Missing the Boat of Fathers and the Children Who Need Them

April 13, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This is a well-meant, heartfelt article about some of the problems facing boys and the men they become (Medium, 4/5/18). But author Benjamin Sledge’s own assumptions about men and masculinity undermine his message. Far worse, he never imagines what the sources of the problem he discusses might be.

His title is “Today’s Problem With Masculinity Isn’t What You Think: Welcome to a generation of emotionally vacant men without role models or fathers.” You might think from that headline that Sledge would have a good word to say about fathers. Amazingly, he doesn’t. He begins by describing parents visiting sons at college.

The photos with the moms always turned out great. There we are, hugging mom or kissing her face. Everyone’s laughing and appears to be having the time of their life.

The fathers?

The group photos always seemed cold. There were some hugs, but those weird side hugs that Christians seem so fond of giving one another (keep some room for the Holy Spirit, yeah?). Everyone looks like a stoic philosopher; the smiles seem somewhat forced.

Assuming Sledge isn’t simply seeing what fits his preconceived narrative, let’s assume he’s right. Why does he believe the photos are so different? Why are the relationships between fathers and sons so different from those between mothers and sons? He neither asks nor hazards an answer.

Elsewhere, Sledge offers this:

Dad shows him porn, so he shows it to his friends who learn early on to objectify women. Dad talks about sports all the time and can tell you where every player on the Patriots played JV football, so his alpha son gets his friends into sports. His dad talks about women with overtones of misogyny, so he and his friends talk that way too. He reminds his son real men don’t cry. Real men act tough all the time. Real men get angry when insulted.

In Sledge’s world, that’s what fathers do. Meanwhile the title of his piece wants us to believe that the lack of a father is a bad thing. But Sledge’s descriptions of fathers – cold, uncaring and spiritually, morally and intellectually limited to the vanishing point – encourage precisely no one to believe that an absent dad is anything but a blessing.

Men who aren’t fathers come off no better. Sledge seems to believe that there’s an epidemic of addiction to pornography among men and, apparently, it’s responsible for a lot of social dysfunction. He thinks this because he counsels porn addicts, but never pauses to wonder how many men are actually that deeply involved in pornography.

If there’s a message Sledge is sending, I suppose it must be that men don’t share their feelings enough. They didn’t do that growing up with Dad, so they don’t do it with each other. His support for that message is nowhere to be found, but apart from that, his sole experience of emotional bonding with another man came during war and his deployment to Iraq. Does it occur to Sledge that that’s a very special set of circumstances? Men have always reported on the special bonding, borne of fear and anxiety, that war gives them. But war scarcely recommends itself as a way to live one’s life.

Far more important though is Sledge’s failure to look at men as men. The only ones he seems to know are caricatures of men. There are few lessons to learn from them about men generally. Sledge should consider certain commonly known facts. For example, men are the way we are due to natural selection, including most importantly sexual selection. For eons, female hominids selected as mates men who were part of dominant male hierarchies. Those were men who were skilled at establishing and defending territory, providing resources and protecting women and children. They were not men adept at demonstrating their deepest feelings about the job at hand or anything else. Indeed, any man who paid too much attention to the fear and anxiety he felt on facing an enemy bent on claiming his group’s territory wasn’t much of a warrior and likely wasn’t selected for mating.

And of course it is exactly that reticence that’s allowed men to do many of the amazing things they’ve done over the years. Biting back ones fears is often simply necessary to doing what needs to be done.  That may mean conquering Gaul or perhaps standing up to the anti-scientific ideas of the local Inquisition, risking one’s life, but advancing human understanding of the cosmos in the process. Sledge, it seems, thinks very little of that type of man, but he’s wrong to do so. I’m all for men having real relationships with other people, whether male or female. But in order for men to do so, they must be taken for who they are, not for what someone like Sledge imagines them to be or wishes they are. We need to honor men’s reticence for its ability to allow them to do great things, always in the knowledge that it can have its downside in loneliness and isolation.

If Sledge is right that young men nowadays seem especially vacant and disconnected, you’d think he’d pause to wonder why. He doesn’t. Unlike his false depictions of fathers, most men care deeply about their children and when they act like men are in fact modelling behavior we’ve come to expect from them. We ask men to do the dirty, dangerous jobs on offer by society and they won’t do it without the ability to set aside some of their feelings.

If young men are as Sledge claims, it’s because, for the first time in history we’ve embraced the notion that fathers aren’t important to children, a notion that Sledge’s depiction of dads does its part to promote. Our enthusiasm for separating fathers from their children is the single most important factor in young men not knowing how to act. How often has that been said of gang culture that recruits among fatherless boys because they’re the only masculine figures on offer? Why doesn’t Sledge understand that?

Sledge means well, but he needs to do his homework. He needs to talk to men like me whose fathers were distant but who are none of the things Sledge believes boys become when their dads aren’t what he thinks they should be. He needs to understand where the stiff upper lip comes from and why it’s so beneficial to the human race, now and for untold millennia previously. And he needs to understand that kids need their fathers and that all our efforts to kick fathers to the curb are a function of an ideology that’s profoundly destructive and intellectually dishonest. He needs to grasp the fact that, at the core of that dysfunction are public policy and discourse that do just what Sledge does – disrespect and fail to understand fathers.




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