Tuesday, August 09, 2005

call of the wild

my good friend nate is getting on a plane tomorrow to go spend a year working for operation mobilisation as the right-hand-man for founder george verwer. we got talking about verwer's theology of mentorship: every year he takes a young man under his wing and pours his life into him- mentoring, discipleing and training. this got me thinking about the relationship between older and younger men in our culture. besides family and close relatives, i don't know any older men. similarily, i have never had an older man express genuine interest in me as a person. the gulf is marked by competitiveness, insecurities, fears and apathy on both sides- i own my contribution to the great divide. we see them as old codgers who's views are dated and irrelevant. they see us as young bucks who's views are naive and idealistic.

how would things be different if younger and older men began to take a genuine interest in one another? that as iron sharpens iron, we should learn from one another? but the key being dialogue- a two way street. wouldn't that absolutely turn the world on its head? these thoughts are far to radical to discuss in a public blog. i'll call it quits for now, with hopes that this entire operation might be spared...

4 comments:

bryan said...

that preaches dude. it also knocks on the door of desire for me. i would love to be in that type of relationship.
peace,
bryan

pedro said...

As a younger man, I was in such a relationship for two years straight. My mentor and I met weekly, sometimes in his office, sometimes at the dinner table, sometimes while repairing the siding on his house. Those two years were some of the most formative of my life and shaped my vision for leadership.

I miss those days.

Luke De Master said...

Phil,

I did a project with a college mentor/advisor of mine and a couple of other guys a year or so back. We had some conversations with twenty-something guys about fathers and mentor relationships and I thought you might be interested in reading it. It's a little rough and we never tried to publish it, but we did present it at a psych conference. Sorry that it's so long and I hope it's not too presumptuous, but I didn't have your email. This way your blog visitors can see it too. Feel free to take it off your site if you think it's too cumbersome.

Peace to you,

Luke



Fathers and Sons: Reconnecting and Reconstruction in the University Years
Richard Butman, Lucas DeMaster, Alex Johnson, Brian McLaughlin
Department of Psychology
Wheaton College
Christian Association for Psychological Studies – International
St. Petersburg, Florida
March 26, 2004

Abstract
This presentation will report on the preliminary results of an on- going research study of college men in their critical years of young adulthood. Based on in-depth interviews with a cross- sectional sample of recent university graduates, this study explores factors that appear to facilitate (or obstruct) the process of strengthening (or weakening) that most intimate (potentially) of human relationships. Relevant research about masculinity will be reviewed as well as potential insights and implications for academicians, clinicians and church leaders.

Learning Objectives
1. Participants will learn about some of the recent social science research on masculinity.
2. Participants will learn about some of the emerging themes in this on-going research.
3. Participants will learn about some of the potential implications of these findings for theory, practice or further research.
4. Participants will learn about some of the emerging integrative themes from this on-going research.

Presentation

Background and Literature Review
Two of the most difficult things for human beings to do are to forgive others that have hurt them – and to honor the commitments that they have made (Smedes, 1984; 1994). As has been noted throughout recorded history, these can be challenging tasks in the context of the one’s family of origin – especially between fathers and sons (Nouwen, 1992). The Christian gospel has certainly recognized this to be the case. If we as Christians are called to image His character – His concerns – and His compassion (Jones & Butman, 1991), then finding ways to reconnect and reconstruct that most intimate of relationships can often be the “acid test” of whether we can love others in the manner that He has first loved us (Manning, 1994).

In the past twelve years, there has been a virtual explosion of interest in what in means to be a “real boy” or man of depth and substance (e.g., Balswick, 1992; Dobson, 1995; Pollock, 1998; Van Leeuwen, 2002). For Balswick (1992, p. 212), “the signs of authentic Christian masculinity will be that men in Christian community will seek to support rather than dominate women, empower rather than control younger men, and mentor and complement rather than compete with other men”. For Van Leeuwen (2002), problems usually begin when we replace the Biblical call for responsible dominion and healthy interdependence with a strong desire for possessive power, control or domination. Being “one up” becomes more important than affiliation (McLemore, 2003). Consequently, “warm assertion” is replaced by that old bugaboo of power – making an appropriate transfer of responsibility nearly impossible (Dobson, 1995).

