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  • Writer's pictureRyon McDermott

Fathers and Sons: New Light on an Unexamined Relationship

Fathers who raise sons to adhere to narrow definitions of masculinity produce children with lower self-esteem and higher levels of alcohol use, says Dr. Ron Levant.

In the Broadway play “Kinky Boots” the two lead actors are preoccupied with their struggles with their fathers’ expectations.

Charlie was the scion of four generations of shoemakers. His father expected that he would take over the business, which Charlie did not want to do. Simon grew up as a Black man in small town near London. His father wanted him to be a prize fighter like himself, and taught his son to box at an early age. But Simon had other ideas, and was more interested in being a drag queen, taking the name Lola. Charlie’s and Lola’s paths crossed while Charlie was being accosted and Lola stepped in to defend him, breaking the heel of her boot in the process. Charlie, being a shoemaker, offered to fix it, and in the process they formed a collaboration to make boots for men in drag – kinky boots. Together they sang “Not My Father’s Son,” in which the following lines expressed the dilemma they shared: “It was never easy/To be his type of man/To breathe freely/Was not in his plan/And the best part of me/Is what he wouldn’t see.”

These themes resonated with my clinical experience, as many of my male counseling clients expressed similar concerns. A poignant example occurred in my Fatherhood Course. In the first meeting of one class, we talked about why the men decided to enroll in the course, and after some lighthearted chatter the mood palpably shifted to serious as one father spoke, lower lip quivering: “You want to know why I am here? I’ll tell you why I am here. I am here so that my little son Timmy will not feel as bad about me when he’s grown up as I do about my own dad.” His words hit the room like a hurricane, and soon the theme of fathers and sons was on every man’s lips. The fathers then become sons and talked about the grief, pain and bitterness they felt toward their own fathers.

Why is the son-father relationship so difficult? I think it is because fathers feel an obligation to make their sons into men, in the classical/traditional sense of stoic, aggressive, self-reliant, stay-calm-in-the-face-of-danger manhood. As a result they feel that it is their job to wean their sons of their neediness, and to put a hard shell around their child’s vulnerable emotions (such as fear, sadness, hurt, and loneliness).

The idea that the father’s role is to make men out of his sons arose in the U.S. following the Great Depression, in which the fathers’ role was conceptualized as a sex role model for his sons. That is, fathers were expected to model, encourage, and even to demand masculinity in their sons. The fathers-as-sex-role-models perspective was influenced by psychoanalytic theory, which viewed the mother as the primary caretaker of children of all genders, but posited a gender-specific effect of fathers on their sons. This was thought to occur via the Oedipal conflict, the successful resolution of which resulted in the son renouncing his love interest in his mother and identifying with his father — in particular with his father’s masculinity and heterosexuality. While psychological research has moved on from this perspective, this view of the father’s role is still the dominant idea in public discourse in the U.S..

As fate would have it, I was given an opportunity to investigate this persistent idea about the father’s role through a grant from Kinky Boots. My lab studied the effects of recalled fathers’ expectations for sons’ masculinity on adult sons’ well-being. This topic had not yet been studied. We theorized that father’s expectations for son’s masculinity would have two main components: the content, reflecting expectations that sons conform to traditional masculine norms; and the process, reflecting the degree of rigidity and/or lack of fit of the expectations – that is, whether the expectations match who the sons actually are. In the study we examined adult sons’ recollections of their fathers when they were young, focusing on their fathers’ expectations about their masculinity (both content and process), the quality of their fathers’ parenting, and their fathers’ involvement in their lives. We also examined the relationships between these variables and three indices of well-being: self-esteemromantic relationship satisfaction, and harmful alcohol use.

Given the dearth of research and absence of scales measuring adult sons’ recollections of their fathers’ expectations about their masculinity, we developed the Fathers’ Expectations about Son’s Masculinity Scale (FEASMS). To tap the content dimension, we developed a set of items that reflected the notion that fathers expected sons to conform to traditional masculine norms, drawing on the content of the Male Role Norms Inventory-Revised. To tap the process dimension, we developed items that reflected the rigidity of fathers’ expectations, e.g., how firmly expectations were held even when they did not fit and how disappointed their fathers seemed to be in them.

As hypothesized, we found that recalled fathers’ expectations about their sons’ masculinity are negatively associated with adult sons’ self-esteem and relationship satisfaction and positively associated with their harmful alcohol use. We also found that the effects of fathers’ rigid expectations on self-esteem were greater than those of parenting quality and father involvement. Results challenge the dominant idea in public discourse that the fathers’ role is to make men out of his sons. Parents need to be aware of the potential harm that could come from beliefs that the fathers’ role is to make men out of his sons.

Author’s note: The Fathers’ Expectations about Son’s Masculinity Scale is still in development and not yet published.

Ron Levant, EdD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Akron. He has written extensively on men and masculinity, with more than 300 publications to his name, including the ground breaking “A new psychology of men.” He is the editor of the academic journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, was the first president of Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and is a past-president of the American Psychological Association.

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