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.