I was travelling to Melbourne with mixed emotions, excited about my daughter Lily’s twenty-first birthday party that evening, but also worried I had no idea what to say in my father’s speech.
The risk of getting it wrong was high. I’d heard Lily and friends groan regularly about cringe worthy ‘Dad jokes’ at birthday party speeches. Humour had to be avoided.
Even worse were some of the awful fathers’ speeches I’d witnessed. These men told embarrassing stories about their children, ironic and sometimes clever, but lacking warmth, acknowledgement and appreciation.
I’d hoped these dads were just trying to be funny. Or wanting to counterbalance the gushing emotional tributes sure to come from friends and family. Or maybe I was being too sensitive.
Yet I could not help feeling these birthday boys and girls had been profoundly let down by their dads.
I wanted to do better in my father’s speech. But high up over the Nullarbor with only ninety minutes to landing, I was drawing a blank.
I flicked through my e-mails, my standard delaying tactic for avoiding challenging tasks. I noticed an unopened message from Lily sent the previous day containing an ‘interesting article’. As I read on I knew Divine Inspiration had come at just the right time. I had all I needed for the speech and hastily scribbled some notes before the plane landed.
Here is what I said:
“Good evening all and welcome to Lily’s twenty-first celebration!
Just yesterday she sent me an article called Why Gen Y Yuppies Are So Unhappy maybe some of you read it. If the article is accurate there are a lot of unhappy people in this room!
If you have not read it here is a quick summary. We are introduced to Lucy, a typical Gen Y who has been told her whole life she is special. But when faced with the reality of working life she soon realises she is not special at all. In fact, she is like most everyone else, and well behind some massive high achievers. All those medals she’d received for finishing ninth in the dressage competition count for little now in the Deloitte Graduate Programme. So the message to Lucy is something like get over yourself and get to work.
At the end of the article, the author fails in his attempt to shift from relentless negativity to something positive. His final message to Lucy is ‘Ignore how other people are doing, keep dreaming big but stop thinking you’re special.’
I wonder how poor Lucy feels after all that. If I was her I’d be confused and discouraged. She’s been raised in a culture comprising social media, friends, school, university, colleagues and her employer who all constantly compare her to everyone else more publicly than any time in history. Furthermore, since she was small her ambitious parents have told her she’s special because of her achievements great and small.
Lucy is trapped in this world view.”
I paused, feeling time slow down. Confident smiles on the faces around me faded, revealing an aching vulnerability. Beneath their poise was uncertainty about themselves and their futures. They were hungry for encouragement. I kept going.
“So I want to propose a radically different view: I think you Gen Ys are special! Each and every one of you. Not only for your grades, sporting achievements and career prospects, as important as those are. It’s really about who you are as human beings. No one who has ever lived or will live is like you. Each one of you has a unique gift to offer the world.
Please take time to find out who you really are. Not just the superficial stuff we can all see. Ask people you love to tell you what they see in you. And hold on to it for all your life.
I cannot wait to see who each one of you becomes as you blossom into your full selves.
Now I’m going to tell you about someone particularly special this evening – Lily – and the twenty-one things I love about her as a person, in no particular order:
The mood had lifted. When I finished many young people thanked me. They felt special! A few had private conversations with older people in the corners to voice their self-doubts and gain reassurance.
Soon, however, everyone was up having huge fun, dancing away like mad fools until the early hours. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.
I was reminded how crucial are such milestones in life. Even more important is that men step into these opportunities to bestow blessings on young people, fill them with confidence, let them know we believe in who they are and stand with them.
Why are these moments so powerful? Unlike the love of a mother who bears and nurtures a child from inception, a father’s love is discretionary. The indifference of many men toward their kids is in part reflected in lukewarm speeches at weddings and birthdays. Sadly, these guys seem to forget the immense power we men have to build up our children. Or worse, we shy away from it.
By naming a child’s strengths and gifts publicly, telling the whole community why this young person is a special human being, a man is announcing his full approval to the world and sending them forth.
If you are a father, or have a close relationship with a young person, please create occasions to speak into their lives both privately and publicly. Or if you know a father, please encourage him to do so.
