I worked with teenagers for 15 years of my adult life, and have seen first-hand how pivotal dads are in teenagers’ lives. Here are the second four of 8 things every teenage son needs their dad to say (You can read about the first four here):
5. “Son, here’s some dudes I’d encourage you to lean into.”
Steve Biddulph starts his book, ‘Raising Boys’ with this useful insight:
Boys, ages 0-6 tend to most identify with their moms.
Older boys, ages 6-12 tend to most identify with their dads.
Teens, ages 13 plus tend to most identify with older dudes outside their father.
So it makes sense for us dads to especially exploit years 6-12. You can do no wrong. Your son will idolise you. Spend tons of time with them. They are putty in your hands.
But especially in the tween years, we also need to recruit some suitable men – our brothers, our friends, our fathers – to be that team of men in our son’s life. We could enlist them like this:
‘I want to ask you the biggest favour. As you might know, teen boys look beyond their dads for role models. I’d love for you to be one of my son’s. Would you invest in your friendship with him? Ask him questions about his life. Introduce him to cool stuff. Do stuff with him. I want you to be part of that crew of men who are his older friends and role models, introducing him positively into the world of men.’
6. “Son, real men give more than they take.”
Teens are afflicted by several soul-destroying stereotypes of masculinity. And it’s the job of the dad to say outright what a real man is and isn’t.
Stereotype 1: The stud, who has unusual charisma and attractiveness to girls, whom he ‘works’ his way through. They mean nothing to him. They bow to his desires.
“Son, real men don’t use girls. They care for them. Any street dog can shag his way through life, but it takes a real dude to satisfy and be satisfied by one woman for life. That’s the problem with porn. Sure us dudes are wired to love the sight of a naked girl. But regular porn use conditions our minds to objectify them, not care for them. Porn addiction hardly sets us up for success and satisfaction in marriage one day.’
Stereotype 2: The bully, who makes others feel small with either his show of strength, or the popularity he can leverage against them, or his quick-mouth.
‘Son, the real man doesn’t walk over other men. He stands shoulder to shoulder with men, and rises up with them, sometimes carrying them, and sometimes being carried by them. Real men don’t exploit the weakness of others. Rather they stand in to protect the bullied.’
Stereotype 3: The show off, who confuses bravado and the applause of other impressed dudes with masculinity.
‘Son, the real man is a man of courage. Not the courage of bravado. Rather, the courage to do the right thing, even when it costs you.’
In all of these, the pseudo-man takes.
The real man? Gives. Cares for women. Lifts up his brothers. Protects those who are easy-targets for bullies. Stands for what’s right.
Of course, us dads need to do more than tell our sons what a real man is. We need to show our sons. More is caught by our example than can be taught with our words. Our sons watch how we treat their mom, how we speak of those not in the room.
7. “Son, that’s not acceptable!”
There are two parts of the brain which shape human behaviour. Picture them as an accelerator and a brake.
The accelerator is that part of the brain that exploits opportunities, pursues excitement and takes risk.
The brake (the prefrontal cortex) is responsible for regulating emotions, making complex decisions and understanding consequences.
When a boy reaches puberty, the accelerator pedal suddenly gets big. But the brake’s growth seriously delays – in fact it only is complete by the time a male is 24.
My personal advice to teenage dudes is to pursue excitement in healthy ways – which means any way other than violence, loose sex, porn, drugs and alcohol. Get your brain’s dopamine rush in sports or some hobby.
Dads, with your son’s brain wiring him to want to take risks and go way too fast, it’s so important you sometimes act as the brake and confidently, lovingly, say the words, ‘That’s not acceptable!’
‘No, you may not talk to your mom, my wife, like that!
‘No, you can’t go to that party. You get as much freedom as you can handle, and last term you showed us you aren’t ready for that kind of freedom.’
Teenage sons need boundaries. They need consequences. They need an external set of brakes!
Sons also need pep-talks where you tell them to work on their behaviour and attitudes. Here’s my advice for such a conversation:
Give him advance notice of what you want to speak about. This will catch him less off-guard, and will help him pre-process thoughts he might have on the topic.
Think dialogue. Ditch the lecture. Have a short list of important points, and allow him to respond to each of those points in the form of a two-way convo.
Control your emotions. Emotionally venting your frustration or anger or hurt, with screaming or verbal put-downs will not produce the results you want.
Move while you talk. Staring down your kid while you speak to him is going to super-intensify the whole situation. Better to go for a walk together while you talk. For us dudes, shoulder-to-shoulder conversations tend to work better than face-to-face.
Give it time to soak in. It might take a day or a week for what you said to sink in. Some time later, ask him how he has been processing it. This second talk may be even more useful to him than the first.
8. “Son, I love you and I’m there for you.”
I saved the most important one for last.
In the final analysis, your son doesn’t need a perfect father, he needs a loving, available one.
I once heard of a tribe of native Americans who had a unique practice for training young braves. On the night of a boy’s 13th birthday, the men placed him deep in a dense forest to spend the entire night.
Until then he had never been away from the security of his family and tribe.
Each time a twig snapped, he’d visualise a wild animal ready to pounce. Every time an animal howled, he imagined a wolf leaping out of the darkness. When the wind blew, he wondered what more sinister sound it masked.
After what would seem like an eternity of terror, the first rays of sunlight would enter the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path.
Then, to his utter astonishment, he would behold the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow, bow drawn ready to shoot anything that endangered him.
Who was this archer? It was the boy’s father. He had been there all night long.
Teen boys may face the at-times-gruelling challenge of individuation and growing up. But they need never feel like they are all alone.
A teenage son should be able to hear his father’s recent words in his mind: ‘Fear not, my dad loves me and is there for me if I need him – his arrow is drawn.’
(Republished with the kind permission of Terran Williams)