An Unscientific Essay on What Is Really Missing

Originally published at the Good Man Project

The myth about boys raised by single moms having a higher chance of turning delinquents is crumbling, as studies show. Still, the question remains: how much do boys need a father figure?

I have been exploring masculinity for the past two years. (Okay, to be fair, I’ve been exploring it much longer, but not systematically.) So far, I have interviewed close to seventy men and one of the recurring themes is the importance of the male role model for a boy to grow into a mature man. They say: “Women give birth to boys. Men give birth to men.”

Never mind that I believe that girls are just as much influenced by the presence or absence of a male role model as boys are. The fact that girls’ need for men in their lives is rarely — or at least a lot less — discussed reveals the deeper fallacy of the discussion, I believe.

It’s Not the Stand-Alone Man

After all, what is the difference between men and women? (No, I’m not going to open Pandora’s box here.) Apart from biological features, whatever differences there are can only be perceived and described in the context of social interaction.

A man can only be a role model in relation to other human beings. Any boy is born knowing how to use his penis to pee. There is no need for a male role model. He eventually grows his beard — or not — without a father telling him how to do it.

He needs a father figure to teach him how to relate to other people. To other men. To women. His children. To life. He needs a role model to understand himself in relation to others. Notions of identity, self-worth, masculinity aren’t taught by textbooks. They are lived and imitated.

A father can say a million times “Treat your mother with respect!”, if he doesn’t show respect towards her, his son won’t either. This also means the model is not one person alone. Neither for boys nor for girls. It is the father in relation to the mother (and the mother in relation to the father).

Participatory Observation

It’s the father in relation to the sisters. A child will observe if the father changes his behavior in the presence of his male friends, his boss, the teacher, and the cleaning lady. They will notice how he treats the homeless, the desperate, the needy, and the unjust. Does he bow to authority or stand up for his values? They will see him kicking down or lifting up. The model is the relationship, not the stand-alone person.

When you understand that it’s easy to see that it is not simply a boy-father question. It’s boy-father-mother-girl-andeverybodyelse. Children detect the hypocrisy in their mother’s behavior when she talks feminism and lives subjugation. They notice the dynamics between mother and father. Before even the parents are aware of it, children know who plays the victim, who makes the decisions, who controls, manipulates, hides, and yearns.

They see the division of labor: who is taking responsibility for the family’s emotional well-being, the financial, the material, the intellectual. Who defines the values and who lives them?

What do Women Have to Do with It?

Am I splitting hairs when I insist that the father figure cannot stand alone? I don’t think so. When all we think of is that there has to be a ‘father figure’ we limit our approach to emotional health to demographics. We overlook the importance of relationships. It’s not enough to place a man in front of the child. We have to be aware of how he relates to others. And we, women, have to go very deep into ourselves and be honest about how we relate to men. ‘The’ man and all others.

How do we see ourselves in relation to men? Our husbands, our friends, our fathers, our brothers, our co-workers, the Uber driver, the guy on the street? Do we embrace their presence? Do we fear them, resent them, like them, or try to impress them? Does our behavior change the moment a man enters the room? What is our primary way of relating? Protection, seduction, judgment, respect, suspicion?

Do we warn our daughters that men are dangerous, but “of course, I’m not talking about your father/brother/grandpa”? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, believe that if we lament misogyny loudly with our girlfriends in front of our sons, they’ll pick up on how not to be?

We cannot create better men by trying to find the holy grail aka perfect father figure and let him do the miracle. We have to rethink our relationships altogether. With ourselves and with our men. And men need to understand that the relationship with their sons is only one of many they have. With themselves, with women, with other men. It all matters.