Why teaching your toddler to ‘be a man’ is so confusing

Aussie dad Ben Pobjie found tapping into his experiences as a son helped guide him as a new father.

dad and son on the beach

The title of the Australian film The Sum of Us refers to the idea that our children are made up of all the parts that we pass down to them — we are responsible for who they become.

Thinking about parenting this way is daunting, but once your first child is on the way, it’s impossible to not become consumed by thoughts of just what you’re going to pass on to the next generation.

If our children are the sum of us, just what will your contribution to that sum be?

Some of this you feel on solid ground handling. It’s important, for example, to stress the importance of kindness — when we teach our children to share, to be polite, to treat other children the way they want to be treated.

With all my children I’ve tried to put the greatest stress on kindness above all character traits, and I firmly believe that focusing on this from an early age is the right way to go.

It’s simple enough to speak of kindness, courage, happiness — the broad strokes that everyone can agree are what a person should be — but not everything is so obvious or so simple.

So many things go into making a human being, and each one is something else to fret about when it comes to instilling the right values in a child.

I think this ate away at me all the more keenly for the fact my first child was a son. Whether it was based in any kind of reality or not, when I knew I would be father to a son, I felt an almost-suffocating pressure as I contemplated the responsibility of having to teach the boy “how to be a man”.

How could I possibly do that when I didn’t really know how to be a man myself? It was the universal parental anxiety (how can I take charge of a whole new life when I haven’t yet figured out how to live my own?) refracted through the prism of my own worries about masculinity, and what it means.

Moreover, throughout humanity you’ll find wide disagreement on what’s most important in fathering, and the approach a dad should take.

That disagreement is fine, it’s OK that not everyone has exactly the same approach. What’s tricky is picking your own way through the various theories and finding your own path as a father.

It’s important for a man to be an individual as a dad, but equally important to take on board all the influences and resources available to him, and find the way that works for him and his kids.

Should I teach my son to be stoic and resilient, the classic macho Aussie bloke? Should I teach him to be sensitive and intellectual? Should I teach him it’s okay to cry when you feel like it, or that it’s better to fight that feeling?

Should I teach him to be like me, to emulate what I like about myself, or should I try to mould a totally different person, to avoid the flaws I see all too clearly in myself?

And in the end, how much control do I have over what I teach him anyway? What are the unintended consequences that could flow from any attempt to steer him in a particular direction?

To some extent this pressure is eased once the baby comes along and these philosophical concerns get pushed into the background by the practical realities of day-to-day parenting. Feeding, changing, trying to grab a few hours’ sleep … these things are the priorities.

But sooner or later a father has to ponder the nature of fatherhood: how will I father, and what impact will my fathering have on the person growing before my eyes?

What is easy to forget, when considering the question of how to be a good father, is that every father is also a son — and we never stop being sons. Our children are the sum of us, and we are the sum of our children.

When it came to the kind of father I would be, it was inevitable that this would be shaped by the kind of father I had.

The fact is I have always hoped — with varying degrees of confidence — to be as good a father as mine was. At the same time, I didn’t want to be exactly like my father — like most people, I wanted to forge my own path in everything, including fatherhood.

But you can’t escape your childhood: the lessons we learn at the beginning of our lives stay with us always, one way or another. When we become fathers, the only example we have to follow is that of our own fathers, and whether it’s emulating that example, or reacting against it, our fathering will end up heavily influenced by our experience as sons.

Until I became a dad, I’m not sure I fully appreciated just how great a dad mine was. He was a quiet dad, undemonstrative — he wasn’t the kind to sit you down and give you long lectures on life — and at the time I didn’t feel like I was learning much from him.

But now I know that from him, I learned everything. I learnt the value of knowledge and of words, and were it not for my dad I wouldn’t be a writer.

I learnt that you could be a man without buying into the stereotypes of manhood that the world pushes upon us — he was a man from the Australian outback who loved football and cricket without ever belonging to the blokey culture that is so often wrongly seen as epitomising Aussie men.

Perhaps most of all, I learnt the nobility of committing to your family, of the willingness to work and sacrifice for the sake of the people you love. When I became a father and learned how hard it is, I realised how great a man my father is.

But I’m not trying to copy him with my own kids. I’m more demonstrative, more open with my affection than he was. I’m more anxious to make sure I’m teaching my kids what they need to know.

Maybe my own dad was just as anxious as I am. Maybe he was just as full of fear and doubt that he was doing it wrong, the panicky sense that his every move might be leaving permanent scars on the little creatures whose lives were in his hands.

It’s a parent’s job to try to mask that panic and not let the children know just how scary it is to have them. When I look back at my childhood, I remember that my dad always seemed so certain of everything, so smart and in control.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I think, if my children had the security that comes from believing your father knows what he’s doing? Do my children have that? I don’t know. Probably my dad didn’t know either.

I don’t think you can ever really know. A dad does the best he can. When we become dads we do so with no qualifications, only the knowledge of who our own dads were. We take what we can from that, and either try to live up to the standard our fathers set, or avoid the mistakes they made.

But one way or another, we’re never truly going to leave our dads behind. When you become a father, you never stop being a son, and perhaps the greatest course you can take with your kids is to keep your experience of being a son in mind, and let it guide you.

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