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Fathers, Sons and Masculinity

By Mark Brandenburg

My 5-year-old son had a quirky smile that showed a mixture of pride and anticipation. He'd shown me his art project from school, and he was waiting for his mom. "Come on over and look at what Michael made," I shouted to my wife.

Michael ran out of the room crying.

"What's wrong?" I asked. "What happened?"

"I wanted to tell Mom myself!" he yelled. "You ruined it."

Part of me felt empathy for him and sadness that he couldn't "surprise" his mother. But another dark voice in my head was louder. "Why can't you grow up?" "Are you going to act like this your whole childhood?"

I was filled with visions of a son who was incapable of dealing with the challenges and frustrations of daily living. And I felt the responsibility of showing him how to be "tough enough" to live in a world that delivers plenty of tough times. At the moment, I felt like I was failing badly.

What is masculinity?
Masculinity is supposed to be passed on from father to son. It can't be taught by their mothers, no matter how incredible they are. And our society still struggles with how to define masculinity.

When I counseled men years ago, it became clear to me that those men who hadn't felt accepted by their fathers would "compensate" for it. They would compensate by becoming workaholics, womanizers, drinkers, etc. Although many of them would accomplish a great deal in their lives, they never felt as though they were "man enough."

The basic rules
So what are the rules for fathers in raising a son?

They're really quite simple, but it's easy for fathers to forget them when they get lost in their own fears about their sons’ being "wimpy." Here's a list of these simple rules:

Be there for him. Share in his success and in his failure. Share yourself with him, including your failures. He needs to know that you've failed and turned out ok.

Know that your son is studying you very closely, and act accordingly. He won't miss much, and he'll most likely end up quite a bit like you. So be a person that you want him to end up like!

Approve of him. Approve of him during the good times and the bad. If you let him know after some of his worse moments that you still think he's great, you'll get fewer of his worst moments.

Develop common interests and spend time on them. When your son becomes a teenager, his interests may change significantly. Have some common interests that will transcend these changes and give you a place to "meet" during those teen years.

As I remembered some of these thoughts, Michael brought his head up from his hands. His face was wet with tears. "I'm sorry, buddy. I didn't know you wanted to surprise your mom. That must have been disappointing." He got up, grabbed his artwork, and ran to his mother to show her.

He may not be the toughest kid around, but I think he's going to be ok.

© Mark Brandenburg

NFO regular contributor Mark Brandenburg, MA, CPCC, is the author of 25 Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers. Sign up for his free bi-weekly newsletter, Dads, Don't Fix Your Kids, at

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