This article originally appeared 6/14/2012
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life looking for the approval of a man who’s been dead for almost two decades. This longing has, at times, led me to replace relationship for career, love with advancement, and attach my self worth and manhood firmly to paychecks and job titles. That hunger has impacted my friendships and my confidence while seeing to it that I spend long hours in therapy.
This confession shouldn’t result in a judgment against the man – my father – as someone inherently cruel or overtly insensitive. No person can give what he or she has never received. I know my dad recognized many of his own father’s shortcomings and made valiant attempts to ‘do things different’. Like many parents he desired more for his children than he was given. And I believe this included bestowing the acceptance and recognition only a father can provide.
But as humans we come with limitations. Often these barriers are self-erected while other times they are placed by providence. And looking back over my youth, no matter how much he may have wished otherwise, those inadequacies were felt. He often told me how proud he was, that I did a good job, and that he loved me. But it was usually only during those times when I actually did a good job he could easily be proud of. If that’s the only time it’s ever offered it will soon begin to feel like the results are getting the credit instead of the one who needs it. I believe it’s because of this, even at 42 years old, I still place far too much weight on accomplishment and material success – the tangible evidence that I’m accepted.
Something else I’ve realized is this – I’m not alone. Men of every age and walk of life contend with this or very similar wounds – often more severe – inflicted by their father or some other man of significant influence from their childhood. Yet the most unfortunate aspect is how these men rarely ever deal with the damage and soon find themselves passing those same wounds onto the next generation.
I’m convinced the way a father parents should dramatically change the moment his children are the age where his mistakes won’t be easily forgotten and undone with a toy and ice cream. His entire outlook on parenting should shift when he can picture himself – when he was their age – and still feel the pain caused by a father’s actions. If the man fails to do this he is destined to inflict these same wounds he so desperately wants to heal from whether he knows it or not.
I can still recall as vividly as yesterday certain phrases, a handful of words actually, my father said to me that have haunted my spirit for over thirty years and caused me to question above all else my confidence and ability to measure up. And in every case the implications of his words were unintended and done in an air of love and protection. He honestly thought he was doing and saying the right things but was actually breaking me down. And there isn’t a man I know who, when pressed, can’t recount his own moments where the person he saw with wonder and awe brought his world crashing down around him – with a mere expression. In that moment the child, nor the father, could have ever grasped how damaging remarks like “I don’t think you’re good enough yet”, “No you stay home with your mom and sister.”, “You’re not old enough”, “Why can’t you act more like your brother?” would ultimately be on his son in years to follow.
The approval a son receives from his mother is almost guaranteed while that of his father must usually be earned. And the boy desperately wants it. Should there by any surprise that a boy will ultimately try to leave the shade of his mother for the shadow of his father? And if no male is there he will find what he believes is a suitable replacement even though that choice may produce the worst possible outcomes. There comes a time when the boy is inexplicably drawn towards the company of other men – because he wants their approval.
Much like my father I find it hard to give what I never completely received. Yet through my own story, I have become keenly aware of the power my approval and acceptance will have on my children’s futures. My childhood has also made me conscious that my approval should never be solely tied to a game won, grade made, or chore completed. In my mind, if I’m showing appreciation and acceptance for my children only when they do something worthy – I’m better off showing nothing at all.
If I hope to instill in them feelings of confidence that their father’s approves of them no matter, I must become conscious of the small ordinary moments in their lives and not just the big game or dance recital. Those times when, if parents aren’t looking, pass by without a second glance. In other words, I must show them I accept and approve of them for who they are – that eight-year-old boy who fights dragons, jumps on the furniture, and can’t seem to stop annoying his sister and the ten-year-old daughter who is addicted to tween-aged fantasies, daydreaming, and creating a train wreck in her room – and not just when they score the winning basket or get straight A’s.
Some of my greatest life lessons have come as a consequence of my most significant life challenges. I don’t condemn or hold my father responsible for what he couldn’t give me, in fact, I appreciate what he did – because he showed me the importance of a father’s approval.