It is not surprising, then, that the relationship so often becomes conflictual. A more “mature covenant” – a father-son relationship characterized by passion, intimacy and commitment – is rarely seen (Balswick & Balswick, 1989). Far more common, one sees evidence of relationships that have gone awry – either in terms of mutual disengagement (as in the recent movie “Big Fish”) – or in cyclical, maladaptive patterns of verbal and/or physical aggression (Lerner, 1985; 1989; 2002). Healthy engagement, it seems, is a task that eludes large numbers of fathers and sons in our thoroughly postmodern world (McLemore, 2003).

But Christians should be about the business of promoting Shalom – conditions that foster both justice and mercy. This is especially true in the critical years of young adulthood – when the development of a coherent worldview and credible lifestyle are being formed that hopefully can withstand the challenges of pluralism (Garber, 1996; Parks, 1986; Sorenson, 1997; Staton, Sorenson & Vande Kemp, 1998). Ideally, fathers can be an important part of that process – through their modeling, through the ability to help the son “make sense” of powerful life experiences, and through their direct teaching (Hill, 1980). The research is abundantly clear on this matter – i.e., change and growth in these critical years reflects the quality of the support system as well as access to credible exemplars, role models or mentors (Boyer, 1987; Garber, 1996; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Recent research at several Christian liberal arts colleges has certainly confirmed these assertions (Butman, 1993; Van Wicklin, Burwell & Butman, 1994). It logically follows that if a father wants to make a significant impact on his son(s), he must be willing to “incarnate” truth in the trenches of real life – and be interpersonally present in word and deed (Van Leeuwen, 2002; McLemore, 2003).

Decades of research on conflict management has helped us to see that this is not easily accomplished – especially in the absence of “warm assertion” on the part of both the father and son (McLemore, 2003; Myers, 1993). To move beyond the mutual disengagement or maladaptive, cyclical patterns – there must be a strong desire (on both parts) for contact, collaboration, communication and conciliation. Without strong declarations of intention, there is little hope for movement – or peacemaking in the Biblical sense (Myers, 1993). Often what is needed most (initially) is a lot of grace, a measure of forgiveness, and a strong desire to create a more reciprocal and mutual relationship (Nouwen, 1992; Yancey, 1997). As Van Leeuwen (2002) has noted, this can be an act of courage on both parts.

One has to applaud movements like Promise Keepers that take the issue of promoting interpersonal reconciliation seriously (Balswick, 1992; Van Leeuwen, 2002). As a culture, we are increasingly raising a generation of boys (men) that are far too often inexpressive (or unaware) of their true thoughts and feelings (Pollock, 1998). Terribly constrained by the “Boy Code” (Van Leeuwen, 2002), they are “phobic” about showing any pain or vulnerability. Shame is to be avoided at all costs – and “saving face” becomes more important than truthfulness or integrity (Balswick, 1992). Being “one up” becomes far more important than connecting in a meaningful way with others. It is not surprising, then, that the father-son relationship tends to be perceived in a more competitive rather than collaborative ways (McLemore, 2003). Practically speaking, we don’t know how to “honor our mothers and fathers” – nor how to reduce the risk that we might “provoke” our sons and daughters to anger – themes clearly developed in Scripture.

Teams of researchers at Wheaton have been studying factors that appear to have facilitated development in the critical years of young adulthood for more than fifteen years. In that time, we have studied cognitive, psychosocial and moral development (Van Wicklin, Burwell & Butman, 1994). We have also done research probes on a wide variety of “immersion experiences” (e.g., work study programs in the developing world) as well as on some of the predictors of long term faithfulness (e.g., quality of peer relationships, access to mentors, development of a coherent world view), topics much discussed these days in Christian higher education (Boyer, 1987; Butman, 1993; Garber, 1996; Parks, 1986; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). To date, we have seen precious little research done on factors that appear to strengthen (or weaken) the father-son relationship in this crucial period of the lifespan, when identity formation and intimacy issues are really “fleshed out” (Balswick & Balswick. 1989). Beginning, in the fall of 2002, we decided to explore these themes using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research strategies (Lee, 1993). As the Christian novelist and minister Frederick Buechner once remarked in a Wheaton College chapel address, “what could be more important in the body of Christ that to tell our stories – and what could be more precious than to hear them”?

