For Fathers: How to Communicate With Your Son
Explore ways to connect besides talking.
By Neil Chethik
It’s a movie moment that makes grown men cry. In the climactic scene of the 1989 hit Field of Dreams, the character played by Kevin Costner steps onto the baseball diamond that he carved out of his Iowa cornfield. Then, wordlessly, he tosses a ball back and forth, back and forth, with the ghost of his long-dead father.
The scene brings many men to tears because it reminds them of how they communicated with their own fathers – or how they wished they had. In a world where communication is often equated with talking, Field of Dreams reminds us that the father-son connection is sometimes less about words than it is about actions.
As a 40-year-old male friend told me recently, recalling his childhood, “My dad showed up. He showed up for Little League and band concerts and graduation. I can’t remember much of what he said, but he always showed up. I could count on that.”
Today’s fathers tend to do more than show up. But no matter how many words fathers and sons say to each other, sharing space remains the foundation of father-son communication. So here are a few suggestions for fathers who want to be remembered as the man who was always there:
• Play early and often. Because they can’t breastfeed, some dads think that their newborn sons don’t need them. In fact, father-son connection starts in the first days of life. Fathers can enhance that connection from day one by playing affectionately with their sons. That can involve holding, cooing, sharing music or introducing safe toys for the infant to touch and hold.
• Read together. As the infant grows, fathers can add reading to their interactive repertoire. A recent Texas A&M University study showed that fathers who read to their children feel better about themselves and about their relationships with their kids. Reading together, fathers and sons share laughter and adventure. Years after I stopped reading to my now 16-year-old son, we still talk about Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and other literary characters we discovered during our reading-together days. (Reading to my son also helped me as a public speaker; every night, I could practice making my voice scary, wary or wild.)
• Coach his team. Participating on teams is a rite of passage for boys, and it prepares them for cooperation, competition, and winning and losing with grace. Sons whose fathers are coaches or assistant coaches often feel safer and closer to their dads; they’ve been through a season together, with all the challenges and triumphs that entails.
Of course, not all team activities are sports. If a son isn’t interested in basketball or football, and prefers music or academics, his father should affirm the choice and offer to coach, chaperone or otherwise participate in the son’s passions and hobbies. Fathers shouldn’t try to force sons to play a sport they loved when young but the sons don’t care for at all.
• Explore nature. Boys tend to love the woods and all that goes with it: sticks, tents, campfires, marshmallows, sleeping bags, waterfalls and wildlife. Take some time away from cell phones, iPods and PlayStations. Participate together in a scouting organization or invite other fathers and sons to join you on a camping trip. Then, tell ghost stories under a starlit sky. Practice your Toastmasters skills as you make the story memorably haunting.
• Take a road trip. Fathers and sons often talk most easily when they’re side by side rather than face to face. While driving together for an afternoon, or a few days, the two of you will have a chance to connect in a relaxed atmosphere. After your son gets his driver’s license, share the driving as a way of showing him that you trust him. (On the topic of side-by-side communication, you may find that your son – especially if he’s a teenager – talks more readily when you’re watching a game, shooting hoops or are otherwise involved in another activity together. Take advantage of those opportunities!)
• Ask for his advice. Many fathers like to act as if they know everything. We’re usually ready to give advice to our sons whether or not they’ve asked for it. If you want to help your son feel good about himself as he matures, turn the tables: Ask for his help or guidance. When you have a computer problem, ask him to show you how to fix it. If you have a challenge at work, or with a friend, see if your son can suggest ways for you to solve it. (One caveat: Don’t ask him for advice about your marriage!)
• Tell him that you’re proud of him. No matter what age, sons want to hear their fathers express pride in them. For some reason, statements of pride don’t have the same impact when they come from Mom; maybe sons just expect their mothers to be proud and love them unconditionally. But sons seem to crave expressions of pride from fathers. Whether the son is in grade school, high school, college or is married with his own kids, take a chance every now and then to say five simple words: “I’m proud of you, son.”
• Say goodbye to him. This may seem morbid to some, but as the author of a book on father-loss, I’m aware of how important it is for sons to receive a “goodbye” from their dads. As fathers age or become ill, they should say goodbye by speaking openly about their illness and their spiritual, religious or philosophical beliefs. Fathers can also discuss the contents of their wills or their instructions for late-life medical care. Such conversations can help the son cope later with his father’s death, and teach the son to accept his own mortality.
Most fathers will attest that fatherhood is more challenging than anything they’ve ever done. And fathering a son may be extra hard, with its stirrings of competition and high expectations on both sides. To help me through it, I keep the comforting words of the comedian Bill Cosby always within reading distance: “If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that what- ever he does in any fathering situation has a 50 percent chance of being right.”
Neil Chethik, a member of the Downtown Lunch Bunch Toastmasters club in Lexington, Kentucky, is the author of FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of Their Dads (Hyperion). Reach him through his Web site, www.fatherloss.com, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.