As boys approach the teen years, their relationship with their dads can become contentious and bogged down in power struggles and provocations. Young men start to feel their oats, and they want to sit at the table eye-to-eye with their fathers. If dads have a hard time turning over control, it can turn into a pissing contest with no winners.
I had the pleasure of spending 4 days in Quebec City, Canada recently with 25 father-son pairs, with the boys being middle school age. My wife and I facilitated a retreat that included some education along with some high level fun. The following is some of the advice I gave to the dads about parenting preteen and teenage boys.
1. Give them power: Boys at this age want to feel powerful, capable, and independent. I would look for ways to give them more control, say-so, decision-making, and autonomy. Boys who feel empowered have far less need to engage dads in power struggles.
2. Relaxed time: Many boys complain to me that it seems like during most of their time together their dad is on them; critiquing, coaching, criticizing, and just being on them about grades, messy rooms, not doing chores etc. Teen boys can translate this to mean that they are never good enough, and this negative label can stay with them for a lifetime.
3. Don’t punish mistakes: When a boy makes a mistake, they need to take responsibility for it and learn from it. Just being punitive distracts boys from these valuable lessons. And dads should be encouraging their sons to stretch themselves and take risks, and to understand that mistakes are both inherent with risk-taking and offer tremendous opportunities to learn from. And the rewards are abundant. That is how to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit.
4. Need for adventures: All young men yearn for adventures; it’s often how they learn best. They need chances to initiate, create, build, and have ownership of the results. It was so much easier in our generation to have the freedom to be out and about all day, on our own and making things happen. We learned leadership skills, independence, problem-solving, and street smarts. The need for unsupervised down time has never been higher, and dads are good at providing this kind of experience.
5. Overcome obstacles: When boys are frustrated and challenged, it is crucial for them to have the space to overcome these challenges, push past fears of failure, and handle any adversity that comes their way. This is how they will gain confidence, self-efficacy, resilience, and the ability to cope with the normal ups and downs of life. Dads have to overcome their natural tendency to want to fix things, and instead let their boys work through problems on their own.
6. Be present: When you are going to spend time with your sons, be fully present. Put away your phones and anything else that distracts you from being 100% in the moment and focused on your son. You want him to feel loved and important, and your undivided attention is one of the best ways to convey this.
7. Share your stories: At the end of our 4 day retreat, we asked the boys to each share what the weekend with their dads meant to them. The most common comment was how much they appreciated learning more about their father’s past, and especially what he was like at their age. Boys look at their dads and see the “finished product”; he’s married, has a job and making money, and seems to have it all together. They, on the other hand, have squeaky voices, acne, a boatload of self-doubt and insecurities, and live in a perpetual state of feeling awkward. Hearing that their dads experienced many of the same feelings and challenges gives them hope, and it also lets them know that maybe, just maybe, their dads can relate to them and understand what they are going through. Thus the doors of communication open a bit, and it creates the space for important sharing and the ability for fathers to have an influence.