Methodology
A semi-structured interview was used (see stimulus questions below). Trained interviewers learned to give appropriate cues and prompts for more complete responses. After signing an informed consent form that described the project and process of the interview, interviews were audio taped. Eventually, these in- depth interviews will be transcribed and more fully analyzed using qualitative research strategies (software available online from the Centers for Disease Control). The large majority of the interviews lasted more than an hour. At the end of the interview, each participant was asked to complete the Heartland Forgiveness Scale (p. 310 in Positive Psychological Assessment). The research team followed the many recommendations for qualitative and quantitative research strategies offered in Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger & Tarule (1986) and Pascarella & Terenzini (1991). We share McMinn’s (2004) conviction that good narratives make human longings abundantly clear – and potentially complement often abstract theory and more traditional research data.

Interview Questions
1. Give us a sense of the “flow” of your relationship with your dad over the years? (i.e. If you were to write a book, what would be some of the chapter titles?)
2. Where are things at right now? (Be as specific as possible)
3. Tell us how you connect with your father? (In words or actions)
4. What is your vision for your relationship with your father right now? In five years? In ten years? Beyond that?
5. Has your father been reaching out to you in any new and significant ways? And vice versa?
6. What about other significant men (or adults) in your life?
7. What gets you up every morning? And keeps you going during the rest of the day?
8. What is your most meaningful (or powerful) memory about your dad?
9. In what ways do you want things to be different with your dad?
10. Is there anything else you want to tell us about your relationship with your dad?

Demographics of the Sample
There were thirteen subjects ranging in age from 20 to 32. Mean age was 23. Most were
men of faith (active Christians). The large majority were recent college graduates (33% local or state universities; 66% Christian liberal arts colleges). Age of fathers ranged from mid-40s to mid-60s. One third were men of color. Average number of siblings was two. Contact with father ranged from daily to several times a year. Three of the dads were divorced (one recently deceased).

Results and Discussion
Lucas
After interviewing several young men, and reflecting on their comments and insights about the relationships with their fathers, I began to unearth an overarching concept: this process is hugely developmental in nature. The change, or lack thereof, in the relationship of a father and his young-adult son, has much to do with where both of them are located along the path of their personal, life-long journey as men. Contemporary developmental psychology has embraced the idea of development throughout the life span, but the full ramifications of this shift in thinking have yet to trickle down to theory on the evolution of male relationships from ages 18-55. I would argue, from listening to the voices of today’s young men, that the ability to reconnect and reconcile is dependant on the success of the developmental tasks of both father and son. The following themes are derived from topics specifically addressed in the interviews conducted with these young men, and support the importance of understanding developmental affects on relationships.

Young men appear to take one of three paths that can directly affect the relationship with their father. A common story is that of adolescent males taking a reactive stance toward their parents, family, and often most strongly with their fathers. This period of rebellion gives them a chance to cultivate a sense of personal identity, and an opportunity to own a unique worldview. However, when reaching young adulthood, if these men have not developed the ability to work through this relational conflict in a constructive manner, a true connection with their father will remain difficult (if not impossible) to obtain. The son fears losing some of his hard-earned identity and is not willing to give up that control. One interviewee shared about a particular ethical disagreement that he and his father have, and thereby creating a bit of a stalemate that seems to be a barrier for their relationship:
“He and I can communicate fine at a superficial level…Of course it’s easy to communicate at a superficial level, but I don’t think that each of us are willing to share more with each other about ourselves now. There are plenty of things that I prefer for them not to even know about just because I think that they would take it the wrong way. My parents are a little more conservative then I am for one thing…It seems to me as though my dad and I addressed all of the issues that Dobson tells you to, you know. And we went through those when I was a budding teen…but as far as pacifism goes, we haven’t gone that far into it. I think because of we kind of shut down and don’t want conflict to come from either of us.”

In contrast, many young men have grown up being quite complicit. They chose to toe the line, avoid conflict as much as possible, and view their fathers as figures to appease as long as is necessary. The result is a disappearing act in young adulthood. These men often move far away for college and/or a job and really only communicate with their fathers on such occasions as holidays and other family get-togethers. Their hope is to minimalize interaction with a father who they still quite uncomfortably view as simply an authority figure to avoid disappointing or angering.

