Im gonna be like you, dad. You know I’m gonna be like you.”
I doubt if there are many parents who can listen to Harry Chapin sing “Cat’s in the Cradle” without a shiver of emotion. Whether present or absent, loving or rejecting, fathers have a tremendous influence on what their sons grow up to do and be.
Consciously or unconsciously, a son learns from his dad about work, money, family, relationships with women, and with other men, as well as how to make his way in the world. For good or ill, he will bear the effects of this experience for the rest of his life.
There is good news for fathers who fear they were less than perfect as a teacher or role model when their sons were children: Paternal influence is a lifelong force. “Fathering doesn’t end when a son is 21, or 41, or even 61,” says Neil Chethik, an author and speaker specializing in men’s issues, in “Fathers, Sons, and Loss: What We Can Learn” (UU World, Jan./Feb. 2001). “Throughout our lives, right up until the time of our deaths, we fathers can deepen our relationships with our sons, even when a positive father-son connection failed to form during the son’s childhood.”
Good fathers provide love and affection, acceptance and respect, and kind and firm limit-setting, so their sons learn the boundaries of acceptable social behavior. They support their sons’ unique gifts, values, and personalities, giving up their desire to be validated by having them follow in their own footsteps. This kind of relationship helps a son develop his own healthy autonomy and self-respect, so he’s not dependent on his dad’s stamp of approval to know that his own life choices have merit.
In this process, both father and son must care for and communicate openly with each other. This helps them learn from each other, in the best possible sense of the word, as men who share mutual respect.
“Just Like You, Dad”
Outside of his clinical setting, a surgeon I know appears very imposing, cool, and remote. But with a patient, he miraculously transforms into the most sensitive guy you can imagine. I was amazed to learn that three of his children had also become physicians or surgeons and had joined his practice. The father smiled happily when I commented on this, and his nurse whispered to me, “He never pushed this on any of them. It’s astonishing!”
In families where a father clearly loves his work and is good at it, it’s actually not that surprising if his sons (and these days, daughters too) want to follow his example. Unfortunately, a father’s bad habits are just as likely to imprint on the younger generation. For example, sons whose fathers are slaves to work may grow up to be workaholics themselves.
Ted Klontz, a life skills coach in Nashville who leads workshops to change people’s relationships with money, told me that he was raised on a farm by a father and grandfather who felt that anyone who didn’t toil day in and day out was lazy. He grew up believing that if he worked hard enough, the money would take care of itself. As a result, he didn’t save much and did no financial planning. In fact, he became what I call a “money monk,” believing it was grasping and miserly to think about money.
Vowing not to be like his father, Ted’s son Brad paid off his student loans as quickly as possible, saved like a demon, and invested as much as he could in the stock market. After years of building a career as a clinical psychologist with a number of diverse specialties, Brad realized that he had become like his dad, after all. Like Ted, he was working 80 hours a week.
By communicating honestly and vulnerably, and “walking their talk” as they teach others how to have a healthier relationship with money, Brad and Ted have been able to bring about powerful changes in themselves. Ted now pays attention to his finances and has developed a more balanced life. Brad is cutting down his work schedule to spend more time with his fianc?(C)e and other loved ones. They’re an inspiring duo: a self-aware father and son who are working to correct imbalances in their lives by practicing the non-habitual and communicating positively with each other.
Fathers and Sons
Fathers’ expectations of their sons can lead to instances where the son feels not-good-enough, no matter how successful he is. A West Coast financial planner told me that he had just earned CFP certification when his father inherited a million dollars. Instead of trusting him with this money, his father invested it with two brokers. Not only did the two charge exorbitant fees, but they mismanaged the funds so badly that the $1 million eroded to $350,000. After the young planner got over his hurt feelings, he kept trying to advise his father on how to invest more sensibly. To this day, he told me, his dad refuses to give him any respect or credit for his professional expertise, and persists in trusting the questionable competence of the two brokers. In this case, it’s starkly evident that the dad’s distrust hurt him as well as his offspring.
When you encounter a situation where a father is reluctant to trust and respect his son, anecdotes like these may be useful in educating your client. In some instances, you may be able to intervene with specific advice.
For example, Rich Colman, a principal in the Colman Knight Advisory Group in Carlisle, Massachusetts, told me about a business-owning client who was convinced that his newly graduated son would never succeed in the company. The son, a “social worker-type” in his dad’s eyes, hoped to travel in Europe for a while before going to work for a multinational corporation like GE.
Colman suggested that since the client’s company imported items from Taiwan, he could send his son to work in that end of the business. The job would allow the young man to travel, while saving the company $250,000 a year. The son was game to try it, and his dad hesitantly agreed. The upshot was that during the three years the client’s son spent in Taiwan, he became fluent in Mandarin Chinese and developed skills that complemented his father’s. The company’s sales tripled, profits zoomed, and now the father and son are business partners. The happy father describes his son as “different from me, but just as effective.”