Two Critical Periods for Boys

A father holds awesome power in the lives of his children, for good or ill. Families have understood that fact for centuries. It has been said, "No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a boy." Another wise observer said, "Tie a boy to the right man and he almost never goes wrong." They are both right. When asked who their heroes are, the majority of boys who are fortunate enough to have a father will say, "It's my dad." On the other hand, when a father is uninvolved—when he doesn't love or care for his kids—it creates an ache, a longing, that will linger for decades. Again, without minimizing how much girls need their fathers, which we also acknowledge, boys are constructed emotionally to be dependent on dads in ways that were not understood until recently.

We now know that there are two critical periods during childhood when boys are particularly vulnerable. The most obvious occurs at the onset of puberty, when members of both sexes experience an emotional and hormonal upheaval. Boys and girls at that time desperately need their father's supervision, guidance, and love. Divorce at that time, more than at others, is typically devastating to boys. But according to Dr. Carol Gilligan, professor at Harvard University, there is another critical period earlier in life—one not shared by girls. Very young boys bask in their mother's femininity and womanliness during infancy and toddlerhood. Fathers are important then, but mothers are primary. At about three to five years of age, however, a lad gradually pulls away from his mom and sisters in an effort to formulate a masculine identity. It is a process known as "disconnection and differentiation," when, as Don Elium writes, "the inner urge of the male plan of development nudges him out of the nest of the mother over a precarious bridge to the world of the father." It is typical for boys during those years, and even earlier, to crave the attention and involvement of their dad and to try to emulate his behavior and mannerisms.

I remember my son clearly identifying with my masculinity when he was in that period between kindergarten and first grade. For example, as our family prepared to leave in the car, Ryan would say, "Hey, Dad. Us guys will get in the front seat and the girls will sit in the back." He wanted it known that he was a "guy" just like me. I was keenly aware that he was patterning his behavior and masculinity after mine. That's the way the system is supposed to work.

But here's the rub: When fathers are absent at that time, or if they are inaccessible, distant, or abusive, their boys have only a vague notion of what it means to be male. Whereas girls have a readily available model after which to pattern feminine behavior and attitudes (except when they are raised by single fathers), boys living with single mothers are left to formulate their masculine identity out of thin air. This is why early divorce is also devastating for boys. Writer Angela Phillips believes, and I agree, that the high incidence of homosexuality occurring in Western nations is related, at least in part, to the absence of positive male influence when boys are moving through the first crisis of child development. One of the primary objectives of parents is to help boys identify their gender assignments and understand what it means to be a man. We must return to that point when I talk in a later chapter about the antecedents of homosexuality.

I was blessed to have a wonderful father who was accessible to me from the earliest years of childhood. I'm told that when I was two years of age, my family lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and my little bed was located beside that of my parents. My father said later that it was very common during that time for him to awaken at night to a little voice that was whispering, "Daddy? Daddy?" My father would answer quietly, "What, Jimmy?" And I would say, "Hold my hand!" Dad would reach across the darkness and grope for my little hand, finally just engulfing it in his own. He said the instant he had my hand firmly in his grip, my arm would become limp and my breathing deep and regular. I'd immediately gone back to sleep. You see, I only wanted to know that he was there!

I have a catalog of warm memories of my dad from the preschool years. One day when I was nearly three, I was at home with my mother and heard a knock on the front door.

"Go see who it is," she said with a little smile on her face.

I opened the door and there stood my dad. He took my hand and said, "Come with me. I want to show you something." He led me to the side of the house, where he had hidden a big blue tricycle. It was one of the wonderful moments of my life. On another day during that same year, I recall trotting beside my big dad (he was six foot four) and feeling very proud to be with him. I even recall how huge his hand felt as it held mine.

I also remember the delightful times I roughhoused with my father. Many moms fail to understand why that kind of foolishness is important, but it is. Just as wolf cubs and leopard kittens romp and fight with each other, boys of all ages love to rumble. When I was five years old, my dad and I used to horrify my mother by having all-out kick fights. That's right! Kick fights! He weighed 180 pounds and I tipped the scales at about 50, but we went at each other like sumo wrestlers. He would entice me to kick his shins and then, inevitably, he would block my thrust with the bottom of his foot. That made me go after him again with a vengeance. Then dad would tap me on the shin with his toe. Believe it or not, this was wonderful fun for me. We would end up laughing hysterically, despite the bumps and bruises on my legs. My mother would demand that we stop, having no clue about why I loved this game. It was just a guy thing.

Child-protection officers today would throw the book at a man who had kick fights with his kids. Some might say that this "violence" at home could lead to criminal behavior. Likewise, many have concluded that corporal punishment, even when administered in a loving environment, teaches kids to hurt others. They are wrong. It isn't roughhousing or measured discipline that predisposes boys to misbehavior. It is often the absence of a father who can teach them how to be men and correct them authoritatively when they are wrong.

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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