The third path may start looking like the previous two in some ways, but when the men depart adolescence and embrace adulthood they recognize and appreciate both their differences (Erikson’s Identity of adolescence) and their similarities (Erikson’s Intimacy of adulthood) with their father. This conquers the reactive nature of the first path and the avoidance of the second path to create a more intentional and constructive way of approaching the relationship. One of the young men, I believe, articulated this developmental transition quite well: “In high school, up to my senior year, the way that I was developing as a person was saying, ‘I don’t want to be like that person and I don’t want to be like that person’, instead of ‘I want to be like this person’.” If young men can develop a view of self that is not oppositional to or an evasion of their fathers but rather intentionally receptive and compositional, they will likely acquire the ability to create other important life relationships such as mentorship. This seems to be all part of young men’s process of identifying with adulthood, seeing older adults as peers to collaborate with instead of authority figures to battle or avoid, and truly leaving adolescence behind.

Within this developmental struggle of young men, as it relates to their fathers, an interesting phenomenon arises. A majority of the interviewees expressed a deep gratitude of the sacrifice of their father’s to provide and always be present for the family. They also shared a desire to do the same for their own future family. Even if the father was otherwise a disappointment, if their parents had not divorced without exception these young men praised their father for his consistency. But at the same time these men begin to recognize the greatness of this provision from their father over so many years, the majority of them also held a strong desire to separate themselves from that provision as soon as possible. A certain interviewee especially saw the importance of this separation:

“I think as I am out of the house longer and switch over to becoming actually financially independent…then the relationship will change. Hopefully it will be a good switch to more of a, I don’t want to say friendship, but more of a mentorship, rather than a caretaker. He’s done a good job of that, it’s just that if we don’t always have to be discussing finances and stuff then we can be talk about other things.”

Though it varied in significance, level of independence from provision (financial in particular) seemed to be a common determinant of the state of the relationship. Sons may try to develop more of an equal relationship with their fathers as adults, but this can only go so far if they cannot shake the identity or role that they had as children and adolescents whose needs were provided for unconditionally.

Many fathers of adult sons, especially if they are younger fathers (40-55), do maintain this view of their sons as adolescents if there is any practical support involved. While their perspective of their son’s identity is important, I believe that the development of their own identity is even more important to the relationship. For 18 to 22 years a father raises his son and his primary role is one of provider and general foundation upon which his son can have a relatively worry-free environment for growth. And while it is very important for the son to assume his new identity in adulthood, for this father/son relationship to appropriately grow in this new season of life, the father must change along with his son. This dance has to be a two-way activity in which the father learns to receive much like how the son had been receiving for the previous two decades. This receiving must look like a willingness to learn from, respect and value a difference in belief or opinion, and ability to change if it makes for a healthier relationship. I see this as a more difficult role-change for the father, experiencing many fewer recent developmental changes than the son and so having a sort of development inertia that the son does not. For older fathers, who may have been through this “letting go” with older children and/or engaged in Erikson’s generativity crisis of middle adulthood, this role-change may not be such a difficult process. A young man whose relationship with his 65 year-old father is evolving said, “My dad isn’t very good at communicating more deep, personal feelings. But he tries. One thing that he says, and my mom says too, is that I am a better communicator than he is. I guess I get that from my mom. But he definitely tries.” This older father seemed to not be an especially expressive person, but as a more mature man was beginning to see the importance of sharing one’s feelings in order to develop deeper relationships. Younger fathers have the tendency to not see things like that because they are not quite out of the throes of provide and protect mode. I fear that until these younger fathers are able to see their own need for personal identity development instead of just their adult sons they will not be able to take the next step in their relationship forward with their sons.

These insights gathered from young men indicate the importance of their relationship with their father at this point in their lives. Yet the developmental implications of this relational dynamic in both the father and son’s life have yet to be explored in a manner of any depth. Hopefully, research and theory in the near future will study and encompass this to give us a greater understanding of male development.

