Jan 06

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Overcoming under-fathering

It has been suggested that a frequent feature of the macho-posing young man given to king-hitting others, is a lack of proper fathering. Recognising that under-fathering is not always a factor and acknowledging that there are many elements contributing to senseless violence, it is worth asking what it is we can reasonably expect fathers to do to prevent their sons going to jail.

My credentials in suggesting ideas do not come so much from Thomas Kelly being one of my past students, or from the fact that I’ve been the headmaster of a boys’ school for many years. They come from a painful recognition of my own inadequacies as a father. I’ve often spent too much time seeking significance outside of the home to always be effective within it. So, it is with a keen sense of personal guilt that I share the following on what a father might teach a son:

How to love. A father loving a family doesn’t just mean going out and dragging a dead mammoth into the cave. Neither is it fulfilling the, ‘just wait till your father gets home’ role. Love should be expressed in more ways than providing and correcting. It needs to be expressed in time with and interest in. It needs to expressed in tenderness and respect. It needs to be shown a father adoring the mother. This is not always easy when the anaesthetic of the TV beckons after a day of irksome toil. However, the sacrifice of putting the family ahead of personal comfort will not be lost on a boy and may stop him having to prove his worth by belting up innocents on a Kings Cross street.

How to control impulse and anger. A father that screams insults, slams doors and kicks the dog teaches a boy the behaviour to use when upset. This is not good. Provocation and circumstance can help understand behaviour, but it does not excuse it. Bred for millennia to catch mammoths and defend caves, the ‘fight and flight’ impulse in boys, exacerbated by huge amounts of the anabolic steroid, testosterone, means that impulse control is not always easy. Our sons need to learn that the mammoths are gone and with it, societal forgiveness of impulsive behaviour that sheds blood. Think traffic lights. When red with anger, stop. If things have progressed to yellow, wait. Only when the anger has died away and things look green, should a boy be trained to move ahead. Too many of our prisons are filled with men who might not otherwise be there if they had learnt to count to ten.

How to be mindful. The capacity to put yourself in the other person’s shoes is vital if one wishes to live in a herd greater than one. Other person centeredness, empathy, kindness, call it what you will – it is important. Understanding impact can modify impulse. Not everyone can cope with the injunction to turn the other cheek, but a son should be able to cope with doing unto others what you want them to do to you – whatever their faith stance.

How to accept responsibility. So – you were dropped on your head as a baby. You were deprived of enough breast milk. You were a middle child. It’s rough, but you have to learn to deal with it. Without wanting to trivialise the real disadvantage some have to face, to use the past to excuse the present invites a fatalism that society can ill afford. In the end, we must take responsibility for our behaviour. We cannot always blame the cat.

How to drink. A son must learn to control his grog rather than allow it to control him. This is best modelled than sermonised. Moderation. Setting limits. Alternating a soft drink with an alcoholic drink. Drinking low-strength beer. Recognising the signs of personal intoxication. Having a plan to avoid it getting worse. Avoiding ‘pre-loading’. Knowing of the danger of mixing drugs with alcohol. You know the drill. Use personal example. Show a son that getting maggotted is not a sign of manliness. It is a sign of stupidity.

How to be tough. Toughness is not being a self-proclaimed martial arts fighter. Toughness is being able to say ‘no’ to a cone. Toughness is being able to put principles before popularity and stopping a mate from being a total prat. Toughness is about doing nothing when everything in you wants to thump the idiot. Think about the photos you’ve seen of newborn babies in muscular arms. Toughness need not be dissociated from gentleness.

Teach consequences, not con sequences. A son needs to learn that although he is free to choose what to do, he is not always free to choose the consequences. No more is this vital than in the choice of friends. Finding the right mates can be the saving of a boy. It can also be their ruin. Not for nothing has it been suggested that a boy’s friends are one of best predictors of a boy’s future.

Enough. There are many other things that a father must teach a son. And there is much that a mother must teach. But that deserves another paper. Some boys may not have a father. However, there is usually a father figure or father substitute that can fulfil the tasks above. Indeed, they must if we are ever to break a cycle of violence and inadequacy from being handed from one generation to another.

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