A Dad’s Letter to His 18-Year-Old Son

October 5, 2009

One of our jobs, as men, is to father our sons. It’s a challenge for us because we’re constantly faced with our own demons, obstacles, experiences, expectations, fears, self-doubt, and high hopes for our progeny.

And yet, many of our sons grow up to be fine men; often times, we believe, in spite of ourselves. But in fact, it is because we are their fathers (and other important influences) that they grow to be the men they are.

Today I want to share with you a letter written by a member of our BetterMen community to his 18-year-old son. Rather than offering my feelings about the letter, I invite you to offer your comments and to share yourselves and your experiences as parents and children.

A Letter from A.M. in Colorado

Son,

A few thoughts for you to consider as we enter what will be your final year living with us:

You’re 18. That means in the eyes of the law, you are a man. You can go to war, be tried as an adult if you commit a crime, do your own thing (within reason), etc. From another perspective, though, 18 is just a number. Many “men” can live their whole lives and die at a ripe old age without ever having let go of the boy inside of them. Often, these are guys who could never make marriages work, don’t know their kids too well and end up sad and lonely despite whatever financial or career successes they’ve realized over the years.

Part of the reason for this is that men today often don’t get any cues as to when they’re supposed to start acting like men. You’ve probably heard of manhood initiation ceremonies in some cultures, where the 13-year old kid has to spend a night in the jungle, or whatever. And when he comes back to the village he is treated as a man, he acts like a man, and he sets aside childish things. There’s a lot of validity to this kind of ceremony, but we don’t use it in our culture. As your father and the main man in your life, it’s my job, then, to do what I can to help point you in this direction.

From my point of view, you have a few things you should be working on in addition to your “core” activities (doing well in school, your work, etc.) One of those is trying to discover a better way of managing your relationship with us, your family. As you’re no doubt aware, your biggest challenge is with your mom, and I would strongly encourage you to take ownership in improving this relationship as soon as possible. I think you can understand why this would be beneficial immediately, but it also has long-term ramifications for your future relationships with women. Whether it’s your mother, your wife or some other woman in your life, you have to understand that women are wired differently than men, and that not everything boils down to winning an argument. We have a saying in the men’s group I used to be part of, and it relates to arguments with our wives but it applies here as well: When you lose, you lose; and when you win, you lose. What that means is that even if you score that touché! point, and anyone might agree that you were, in fact, correct, if you’ve left your mom, wife, girlfriend, sister etc. feeling hurt and shit upon, you’ve lost, pal. And if you can’t work up the balls to apologize, you’ve lost even further.

Our antidote (or at least one component of it) to this is simple: Don’t argue. I know, it sounds impossible, but it’s not. Many of the men in the groups I’ve been in have tried this and found it to be a life-saver. Doesn’t mean you won’t ever have a disagreement, doesn’t mean you’re letting mom/wife/whomever walk all over you. It’s just a pact you make with yourself that if you love this woman, whoever she is, you’re not going to let your little boy inside argue with her and be a dick to her if he’s not getting his way.

I know mom has her unique way of looking at things and that it can be frustrating. I also know that pretty much any woman you ever encounter and have a close relationship will have a different but equally frustrating set of idiosyncracies and maddening ways of communicating and viewing things. As men, our job is to learn to appreciate these fundamental differences (even if we will never understand them), because the other stuff that comes with those relationship is so great, so important to our well-being. When we look at our mothers, for most of us that’s the woman who would walk through fire for us, cry because she’s proud of us, even visit us in prison if we screw up. Other than your wife – if you find a good one – your mother is your Number One fan and always will be. So why would you want to piss her off and make her cry for any reason whatsoever? Isn’t that unconditional love worth swallowing some of what you think is pride or knowing you’re “right” and letting things go once in a while in the name of peace and respect?

I’ll answer that one for you: Hell yes. You’re 18 now kid, time to start silencing the little boy. It’s not easy, I know, and it won’t happen over night and you will have slip-ups even if you commit to this. What I’m telling you is that it has to start happening, because your success in life depends on it – much more than your grades, the kind of car you get, the shiny furniture in your apartment. None of that stuff matters if you can’t realize yourself as a grown man, get past the little boy who needs always to “win” and can’t ever find it in his heart to apologize or recognize that his own actions are just that: his own. The little boy will always seek to blame someone or something – anything but himself. A man can be honest with himself and admit error and apologize. And believe it or not, it feels good to do so — a lot better than stubbornly hanging onto some righteous indignation that’s nothing more than a magnet for bad feelings, bad karma.

I would be very surprised to learn that you, upon reflection, see how you treat your mother as entirely OK and acceptable. I think you would also see, upon reflection, that an 18-year-old man and a 45-year-old woman see the world very differently, and that expecting her to see things your way all the time is unrealistic — and harmful. Regardless of who is “right” in all these arguments is besides the point: What I’m asking you to do is focus on what you can control, which is your own behavior. As soon as you start to say “But she said x, y or z …” then you’ve failed. I have talked to mom (and will do so again) about working to improve how she relates to you, but again, I’m asking you to work on your side — you can’t ‘fix’ mom (or anyone else).

One more thing: Tolerance is one of the greatest virtues we can hold as human beings — and often one of the most difficult for us to achieve, especially when we’re younger and very self-focused. Tolerance can range from not condemning a passerby who looks different than you to accepting that your wife inexplicably likes some cheesy painting of seashells on the wall in the bathroom. There’s that old Chinese saying about how the wise bamboo that bends with the storm outlasts the ‘tough’ trees that stand against the wind. Right now, I see you as that unbending tree, and your unyielding presence is damaging to yourself and those around you. True, you have only a year left here, but it’s my great hope that, with a little work, we can make it more enjoyable than it is now. Also, you don’t want to ride off into the sunset with a boat-load of bad feelings in your wake. As our picking up your brother at the airport Saturday demonstrated, we will still be there for you even if you’re pissing us off because you’re our son and we love you. But you have to give as well, and I hope you can find it in your heart to see where you’re at and how YOU can make it better.

Love, Dad