Thoughts of a Father on Father’s Day

The statistics are clear to everyone with even an approximation of an open mind. The presence of a father in the home is highly correlated with the well being of children. Children fortunate enough to have both a father and a mother in the home perform better is school, are healthier, are less likely to live in poverty or commit suicide, and are less likely to become involved in drugs, than children raised by a single parent. On Father’s Day, it is important to emphasize the importance of fathers.

This strong positive social effect does not necessarily mean that the relationships between fathers and sons will always be smooth and easy. Indeed, the father-son relationship can be complex and define the way both interact with the rest of the world.

In an article in the National Review, Mark Goldblatt ruminates over the relationship with his own father. He argues that the natural competition between fathers and sons explains why “Sons are their fathers’ only natural predators.” Goldblatt suggests that the following dilemma confronts fathers and their sons. If a son fails to become as accomplished as his father, the father is disappointed. If on the other hand, the son is more successful, the father is left with sour envy. It is as if the success of the son somehow acts as a reproach of the father. It is almost certain that Goldblatt’s generalization is overly tainted by the relationship he describes with his own father in National Review. Goldblatt’s father lacked a college education and was apparently unsure of his own intelligence. The young Goldblatt was afflicted with the natural arrogance of youth and confident in his own abilities. Perhaps the young Goldblatt even deliberately aggravated his father’s sensitivity. As Goldblatt explains,

“[My father] looked up from dinner one evening and said, `You probably think you’re smarter than me, don’t you?’ So I glanced up at him and replied, `No, not really.’ This was a lie: Of course I was smarter than he was! The issue had been settled so long ago in my mind that I thought he was asking a trick question.”

Goldblatt story is a sad one. Apparently, he has spent the time after his father’s death trying to reconcile himself to the relationship he had with his father.

However, the fallacy of the father’s dilemma as posed Goldblatt lies in the assumption that the success and challenges faced by sons can be separated from those of the father. If a son is very successful, then the father is successful as well. If a son is struggling, then the father shares in the struggle.

It is not that fathers fail to compete with children. Fathers should compete with their sons (and daughters) as a means to build up the competence and confidence of their children, butnot as a way to demonstrate their own vigor and superiority. Children need the challenges posed by parents to develop a sense of their limits and strengths. But their successes and failures are shared by their parents

Nonetheless, when children get a little too confident, it is wise to provide them a little perspective. To my children, I often find myself paraphrasing the words of Sir Isaac Newton. If my children can see farther than their parents, it is because they stand on the shoulders of giants.

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