex and relationships. Being open to having these conversations will help your sons develop better attitudes about sex and girls in general. With the ever-increasing presence of sex in the media, on the computer and in conversations with their friends, you will find your relationship not as strong as it could be if you avoid talking about these difficult subjects and let them develop their attitudes about sex and relationships from other sources who may not share your values.
8. Focus on the positives. Our children are bombarded with negative messages all around them. Just watching commercials on television will create a sense of inadequacy in our sons. They are not quite as strong, have six pack abs, or be quite as good looking as the guys they see on television. As fathers, we need to catch them doing things right and communicate our approval. We should create positive ways to celebrate their accomplishments. Feeding them constant reinforcement will help build relationships of trust and overcome this constant barrage of negativism that they confront daily.
9. Make one on one time. We need to make time for individual relationships with each child. So make sure that you program some one on one time with your sons. My youngest son loves basketball, and we spent many hours shooting hoops in the driveway in the evenings after dinner. My oldest son loved debate in high school, so I learned enough to be a debate judge and went with him to speech and debate tournaments all over the state. Some of our best memories were sitting together in a high school or on the bus going to and from debate events.
10. Focus on the spiritual. Helping a son be grounded spiritually is an important role for a father. Whatever your faith tradition, help you son understand the deeper meaning of life. If you don’t have a faith tradition, help him reach for his inner self and try to have a perspective that will help him look at things deeper than on the surface. As a young man gets in tune with nature, God and himself, he will have a pattern in his life that will help him endure hardship and thrive personally. Fathers can have these conversations with their sons in a natural way as they share thoughts and feelings about life, manhood and spiritual things.
Focusing on our sons, spending positive time together and talking about life lessons, scattered with a large dose of quiet and engaged listening, will help fathers and sons develop nurturing and meaningful relationships and help our sons form attitudes which will allow them develop into men in the richest sense of that term.