The Importance of Father-Son Proximity and Initiation into the Masculine Culture

Friday after Thanksgiving was a lazy, windy, cold and gray day in Washington, D.C.  I nearly forgot I had scheduled to meet a friend because he had expressed an interest in getting involved in men’s health issues. I got to our meeting place early, grabbed a hot chocolate to warm up, and a Wall Street Journal.

Below the fold on the front page of the Journal was a story, “Dad, What Do You Do at Work? I’m a Leader in Active Safety”.  “Must be a slow news day,” I thought.  The article has a couple of lines that gave me a wry smile.  The author, James Hagerty, lists one company’s description of itself as “‘the global leader in active and passive safety’—or what the rest of us might call brakes and safety belts.”  The article basically analyzes the vague semantics used to describe what corporations do.  “Slow news day,” I thought again and moved on to North Korea.

My friend arrived and we talked for a while about men’s health and he was clearly passionate.  Towards the end of our conversation he recommended a book he was reading, Iron John by Robert Bly.

I started reading the book when I got home.  What I read connected me back to the “Dad, What Do You Do at Work?” article.  A portion of the book discusses how our fathers are absent.  Yes, we have many social programs and research about fathers who are physically absent from the home and that is a problem.  However, the book addresses the problem of fathers who work hard all day in a remote location from their son’s.  The company the father works for may have a vague description of what it does as the Journal article describes.  The vagueness of what he does every day may lead the father to be deadened inside and rarely share with his son what he does all day.  Iron John, logically I think, concludes that if the father cannot or does not explain to his son what he is doing all day, the son thinks what the father is doing all day is nothing (and maybe it is).  If the father hates what he does all day, the son will look at the father in a negative light and distance himself from the father to try to “fly above” his father so as not to end up like him.

On a simple level, this can lead to a broken relationship between father and son.  But there is a larger problem.  The real problem is that not only is the father not showing the son a trade, a skill, a useful way to provide, he is not showing him how to be masculine.  He is not around (either physically or emotionally) to show how to love a woman by loving his wife or his daughter, how to do things with his hands, how to dress and groom properly, how to take care of a man’s mind and body, etc.  It is likely that fathers were not taught these skills themselves.  This is not meant to be Freudian psychobabble. I am trying to impart, as Robert Bly does, that a tradition is missing.  Our sons are not initiated into masculinity because most likely their fathers were not initiated, and there are no elderly living at home to carry on any traditions.

Obviously these are large generalizations and not true of every father, son, or culture in the United States, but it rang true to me.  I am 30 years old and I could not tell you what my father does for a living.  I know he works for a corporate conglomerate, travels a lot domestically, and manages some sort of data transfer when the FDIC closes down banks.  That’s it.  Hardly a trade to be passed down and hardly anything that will allow me to to put food on the table.

I know what my father’s father did.  He worked with his hands working with metals.  My Dad could go see what his father made each day and my grandfather could teach him how it was done.  Did that happen? I don’t think so.  I know what my mother’s father did.  He had a company that enameled office cabinets and later a printing company.  He bailed out his employees in the middle of the night if they got in trouble.  He ran a small business and took care of people.  My grandfather had Alzheimer’s and was unable to pass this tradition to me.  My mother told me the stories vaguely but a mother isn’t able to transfer masculine values.

Now, my parents sent me to arguably one of the best high schools in the country and a prestigious private university.  I was supposed to learn my trade and skills in those places to provide for myself and a family.  That still does not solve the problem that Robert Bly describes as young men’s distrust of older men in our culture.  We distrust them because we don’t know what they are doing.  And they are not telling us, possibly because they do not know, or possibly because they do not care about what they are doing enough to share.  So as far as being initiated into manhood, the Prep schools and Universities are poor learning grounds.

