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Fathers and Sons

Unspoken Messages

Table of Contents

Male Gender-Role Stereotypes
The Role of Fathers
Gay Oppression and Homophobia
Inadequate Fathering
Behavioral and Psychological Outcomes for Men
Recommended Readings

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Men all over the country find themselves struggling with talking to, being with, or caring for their fathers. Fathers and sons often spend very little time talking to one another, however, they often say plenty during this silence. This workshop is designed to explore why so many fathers and sons seem to find it so hard to communicate with and understand one another.

Boys imprint themselves onto the men in their lives, copying them and looking to them as important sources for forming an identity and building self-esteem. Mothers can provide (or deny) love, affection, guidance, and knowledge, and they may represent an important model of womanhood for their sons. however, they cannot provide the same basis for identity development that fathers can with their sons. Boys seek to model themselves after males. Boys early relationships with significant men not only teaches him the how-to of manhood, but also establishes the orientation toward self and others that he will use in building his own self-esteem.

Male Gender-Role Stereotypes and Expectations: A Social Context

Examples Competitive, strong, in control, in charge, achievement oriented, intelligent, non-feeling, doesn't cry, mechanical, dominant, protective, all knowing, logical, stud, breadwinner, independent, authority, athletic, sex = accomplishment, etc.

Men's Attitudes Towards Self

Must be on "top" to be OK.
I'm nothing if I'm not providing for others.
Things won't be O.K. until I've taken care of it.
Needs to be right.
Needs to control himself, his environment, and all of the people around me.
Future goals are more important than present desires.

Masculine Messages

A male's gender identity - his masculinity - has been and continues to be volatile. It has to be earned and proved on a day-to-day basis. A man can't just be masculine, he must constantly "prove" it. Masculine attainment refers to this persistent, lifelong quest for gender identity among American males. Being a man means achieving, accomplishing, having a good job, and providing adequately for oneself and one's family.

Gender-role strains are the difference between individuals' views of their personal characteristics and the norms taken from gender-role standards. Gender-role strain is seen as an intra-psychic process that can lead to psychological maladjustment, especially low self-esteem. Men are being forced to face issues about themselves that heretofore were accepted without question: place and role in society, patterns of relating to women and to other men, ways of expressing themselves; in a word, their very male identity.

The socially prescribed male behaviors require men to work against the fulfillment of certain needs, to be competitive, aggressive, and to evaluate their life successes in terms of external satisfaction. Every man is caught in this no-win bind: if he lives out society's prescribed role requirements his basic human needs are unfulfilled. On the other hand, if these human needs are satisfied there is a chance that he may be judged, or may judge himself, not to be a real man. Being emotionally inexpressive is a vital part of the very nature of "manliness. Many men are socialized to ignore feelings and become out of touch with their bodies, not to recognize internal stress, strain, and symptoms of sickness. If men are aware of these inner distress signals, they refuse to accept these signs of poor health, thus opening themselves up for cancer, strokes, breakdowns, heart attacks, and even suicide.

The male sex-role requires that men be independent, strong, self-reliant, competitive, achievement-oriented, powerful, adventurous, and emotionally restrained. These characteristics both take a toll on men's physical and mental health, and make it difficult for men to seek and utilize psychological services. The traditional male role is self-denying and stoic-heroic combination of characteristics.

The Role of Fathers

Boys search deeply throughout his childhood for a masculine model on which to build his sense of self. The press to identify with father creates the crucial dilemma for boys. Fathers should provide safety, warmth, and affection. Fathers should support the need for autonomy and separation in their sons. Fathers should promote self-esteem and a sense of worth in their sons. Boys have to give up mother, in a sense, for father, but who is father?

Positional Identity: Self-esteem which is tied to achieving and maintaining credentials and signs of status. When these conditions are met one can feel pride: When one fails they feel shame. It is important first to appreciate that men view the social world in terms of relative position. Virtually all of men's relationships, from the most competitive to their most intimate, are colored to some degree by perceptions of differences and differentials. At the bottom line it is power or status for many men that forms the basis for men's self-esteem and their orientation of themselves in relation to others.

Relational Identity: Self-esteem from this identity is considerably less conditional than is Positional identity. It is not dependent on performance, or on maintaining some position of hierarchy. It is based instead on maintaining the relationship itself, in affirming the attachment that bonds two people together.

Absent Fathers: refers to both the psychological and the physical absence of fathers and implies both spiritual and emotional absence. It also suggests the notion of fathers who, although physically present, behave in ways that are unacceptable (i.e., authoritarian, alcoholic, or physically abusive)

Lost Sons: Underscores the lack of emotional connections between fathers and sons. Sometimes sons are lost to their fathers they unconsciously look for. This lack of attention from fathers results in the son's inability to identify with his father as a means of establishing his own masculine identity. A son deprived of the confirmation and security that might have been provided by father's presence is unable to advance to adulthood.

Gay Oppression and Homophobia

Homosexual men can be a father and/or a son. The coming out process can send their relationship into a high speed dive. There are several stages that family members tend to progress through as they struggle with having a gay family member. A father or son’s coming out is sometimes greeted with hostility, anger, and rejection. If this happens it makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a father a son to feel close to one another. Son’s invariably loses their first and main teacher of manhood. A question of one’s manhood lingers unanswered.

We are taught that Gay Oppression affects only homosexual men. Every man, regardless of sexual preference, is hit hard with Gay oppression. Its major purpose is to create and maintain a rigid, dehumanizing, unattainable model of what it means to be a man and it keeps men effectively isolated and fearful of close and loving relationships with other men. It is also intimately linked with the oppression of women.

Inadequate Fathering

An inadequate father is one who behaves in unacceptable ways towards his son.

Prolonged absence of the father for whatever reason. Unresponsiveness to the child's need for affection and attachment. The father's threats of abandonment, which are used to coerce or discipline the child. The father's induction of guilt onto the child. The father clinging on to the child. Fathers who regularly beat their sons. Fathers who make their sons into scapegoats for everything that is wrong in the family.

Behavioral and Psychological Outcomes for Men

Emotionally restricted.
Aggressive and/or Violent.
Tendencies to Isolate from others.
Rape and Sexual Harassment.
Lower life expectancy.
The objectification of Women.
Feels a lack closeness with men, except in socially acceptable ways (i.e., sporting activities).
Experiences low levels of self-satisfaction.
Difficulty receiving anything from others.
Gives to others in the form of doing something which often includes providing protection, money, possessions, and financial security.

Recommended Readings

Absent Fathers, Lost Sons: The search for masculine identity by Guy Corneau (Boston: Shambhala, 1991).

Finding Our Fathers: The unfinished business of manhood by Samuel Osherson (New York: The Free Press, 1986)

Hungry Hearts: On men, intimacy, self-esteem, and addiction by Joseph Nowinski (New York: Lexington Books, 1993).

The New Male: From macho to sensitive but still all male by Herb Goldberg (New York: New American Library, 1980).

The McGill Report on Male Intimacy by Michael E. McGill (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).