Brian
The image of the Father as a comforter is a powerful concept for Christians. This concept emerged clearly in my interviews with young men as well. As I listened to them talk about their fathers, the desire to receive comfort from him was poignant, whether he provided it or not. When asked to share his most meaningful memory of his father, one man spoke of a state wrestling match that he lost and how his Dad came out onto the mat and hugged him as he cried in disappointment. This one moment of comfort and support has become the metaphor for his entire relationship with his father. Another young man, upon being asked the same question, remembered being arrested his senior year of high school and gave this reply:

“The one where I was hurt the most and where I felt like he had just given up, was when he picked me up from county (Cook County Jail) and he didn’t even talk to me. He picked me up and I was obviously shaken up and all he said was ‘did anybody touch you?’, and then he didn’t say anything to me for days. I was physically sick… my whole world was turned upside down and he was not consoling at all and he wouldn’t let my mother be either. I was really angry at him about that.”

This lack of empathy has also become a symbol of the entire relationship. In both cases, we hear echoes of a boy’s, and a man’s, need for a father to comfort him. Early experiences of dad as safe are important for a number of reasons. It seems to predict the level of intimacy and trust between father and son in later life. In the lives of the young men whom I listened to, if they took refuge in their father during childhood and adolescence, they seemed to continue trusting him into adulthood. The reverse seems to be true as well; the absence of emotional support suggests greater distance in later years.

The men whose father relationships were characterized by a lack of understanding seemed to be developmentally stuck. According to Erikson, these young men are at the young adulthood stage of life, so the primary conflict is between intimacy and isolation. These young men seem to be struggling significantly with resentment towards their fathers over hurts inflicted long ago. Much of their relational energy is spent nursing this ache and consequently they are less able to move into the future and into intimate relationships. It may be that resolving some of this father/son tension will allow them to push into the task of developing intimacy with more confidence and certainty.

Though the men that I interviewed had varying levels of connection with their fathers, they all desired that connection to be deeper. This looks different in early adulthood than it does in childhood. The son does not run to his daddy crying over a scraped knee, but the desire to have someone strong to rely on is still there. Each interview revealed the longing for advice and most expressed the wish to confide difficult and painful things to their father. Young men appear to still want to be able to confide in their father, to benefit from his wisdom, and to rest in his strength.

According to the data from these interviews, men do not only want to confide in their fathers, but they want to know their fathers as well. It seems that young men desire to have reciprocal relationships with their Dads. A twenty-two year old college student, who grew up with out his father, spoke of a time when they reconnected in his late teens:

“We took a road trip in 2000, my first year of college, and we got to hang out. He told me about his life, he told me about the crimes he had done, some of the experiences he had with women, and he gave me some advice on my relationships. I asked him about some of the things I had heard about him and my mom. It was a time to reconnect, a time to say the things we wanted to each other, to fill in the gaps like where were you? That’s when I got to know who he was, and it was refreshing. It gave me a sense of where I came from. It was like I knew a piece of myself that I did not know. It answered a lot of questions.”

It is important for young men to know their fathers, their stories, who they are, how they think and why. It seems to give sons a grounding when they know their dads and understand why they behave the way they do. Understanding one’s father allows a man to have a better sense of himself. It is reminiscent of the Lion King, where Simba, as a young Lion, has a vision of his deceased father, Mufasa, who exhorts his son: “Remember who you are!” This knowledge of who one is, in connection with one’s father, seems to be a source of strength for young men as they face the challenges of adulthood. Feeling disconnected from a father is a painful reality to bear. When a man reaches this point of transition, it seems critical that he is able to make sense of his fathers reasoning, if he is going to be able to confide in him. This suggests that both fathers and sons need to be open to this kind of dialogue. In the interviews, most of the participants did not express or display this longing to connect deeply with their dad explicitly. It requires listening with a third ear to recognize it. This longing is heard in statements like; “I would like to be different from my dad by talking through things more” or “I wish he would give more explanation, instead of just commands.” When this mutual knowing and being known does happen between fathers and sons, it is very satisfying and seems to correspond with a high level of trust.

