The Father/Son Relationship

Parents of adult children often remark on how, when their kids were little, they wanted to be just like mom and dad, and when they were teens, they wanted to be nothing like them. The finale comes during the adult years when no matter what they might have wanted, kids become exactly like their parents.

Predictable Stages

This chain of behavior may be even more pointed when one observes the father/son relationship. Sons undergo a process of evolution that takes them in predictable stages from childhood to the senior years, giving us a reflection of how they see and relate to their dads. The late psychologist Charles Williams coined an acronym for the evolution of the father/son relationship: IDEAL (idolization, discordance, evolution, acceptance, and legacy).

When still small, sons idolize their fathers, believing they are capable of most anything. Little boys will imitate their fathers through their dress, speech and physical mannerisms. Above all, a small son wishes to gain his father’s acceptance and approval.

As a teen, a son experiences discord in his relationship with his father. The teenager will reject his dad’s values, expectations, and goals and adopt philosophies which will be at odds with his father’s ideas. The son will resent and maybe fear his father. This period carries into a son’s early twenties.

Emotional Distance

As a young adult, the relationship between father and son enters a period of evolution. There may still be emotional distance or the two may ignore each other. There is an attempt to be different than the father but it begins to look like a competition, rather than a conflict. As Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

By their 30’s and 40’s sons have begun to accept and forgive their fathers. They see a father’s strengths and will now admire the very qualities they so disparaged during the teenaged years. Fathers and sons can now accept their differences. They may become friends, share interests, and trade opinions in a respectful manner.

As men in their 50’s, adult sons become a sort of legacy for their father’s influences. A son now understands that being a father is a difficult job. Sons who have failed to resolve their emotional issues with their fathers may well replay them with their own sons.

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