Monday, June 16, 2008

Raising Men

Kevin Hellicker looked at his father's tough love in Friday's WSJ (sub req):

Yet between my childhood and my father's death, something larger than either of us happened: A style of fathering fell out of fashion. It was a style that placed Dad at a certain distance, that required him to scoff at scraped knees and hurt feelings, that often cast him in the role of bad guy.

It's a style that parenting experts in growing numbers believe had some virtues. Nostalgia is deepening for the old-fashioned law-and-order father, and not only among Christian family organizations. A coalition of scholars and psychoanalysts are publishing a book this fall called "The Dead Father: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry," based in part on the premise that society has suffered as dads have become more maternal and less authoritarian.

"The whole culture needs the father back," says Lila Kalinich, a Columbia University psychiatrist who served as senior editor for the book. "Fathers substantiate law and order. Fathers can create a sense of womanliness in daughters and bring the male children into manhood."

His father was definitely from the old school:

Forty hours a week, Dad stood behind a meat counter in a blood-splattered white apron, swinging a cleaver. He devoted just as many hours to newspaper delivery, having bought for $28,000 the franchise to deliver the morning and afternoon editions of the Kansas City Star to more than a thousand readers. His daily schedule: newspaper delivery from one until four in the morning, meat cutting from eight until early afternoon, newspaper delivery during an extended lunch hour, then back behind the counter for an evening of cutting meat. At Sunday Mass -- which he never once missed -- he relied on Mom's elbow to keep him awake.

His double duty paid off. We moved into a nice house on a gorgeous street in an otherwise distressed section of Kansas City, Kan. And Dad was able to send my brothers and me to expensive Catholic schools.

But his work schedule made him remote. When we were little, we envied boys who delivered papers for Dad: They seemed closer to him than we did.

Yet when our own turn came, around age 10, to join his delivery crew, he treated us harshly, in part to show the other boys that his sons got no special treatment, but mostly because of his belief in the benefits of withstanding hardship. Even when sleet pelted us through the open windows of the delivery truck, Dad sat behind the wheel (his own window open) and refused to crank up the heat. His philosophy of raising boys -- make them tough -- was articulated by his favorite song, Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." To settle disputes between his sons Dad bought a couple of pairs of boxing gloves.

His recollection is a familiar one to the large cohort of us raised by hard-working but emotionally remote fathers. My father was born during the Great Depression and grew up during a time when people were more concerned about surviving than thriving. He told us the story of working all day on some form of break-backing labor to receive all of one quarter for his efforts. Then he dropped the precious quarter in a hay field and spent additional hours of effort (including watering down the hay) in a fruitless attempt to recover it. Life was hard.

When he was older, he did what he had to do to provide for his family--starting his own company building and remodeling homes and at times renting out property for income. I worked for him on various occasions through the years and, although looking back now I value the time spent with him and what he taught me, being "the boss' son" was not a position of privilege or comfort.

He genuinely worried that we -- with our nice house and private education -- might turn out soft.

This was definitely a concern shared by my father (and mother too for that matter). He had grown up on a rural farm environment where nothing was easy and nothing was taken for granted. He then had to raise us in a new home (which he built) in a leafy western Minneapolis suburb.

Our neighborhood was a mostly middle-class enclave that bordered on much more affluent areas. Both my brother and I had friends growing up whose family homes, incomes, and net worth dwarfed ours. I can still recall that after a friend had described the various stocks his father had invested in, I came home and asked my Dad what stocks he owned. He simply chuckled at the premise of the question. Guys like him and families like ours were not "in the market."

Yet in seeking to prevent that, he didn't know when or how to ease up.

My father liked to remind us that Saturday was "chore day." To us, after a week of school, Saturday should have been "fun day." He had to constantly battle to cajole us to join him in various work projects in the yard and garage, no doubt at least partially driven by the worry that we weren't learning to work. Again, looking back on it now I can appreciate the long hours we spent with him and the values he was trying to instill in us. But at the time it was no picnic to deal with his gruff manner and tough expectations, especially in the garage. The learning was often lessened by the very palpable tension and fear that was always lurking in the background. To this day if you ask JB for a 9/16th box end, he'll likely greet you with a puzzled look.

You usually don't notice the values and qualities that have been molded in you by your father yourself. Instead, another usually points them: a friend, a spouse, an employer, etc. It often takes years for you to really appreciate what your father has done for you and understand why he did what he did.

The difficulty for those of us raised by such fathers who now have our own sons is to attempt to strike a balance between the tough love necessary to raise men and being more emotionally open to our children. We want to be fathers not friends to our sons and we want to pass on the values of hard-work, discipline, and respect. But we want to take an approach that's a bit softer than that of our own fathers. An approach that was not really even an option for them at the time they were raising their sons. Their love at times was tough, but it was still love and expressed in the only way they knew how to.

One of the other challenges of fatherhood is letting your sons be their own people. Our dad never really liked sports, reading, or music much, but to his credit he allowed us to pursue our interests in these (and other) subjects and didn't force his pursuits on us. That's not an easy thing for any dad to do. And for that, and for his help in making me the man and father than I am today, I say thanks Dad.

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