And we need to recognise more than achievements and awards, the useful but ultimately external stuff that fades away. Instead we must keep reminding our children who they are as unique human beings. It is one of the most important jobs we have as men.
 Adam’s Return by Richard Rohr
A lot of fathers assure me they do.
But what do the boys think? Do they feel they’re getting what they most need from their Dads?
I decided to find out. I approached a private boys’ school in my neighbourhood in Perth, Western Australia to conduct a survey. More than 250 boys from years seven, eight and nine participated, over 50% of the twelve to 14-year-old cohorts.
We asked the boys to respond to six questions, giving them a range of responses to choose from (maximum three) plus a free text option. Here is a brief summary of the survey results.
Our conclusion: Teenage boys need support from their fathers to face the future with confidence, not through telling, pushing or nagging but by dads being interested, encouraging and acknowledging, and giving boys space to learn.
We were eager to share these results so the school invited almost a thousand fathers of boys from years seven to twelve to come to a discussion evening.
We were hoping for a couple of hundred but on the night forty men turned up.
It was disappointing. Over ninety-five percent of the fathers weren’t there.
I rationalised many must have been busy with other pressing priorities at home and work. They probably pushed the invitation to one side and soon forgot about it, like I often do when I’m under the pump. And then there’s ‘school fatigue’ from too many invitations throughout the year.
Maybe some fathers thought this survey wasn’t relevant or they already knew it all. Possibly some men felt they’d be criticised and stayed away.
But there was no way to find out. I had to let it go and switch my focus to the men sitting in front of me.
We had a lively discussion interpreting the results. Most of the fathers came to a similar conclusion as we did: They need to spend more time encouraging, building up and guiding their sons to fulfil their dreams for the future. But a light touch is needed, providing a supportive backstop whilst allowing their boys to figure life out for themselves.
But then suddenly, out of the blue, one man shouted out, “I have a real problem with all this. My son spends every waking minute on his bloody PlayStation. I don’t know what his problem is. When I was eleven my mates and I were camping on our own!”
You could hear a murmur of agreement coming from pockets around the room. Obviously this guy wasn’t alone in his concerns.
I did a quick fact check in my head. My first canoe trip as a boy back in Canada was led by two 17-year olds rigorously trained to lead wilderness experiences, backed up by adult staff back at camp. It would have been impossible on our own.
My friends in the Scouts went camping at eleven, but were always supervised by adults.
Another friend recently told me how at eleven years old he and a friend pitched a tent two hundred metres from the house on the family farm. But they were home in their beds by ten o’clock, terrified by the sounds of the night.
I concluded these grumbling men were idealising their own childhoods, exaggerating memories of independence and freedom. They were not curious what forces act on their sons to choose PlayStation over being outdoors.
I learned a lot that night, concluding fathers need to get to grips with three things.
First, we need to be aware of ourselves and the environment in which our kids are growing up. Men cannot allow the negative aspects of technology, consumerism and busyness to consume our children, and must actively intervene on their behalf.
Second, many men give more to their jobs than their families. I did for a long time, telling myself I was ‘providing’.
But I was also very ambitious and funding an unsustainable lifestyle. I had to learn be honest with myself and clarify what was most important.
Third, I realised a lot of fathers get stuck in short term behaviour management with their kids - homework, chores, punctuality, squabbling. Men must understand the big game is to prepare their sons to face the world, which requires learning how to encourage, affirm, listen to and empower their boys.
At the end of the night we announced a series of six seminars for fathers on how to address these challenges. Half a dozen men regularly turned up. They were humble guys, eager to share. No one had taught us the critical skills so we learned from each other.
We began by talking about our own Dads, both the positive and negative, to understand better a father’s role. We dug deeper into what boys need from their fathers. We learned how to identify and nurture a boy’s strengths. We explored the essentials of developing responsibility, discipline and collaboration. We discussed how to talk to boys about sex and pornography. And lastly we looked at rites of passage for boys.
I know most men want to give their boys what they need. The challenge for all of us is to invest the time and develop the skills to do it.
Miles and his colleagues run rites of passage events for fathers and sons. Please get in touch if you are interested.