Trust is a pivotal issue for another theme that was plainly seen in each interview, which was Control vs. Autonomy. College aged men wrestle with the tension between dependence and independence. Though they are physically mature and legally adults, they are often still dependent upon their fathers financially. This creates a potential conflict between father and son over expectations, one that is often there regardless of the son’s financial situation. Fathers will expect their sons to continue to obey their rules and submit to their perspectives, while the son is in the midst of asserting his newly developing sense of manhood. This is often a major point of misunderstanding and bitter conflict. The complementary tasks of letting go and of pulling away make up a delicate dance that few father/son duos manage smoothly. This is a place where mutual understanding and trust ease the difficulty of this undertaking significantly. A son needs to be able to trust and submit to his father. A father needs to be able to trust his son and allow him make his own decisions. If father and son can each assume these postures, the process of separating will be much easier. This is the model that is given in Ephesians 6: 1-3:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with a promise that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth. Fathers do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”(NIV)

This was also demonstrated in the lives of the young men who shared with me. One of them said:

“When I was submitted to him our relationship grew a lot more and because he was submitted to Christ, I could submit to him. If he wasn’t submitted to Christ, it just wouldn’t have worked.”

This young man cites his understanding of his father’s thinking (submission to Christ) as a factor in his willingness to submit to his father. This kind of understanding fosters trust and simplifies the entire process. Ultimately what sons want is the blessing of their fathers to live their lives as they choose. They want their fathers to respect their choices and to encourage them in their independence. This gives the young man a sense that he is indeed becoming a man. A father’s vote of confidence engenders courage and confidence in the son. Being encouraged to follow his own path gives a young man a sense of integrity. When he is disallowed to do this, he feels split in two. Feeling like a disappointment is a very painful and confusing experience for a son. As one interviewee put it:

“They have a plan they know it is the right plan if I’m not going along with it then I am messing up so that it makes it really hard for me to be true to myself and then please them as well. That is where the real break in the relationship is.”

To the extent that the fathers have held on to their dreams for their sons, they have been resisted. Yet as fathers released their sons and actively encouraged them to find their own way, the sons seemed more apt accept the father’s dreams as their own. Regardless of the father/son dynamic, all of our young men desired the approval and respect of their father. This may suggest that it is not the specifics of the father’s dream that the son is resisting, but rather the way that vision is being presented or, in some cases, imposed. Sons need both the support of their fathers and the freedom to discover their own futures. It is important that fathers recognize both of these truths and see them as healthy and good.


Alex
Despite our best efforts we cannot choose our father. We are each brought into this world with a good chance that our father will not live in our home, treat us appropriately, or have much of a relationship with us even in cohabitation. Society has much reason to lose hope in men, and in turn, good fathers are hard to come by. The good news is that this doesn’t have to be true regardless of the current relational status with your father or son. Research is showing that despite the gruff exterior many men purport, there is a part of them desperately crying out for relationship and these are some practical ways for prospective fathers and current fathers to establish relationships with their sons.

Of the sample population, an overwhelming majority who reported having had a positive relationship with their father also described a common activity that was enjoyed by both. This could be anything from enjoying an author, a favorite sports team, a preferred hobby, to woodworking, or playing the same sport together:

“My Dad and I loved a lot of the same things as a child; from loving the Cubs, to fishing, to reading, and even the same music. We spent a lot of time together going to Cubs games, fishing the rivers of Illinois, and listening to music. Those times were so incredible, for a little while I could be in the same world as my father.”

Developing similar tastes seems to be an obvious encouragement for anyone looking to strengthen a relationship. However, with men, it appears that these shared activities are more important than one might ordinarily imagine.

Men rarely sit down with the sole reason to talk. One interviewee stated:

“When I’ll call home from college, I talk to my Dad about once a month, just to check up on the usual stuff, you know, grades, girls, and money. Then I’m off to my Mom. Otherwise I won’t talk to him.”

The true bonding that takes place between fathers and sons is usually the byproduct of a day spent seeking to catch a foul ball, rather than the sole focus of a talk at the local coffee house. A sense of shared space – and a shared task together – seem to be at the heart of the matter.

Mention the words “talk” and “emotions” to men, and most will curl up in fear. But bring up who’s batting clean up in this years All-Star game, and most men will quickly light up. While it is a generalization, and this study doesn’t focus on the why or how, but it appears that men almost need a distraction from consciously talking about their feelings before they will actually do so - a sort of hypnotism, if you will. When a father and son have the ability to share in the enjoyment of an activity, the son can begin to forget that he is his father’s son, and begin engaging him as a peer. This sudden change of relationship allows the son to communicate “horizontally” rather than “vertically”, in a more reciprocal and respectful manner.