Just over a century ago, a father and son would spend many hours side-by-side working in an agrarian environment.  The father would work, the son would be expected to learn and mimic.  I could imagine they would have a lot of time to talk and the son could ask his father many questions.  Years before that, in Native American and other cultures son and father hunted for long periods of time side-by-side.  The boy would watch and then mimic his father’s skills, athleticism, and masculinity.  This is very different from the, at best, quick goodbye in the morning and exhausted father in the evening that we have in our culture.

What am I saying?  I am not entirely sure except that I am interested in this change in father-son proximity since industrialization and the lack of initiation into masculinity.  I believe it is a huge problem that is cyclical and proliferating with each generation.  I don’t know what the solutions are, but it is a problem I want to explore in depth.


  1. RickNovember 28, 2010


    This caught my interest and I found your insights thought provoking. My father farmed and drove a truck. As a farm-kid, much of this was done together. Plus, with my mother feeling overwrought with the four of us, I was sent to ride along with my Dad on many cross country trips. In my case, I learned what I didn’t want to do in my life and went to medical school. However, I did learn to do many of the tasks that I experienced, and confidence in taking care of most things in my life came more easily. This allowed me to go through my educational journey with a sense of calm, knowing that I was on my way to something different, but always aware of my origins. It all coalesced to give me a toolkit for a successful career. The use of those tools is optional of course, and not all of the tools are equally effective. But you get to learn as you go, both the good and bad contributing to the values and beliefs that combine to help form an inner core. I can’t comment on how this affected my masculinity, but I’ve never felt that my relatively absent father changed much in my case.

    The more interesting question might be the affect on the young men who are raised by a single mother. How does this change their outcomes? How many become good fathers, however we define that. What level of education, career achievements, criminal activity, relationship problems and other symptoms of a fatherless upbringing are evident in their male offspring? Cutting to the chase; on a sociological basis, do fatherless families create more cultural chaos in their male offspring than families with a dad?

    I’m looking forward to your continuing efforts into these issues.
    My Thanks, Rick

  2. WillNovember 29, 2010


    Thanks for your great article. It seems that the Men’s Health Network has taken an broader interest in the mental and, dare I say, spiritual, aspects of a man’s life. I find it refreshing that an organization is taking a holistic stance looking at a mans’ physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

    Regarding your article, male initation into our society and the corresponding father-son bond-bonding is something that is unfortunately overlooked in our very fast paced lives. We see fathers who are in the home with good intentions to make a honest living so that their families are able to have their physical necessities and wants fulfilled. However, what you touched on is the void left by the mental and spiritual gap left by ‘absently present’ fathers. I think the issue of single mothers is touched upon more than the absently present fathers but is of equal importance.

    As a physical therapist as well as a sports coach, I appreciate the fact that our young men have the opportunities to be initiated into socieity through sports and the cycle of winning/losing, hurting/healing, learning/applying that accompanies it. What I think many people dont realize is that when you affect someones body, you indirectly affect their mind and spirit.

    Please continue your posts on this and the other issues that are pertinent to mens’ physical, mental and spiritual health.


  3. MichaelJanuary 31, 2011

    There are both good and bad aspects of missing one parent, I functionally had no father so closly attended to other men. When I was about five I remember wathcing a guy adjusting the valves of his 1934 chevy, I clearly recall asking him about it and his giving me comprehensable answers. I recall Watching Ironeyes Cody, the indian that was on TV with a tear– working on his costumes and my Uncle working on radios. These and many other insightfull experiences gave me a menue of what men did. Perhaps the significant factor was that there were oppertunities to watch these guys that arn’t available any more! There just are NO male models for a boy to relate to! My dad could have been an accountant and I imprinted on that as what a man does–if he’d been there or as now when there are none!

  4. MichaelJanuary 31, 2011

    This goes both ways also– I was as I still am a car nut and build racing cars. In the 50’s through the 70’s the neighborhood kids were always there to”help”, they were interested in such things like wrenching on a car. Now, I have a full up shop and am still building cars but NO ONE is interested. The average age of video game players is 33! there they play at racing if they’re interested in cars at all.

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