A few years ago, I participated in an Oprah Life Class with Oprah and Iyanla Vanzant. (You can see a clip of the show here.) The goal of the show was to address the troubling epidemic of sons growing up without their fathers. As support for the show, I was asked to write an article about what sons need from their fathers. Below is what I wrote:
I am often asked what sons need from their fathers. My answer really boils down to a few simple but critical things that every good dad must do, built on a framework of providing, nurturing and guiding. But here’s the problem: Too often, fathers think they’re doing a better job in these areas than they really are. I’ve found that these four questions below can help a father ensure he’s giving his son the fundamental things he needs. (And if a child’s father is not in the picture, his mother can use these questions as a guide to help her find male role models who can give her son these kinds of affirmation.)
“Does my son know that he matters to me?”
We invest—money, time and energy—in the things we care about. In other words, if you ever want to know what someone cares about, look at their bank statement or ask them how they spend their time. The primary way that dads can help their boys understand that they matter is by making them a priority over the myriad demands that life throws at us. With many things competing for a dad’s money, time and energy—our jobs, technology, entertainment, sports, television—it is easy for a child to think that he doesn’t matter. It is critical that dads make it clear to their sons that they are a priority and that their most important investment is in them.
“Does my son know that I love him?”
Nurturing means a lot of things. It certainly includes hugging and kissing our boys—yes, even boys need hugs and kisses—on a daily basis and telling them that we love them. But it also includes taking care of their daily needs, like cooking for them, giving them baths, playing with them, reading to them and helping their mothers.
And I have discovered that despite the conventional wisdom that nurturing is primarily mom’s territory, the root meaning of “nurture” is “to protect,” a role that most dads are comfortable with.
“Does my son know that what he does is important to me?”
A son wants to know that the way he is living his life—his interests, schoolwork, hobbies and passions—is pleasing to his father. And, as a good dad, it is critical for a father to guide his son into the right actions and help him live a life centered on serving others. However, you can’t expect to teach a son the value of charity if you are not charitable in how you spend time with him. You can’t expect to get him interested in your church’s community-service project if you haven’t established a “community” that includes him in your home. So, show him that everything he does is important to you, and then you can show him what is really important—and he will welcome it.
“Does my son know how proud I am of him?”
This boils down to a son’s innate need to be affirmed by his father. Your affirmation prepares your son to enter the world with the confidence and “emotional armor” that he needs in order not just to survive, but to thrive. A son needs to know that you are pleased with him, not just for what he does or does not do, but because of who he is. Your love for him is about his “being,” not just his “doing.”
And remember that the way a father affirms his son depends on things like his culture and community and his son’s temperament and interests. The objective of affirmation is to meet a son at his particular point of need and to connect with him—heart to heart. Indeed, there is no cookie-cutter approach to affirmation. One boy may simply need an encouraging word at the right time. A special breakfast out with dad may be what another son needs. A formal ceremony or rite of passage might fit certain cultures and situations. But what all of these acts of affirmation, big and small, communicate to your son is that you are his advocate and that your love is abiding and unconditional.