If you have the chance to start young with your son, one of the best things you can do is to find an activity that you can both share. If you start young it will be a part of a solid foundation in your relationship for years to come. It will provide an activity for you to return to as both of you mature. If you are past that opportunity, it is not too late to try to find something. The important thing is really effort - sometimes relationships don’t come easily, and require a lot of work. But I guarantee there is always some activity a father and son can share, a theme I heard over and over again in the actual interviews.

I was once told by a mentor who was guiding me through a rough time with my parents in high school, “the house is meant for one man, and one woman.” In this short proverb, he encapsulated a large portion of the difficulty I was facing with my parents; I was becoming a man and there simply wasn’t enough room in the house for the two of us anymore.

The transition from boyhood to manhood is a difficult one at best for most men. As Dobson (1995) notes, most of the struggles with men ultimately relate to use or abuse of authority and power. When does the son officially obtain his manhood? And are there any deeds that must be done in order to do so? Some cultures contain rights of passage, ceremonies that are set aside to help define for fathers and sons when the son has left boyhood, and has become a man. The Jewish culture has bar mitzvahs. The Hispanics have the “Quincinero”. American culture leaves this transition to a delicate dance between the father and son, one in which many toes are often broken before the dance is over.

Our post industrial revolution world has far too often left this transformation in shambles. Across the board the subjects in our study reported an incredible difficulty with this transition because they still had no idea if their fathers considered them fully functioning adults.

“This summer, my Dad’s parents needed some work done on their house, and my Dad asked me to help him out with this big job. It felt really good that my Dad would trust me with responsibility to do a job that was important to him. But still, when I would screw up, he would make me feel like such an idiot, and I really hated working for him after that.”

You can sense the feelings of excitement being entrusted to do an important job for your father. You can also sense the feelings of incredible disappointment when your father doesn’t encourage you along the way. In a sense, this father offered his son manhood and then cruelly takes it back. It is this tenuous dance that creates so much conflict between fathers and sons, widening the gap between the two, and often eliminating the hopes of true connection occurring at a later time.

The closest thing American culture has to a right of passage is financial independence. Once a son becomes free from paternal financial aid, the son is usually perceived as a more autonomous adult. However, this transition is not clear, and some fathers continue to treat their sons as boys. Learning to navigate these difficult waters can lead to a much healthier and more satisfying (meaningful) connection.

One incredibly beneficial thing you can do is to verbalize the requirements for independence. If you can tell your son, “When you leave for college, you are on your own. You no longer have to answer to us”, you will create a guidepost to help both father and son find their way through. If expectations can be set before the transition takes place, the transition can be a time of bonding rather than a time of friction – full of interesting possibilities and potentialities for mutual growth and discovery.


Conclusions and Recommendations

We hope it is clear to our audience that we were deeply impacted by the narratives we heard. Smedes (1984; 1994) was right – honoring our commitments, caring for those to whom we belong, and learning to forgive others that have hurt us – are at the heart of work of reconciliation and transformation. Our interviewees have taught us (again) that reconnection and reconstruction have as much to do with a way of being as they do with a way of doing (Pollock, 1998). Offering less “report talk” – and more “rapport talk” - can help facilitate more significant and meaningful connections (Van Leeuwen, 2002). Obviously, this is not easily accomplished as roles and expectations change during the course of the lifespan – and unfold in the complex “dance” between father and son (Lerner, 2002). Strong and often confusing thoughts and feeling are involved – and it often takes a careful and patient guide to help facilitate the process (Garber, 1996; Nouwen, 1992; Yancey, 1997).

