My husband is helpful and considerate, but somehow isn’t getting into fathering our five-year-old hands-on. I keep trying to throw the two together without myself as the ‘director’, but he ends up just trying to organize outdoor things with him, or lecturing him. I can see that our son is withdrawn and almost awkward with him. After a point, my husband just laughs at my concerns, saying I’m trying to turn both of them into metrosexual males. He reads your column—do tell us your thoughts on this.
This isn’t about being a metrosexual male or living in touchy-feely times or about finding your feminine side or some such. Neither is it about “fatherhood”—a word that has been overused and hyped by media imagery. It’s about being present in your kids’ lives—appropriately present, and really present—isn’t it?
A hands-on father: Kids need parents to be role models, friends, mentors, not just protectors or activity minders.
There have always been two distinct styles of parenting when it comes to fathers and sons. Men are either remote, non-communicative figures, mere providers; or they are hands-on fathers. Among the hands-on lot, too, some are supportive, providing genuine emotional and other inputs. While many—in the guise of being “good fathers”—are overcritical, even dismissive, highly directive and have unrealistic expectations from their sons. This is often a pattern that they cling to their whole lives. And one that their sons end up repeating with their own children.
Male bonding for real: Even at a very young age, while a boy’s physical as well as emotional needs may be looked after by his mother, he needs the involvement of his dad—who is not meant to be just an “assistant mom”, but bring his distinct male form of love, with caring, humour, discipline, activity and guidance to the relationship.
More than a buddy: Many fathers become the “activity” parent, playing games with their sons, or horsing around, driving them to school, or doling out pocket money. While this is good too, it’s not enough.
Not a talk show: Some men complain that they are not “talkative” like women, and cannot be expected to keep up the chatter with their sons, like mothers and daughters do. The point here is not to be “chatty” but to relate. There are many ways of relating, quite non-verbally, with your son. The important thing is to keep communication channels open in different ways, so that you are available to your son.
Facts of life: Women often complain that they are “stuck” with tackling matters such as personal hygiene and sex education, discipline, attitudes, and other key areas, even with their adolescent sons, when it would be so much better for the father to deal with it all.
The scorn game: Being hyper-critical never got anyone anywhere. Anyone who thinks that this makes boys tough simply needs to rethink. One sure way of shutting your son off from you, and from his own self-worth, is to scoff at him, tell him how other boys are much more smart/active, admonish him for behaving “like a girl” when he shows emotional distress, ignore his interests, which may be quite different from yours, and tell him that he’s not going to amount to much.
Now, more than ever, boys need a role model, a friend, a mentor, a positive presence in their lives. And many fathers need to grow into these roles.
Over Diwali or during the summer vacations, there are lots of advertisements for residential camps. I have a five-year-old son who is quite outgoing, but despite my relatives and friends advising me to send him to one of these camps, I haven’t yet gathered courage. Am I depriving him of anything that he may gain by staying away from me?
Well, you may not be depriving him, in that sense, and he may not gain in any way you can quantify. But, of course, it’s good for kids to have varied experiences at appropriate ages. Surely that is not restricted to what he learns in the tight circle around his mother! It may have been, till a certain age, but it can’t remain that way.
Looking at the way you’ve worded your question, I would urge you to examine within yourself why you’re so very hesitant to send him away to camp. Is it anxiety about his safety? In that case, you should be assured that most of these camps are safe, with caring adults constantly watching over your kids, especially young ones. Choose one carefully, do your homework. Find parents who have sent their kids before and double-check that arrangements were okay when their kids went. Talk to the organizers, get a feel of what kind of people they are. Once you’re comfortable with what you see and hear, you’ll find it easier to consider sending him.
Since your child seems to be prepared to explore, I would advise you to let him go. He could go just for a day-camp initially and then one that involves spending the night away from you.
Or, are you experiencing a deep sense of unease about your son being out of sight and out of your ambit, doing his own thing without you? It looks like you, more than him, need to get used to the idea of being away from him for a few hours. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re aware that you need to let go!
Why don’t you also do dry-runs, which could start with, if possible, sending him for a few hours to a friend’s place, or to sleep overnight at a friend’s or a relative’s? This way, both of you will have a sense of what it feels like, and yet it will not be as big a step as going off to a camp. For starters, you could also just have him go off somewhere for a few hours at a stretch (including a meal-time) with his father, without you micro-managing or remote-controlling this outing.
Your anxiety and unwillingness are understandable: It’s something all mothers of young children experience. But let this be a “practice” time for you as well as your son, to prepare for a healthy, untroubled approach to the process of his forming a sense of self, quite separate and distinct from his mother. Equally important, he (and you) must slowly get used to the idea that there is a whole world to be discovered out there, and it can’t be done only via mummy. This is a crucial aspect of growing up—for both mother and child.
Send your questions to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org