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Fathers’ Day: an opportunity to reflect — and improve on — what we model to our children

As a young boy I took note how friends and classmates whom openly expressed either fear or sadness could be teased. This negative conditioning was reinforced every time I laced up my skates or stepped onto a field to face my ‘opponents.’ Later, old enough to be curious about romance, I learned from my peers that masculine qualities were attractive but my vulnerability was best kept to myself. I found little support from men of my father’s generation, few seemed capable of helping me understand and navigate these confusing sensations called feelings.

What did you learn about experiencing and responding to emotions from your own male role models?

Many men are left to resolve these questions for themselves. And as a therapist I have observed how narratives about gender, culture, family role, faith and philosophy, as well as our privilege — or lack thereof — all shape our openness to sharing vulnerability.

Every person reaches an age and circumstance when our accumulated knowledge is recognized to be wisdom. This is not as highly valued in Western culture as it may be in others. Do we gather together to mentor one another? Unfortunately, too often men do not. As a consequence, we risk failing to evolve as a gender.

In recent years organizations have appeared, like the White Ribbon Campaign and the Mankind Project, to address this omission. Yet in general, youth still look to sports heroes, music and film stars for their models of male morality, and who do they see? Athletes who continue to use homophobic slurs when riled. An NFL star who knocked his girlfriend unconscious at a casino. A leading actor arrested in Hollywood on domestic violence charges for choking his wife. A comic who beat his girlfriend and continues to play to sell-out audiences. A world heavyweight champion boxer suggesting that it is okay restrain or hit a woman provided you do not use a closed fist.

Our legislators, who should offer the highest standard, fare equally poorly. A Canadian federal judge questioned a victim of sexual abuse why she didn’t resist by simply keeping her knees together. And most recently, a US President elected despite mocking a disabled reporter and speaking of grabbing women by the crotch whenever he wished because of the privilege of his position as a former television celebrity.

Since the 1989 murder of 14 women at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, many more misogynistic attacks against women have been perpetuated. Toronto is still reeling from an assault that killed 10 innocent pedestrians (8 women) and injured 15 more when a male used a vehicle as a weapon to direct his rage for being rebuffed by women.

Lashing out against women is a consequence of a denial within oneself of the vulnerable experience of sadness or fear. It is, instead, expressed outwardly as anger.

This is at least in part a consequence of emotionally absent fathers, those not able to provide their sons with role modeling appropriate to the changing norms and values of a rapidly evolving and web-connected culture. Today, forces such as globalization, the collapse of traditional manufacturing jobs, and the shrinking middle class require more and more families to rely on a lengthening workweek or multiple part-time positions that impede upon the priority of parenting. Holding on to archaic expectations concerning our role as sole providers and women as sole nurturers, some men feel lost in this new, egalitarian world. And when men do succeed, they are often siphoned into a privileged culture that focuses on the reward and consolidation of wealth.

Where community could model a supportive role for men, it too was prone to fail. In team activities, where boys are taught the rules of fair play, coaches are as likely as parents to model aggressive attitudes. A recent study of 6,622 ‘critical incidents’ occurring during minor league hockey games in Toronto found coaches responsible for the largest number — 2,537 — of problems reported by referees, outbursts from profane attacks to threats of violence. Imbalanced masculinity is not a problem only in sports mentorship. The film Whiplash highlights the abusive tutelage of jazz legend Charlie Parker by his teacher.

The price of success, some suggest? To the contrary, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and football legend Joe Montana both benefited from understanding fathers who supported their son’s sports passion without imposing any additional pressure upon them. Similarly, J.S. Bach, Oscar Peterson, and a great many other renowned artists have excelled under conditions of more balanced caring.

Validation and encouragement do not impede the development of excellence. In balance with structure, they actually foster it.

Traditionally, in indigenous cultures young people could receive guidance about what it means to be an adult within their community. Prior to colonization, Inuit youth (both boys and girls) would go into the wilderness with their parents at age 11 or 12 and test their hunting skills. The ‘vision quest’ is a rite of passage among many tribes including the Anishinaabe for young people to receive vision. From this sacred ceremony, they learn that they are part of something greater than themselves and discover a path that will honour their ancestors as well as their own spirit. Notwithstanding our oppression, many tribes have managed to save and restore these traditional practices.

Idealized Western values, by contrast, too often confuse and misdirect our young people. Swept away by the pursuit of leisure and wealth within a community increasingly transformed into marketable homogenous audiences, many teenage boys grow physically yet remain emotionally neotenized (immature) throughout their adulthood. We may wish to criticize these young men for their self-absorption, but have we modelled a positive alternative?

Whether manifesting as sexism, addiction, violence, lifestyle-related health concerns, attachment hunger or dissatisfaction, depression, or malaise, it has become clear that our contemporary definition of masculinity is fundamentally flawed; it lacks balance. We need to do better for young people of all gender…

We need to model openness and respect for others’ views to balance our strength and prowess, tempering our confidence with equal amounts of empathy and compassion for self and other.

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