Few of us are good at the forgiveness piece – and nearly all of us need a lot of help in trying to figure out what it means to honor the promises we make (Manning, 1994). Irrespective of our age, marital or parental status, we find it difficult to be non- contingent in our compassion and our concern for one another (Yancey, 1997). Findings better ways to connect, communicate, collaborate or conciliate is an on-going challenge for nearly all of us – especially when the relationship is highly conflictual (Myers, 1993). Our longings for something different – for something better – seem to be part and parcel of the human condition – and very tangible expressions (often) of our own brokenness, finiteness and sinfulness (Jones & Butman, 1991). We are told in Scripture to always look for the image and likeness of God in others – and remain hopeful about the possibility of change – but this is especially hard when we can’t see beyond the beams in our own eyes (Smedes, 1984). But learning to speak truthfully – and with compassion and concern – is one of the most essential life skills that can be learned at any point in the lifespan (McLemore, 2003). It requires wisdom, discernment, judgment and compassion – and a strong desire to “speak the truth in love” across time and place (McLemore, 2003). We all need to keep working at it – and stay committed to a “long obedience in the same direction” (Garber, 1997). That steadiness – or faithfulness – ought to be very tangible expressions of our character, our commitments, and our compassion (Jones & Butman, 1991).

Myers (1993) has told us that the single best predictor of “friendship formation” is the sheer amount of time people spend in each other’s presence (also called the “principle of propinquity”). As Dobson (1995) has noted, this means – at a minimalist level – finding some shared activity to do together. If that is done in a safe (private) place – and in a non-threatening or “shaming” manner – it opens the possibility of a dialogue between co-participants in life’s journey (Pollock, 1998). Those “sacred” moments are not the best times to share even well meaning advice or counsel – but an opportunity to explore common concerns, fears and vulnerabilities (Manning, 1994; Nouwen, 1992). For the team, watching the recent movie “Big Fish” was quite an emotional workout, considering the vast chasm (perceived) between the father and son. Only when they really starting listening to each other did they more fully discover that they had more in common then they ever realized (before). That kind of “sacrificial” listening is costly – but prerequisite for any authentic (or lasting) reconnection and reconstruction of an impaired relationship. Learning to “release” control seems so counterintuitive and so very “unnatural” – especially for men who are phobic about strong affect in the first place (Van Leeuwen, 2002).

We love the term “alexithymia” – the inability to feel and express a full range of feelings – especially strong emotions like intimacy and anger (Pollock, 1998). One very tangible form or “prevention” would be teaching boys and men how to have a richer – and more complete – feelings-oriented vocabulary (and encourage them to use it on a more frequent basis) (Van Leeuwen, 2002). Rather than investing in the “Boy Code” they would learn to develop a more authentic basis for their masculinity than succumbing to the conformity pressures of the culture (Balswick, 1992). With Pollock (1998) we believe that there is a natural desire for boys and men – and for fathers and sons – to have much deeper connections, the type of “two way dance” that is high reciprocal and mutually respectful (Lerner, 2002).

All academicians, clinicians and church leaders should care deeply about fostering more authentic connections between fathers and sons. Indeed, the future of the church and culture might depend (in part) on this important work (Balswick, 1992; Dobson, 1995; Garber, 1996; Van Leeuwen, 2002). It is our stated intention as a team to conduct further interviews with even more representative populations so that we can speak directly to the challenge of promoting reconciliation in a world that yearns for better community – and greater health and holiness is everyday relationships (McLemore, 2003; McMinn, 2004). We invite your response as we seek to go deeper – and further. You can reach any of us @ Psychology Department, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois 60187 ( richard.e.butman@wheaton.edu ).


References (* essential readings)
Balswick, J., & Balswick, J. (1989). The family: A Christian perspective on the contemporary home. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
*Balswick, J. (1992). Men at the crossroads: Beyond traditional roles and modern options. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N., & Tarule, J. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.
Boyer, E. (1987). The undergraduate experience in America. New York: Harper & Row.
Butman, R. (1993). The ‘critical years’ of young adulthood. In K. Gangel & J. Wilhoit (Eds.), The Christian educator’s handbook on adult education. Wheaton, IL: Victor/Scripture Press, 247 - 261.
Dobson, J. (1995). Life on the edge: A young adult’s guide to a meaningful life. Dallas, TX: Word.
*Garber, S. (1996). The fabric of faithfulness: Weaving together belief and behavior during the university years. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
Hill, N. (1980). Scaling the heights: The teacher as mountaineer. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 June 1980, 48.

elnellis said...

thanks luke,
it looks interesting, looking fwd to reading it. i'm excited to see what you do with your interest in these topics.
thanks for interacting on the blog.