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The most important lesson a father can teach his son

Man up.

Boys don’t cry.

Suck it up.

These are the messages of our society. The ways that males are portrayed on film, television, and other media that we consume, are that of power and unwavering strength; someone who is put together and does not experience vulnerability. But this is not reality.

Because of these messages, boys grow up learning that emotions like sadness should be repressed – that it’s not manly to show weakness or to ask for help. The effect of these messages have been that males are not reaching out for help and this is resulting in tragic consequences. In Canada, suicide is the leading cause of death for males between the ages 10 and 49.[1]  Think about this for a moment. Boys, as young as 10 taking their lives because they can’t express their fears, or vulnerability, won’t reach out for help or can’t access the right type of help. Men, in the prime of their lives, leaving families behind because they can no longer cope and won’t or can’t get help.

Male or female, we’re all human beings, and we experience the same emotions. It’s unreasonable to shame males for showing a feeling that is completely natural. It’s more than unreasonable, it’s tragic. So how do we make sure boys grow up knowing that it’s okay to be sad, okay to cry, and okay to ask for help?

Parents are a child’s first and strongest model of how to behave. Kids are wired to watch and mimic what their parents do, how they speak and how they interact with others. As such, fathers have a critical role in raising emotionally healthy sons.

Being a father is more than rough-housing and teaching your son to play catch. Dads have the responsibility to validate what their sons are feeling — it’s okay not to be okay. There is more than one version of masculinity.

 

“Positive, involved fathering is associated with increased emotional well-being, cognitive competence, problem-solving ability, school achievement, social competence, empathy and reciprocity.” [2]

 

To properly teach healthy emotions to sons, it may require fathers to assess their own feelings and how they interpret them. Dads need to practice acceptance with their own uncomfortable feelings when they arise if they are to impart the same message to their sons. Teaching emotional well-being does not have to be difficult — it’s just a matter of authentic and non-judgemental communication.

Teaching healthy emotions can start when boys are quite young. Label emotions when you see they are happening to your child. Say things like: “it looks like you’re very sad right now,” or “I can see that you’re angry.” Labelling the feelings that boys are experiencing helps to give them an emotional language to express themselves.

As a dad, you can model how to talk about and handle emotions. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but saying what you are feeling out loud to your sons will show them that you feel the same things they do and that those feelings are normal.

The home should be a safe space for children to talk about how they are feeling. Creating this safe space is simple but crucial. At the dinner table have everyone talk about their day and include language about the way you were feeling. “It frustrated me when my boss said this…” or “I felt upset when this happened…” When you son does come to you and expresses his feelings, respond without judgement. Validate what they are going through.

Vulnerability is not a weakness. People that embrace their own vulnerability tend to have more healthy relationships and coping strategies when facing tough times.

As a father you cannot control all the situations and people your sons will encounter. You won’t be able to stop other kids from say hurtful things. You can’t change how males are represented in the media. But you can create a place at home where your son knows that they are loved and accepted no matter what they feel.


[1] Canadian Mental Health Association, 2015

[2] Dozois E., Wells, L. Exner-Cortens, D., & Esina, E. (2016). No Man Left Behind: How and Why to Include Fathers in Government-Funded Parenting Strategies. Calgary, AB: The University of Calgary, Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence

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