Fathers and sons
What fathers can’t stand is the fact that their sons (or daughters) are so easy on themselves.
In this age of failure to launch, one of the biggest problems is the angry father. He can’t help it, but his rage only makes the problem worse. Criticism only deepens the paralysis of the son. To make matters worse, Mom tries to soften the impact by being more understanding. That enrages the father, even more, so he hardens further. When parents are split, they cancel each other out and their adult influence is lost. So what’s going on? And what can we do about it?
My observation is this: What fathers can’t stand is the fact that their sons (or daughters) are so easy on themselves. Fathers who have provided for their family have done so by being tough on themselves. They get up to an alarm clock every morning and head into rush hour traffic, then face a miserable boss. Well not everyone, but being a father in today’s world is never easy and requires a lot of self-discipline and willingness to do what’s right, even when it is the last thing one wants to do.
When fathers look at their millennial sons, they see a young man who gives himself every break. He sleeps till 1:00 pm, yawns and saunters into the kitchen for his morning cereal, wasting half, and leaving the bowl for Mom to put in the dishwasher. In short, he shows almost no self-discipline and does exactly what feels most comfortable.
There is nothing so upsetting as seeing someone who freely takes liberties that one doesn’t allow oneself. That, in a nutshell, is why fathers are so angry.
But the problem is that the son is really trying. He has been taught all his life to “do what he loves” and seek out what is personally meaningful. He has been bombarded with advertisements telling him how to make things easier, quicker, more convenient and more comfortable. Only his boring, killjoy parents have insisted on the things that he doesn’t love and in which he finds little meaning. They even want him to wear a tie and join the workforce for the next 50 years. Ugh. So he goes about seeking to maximize comfort in the belief that somehow, there, he will find motivation.
Motivation doesn’t come. Instead, the result is more discomfort, as our young man sees himself slipping behind his peers. Unbeknownst to the young person, what does create motivation is getting out of one’s comfort zone. It is going for a challenging goal and tasting success. That is what really gives life the meaning and excitement he is seeking. But it has been so long since he experienced that kind of challenge that the fire has gone out. If he once had these experiences they have long been forgotten. So he does more of what he knows, seeking to minimize all discomfort and waiting, while his parents’ upset only increases.
As painful as it is, the answer is, to take a phrase from golf, “play the ball where it lies.” That means using any available means to help the young person begin to take baby steps towards accepting challenges scaled down to a level that he can face, and experiencing a modest level of pride in his success. Doing this many times over will, at last, bring him to adulthood.
Why can’t we just give him a huge kick in the pants? Sadly, for many of the young people who are genuinely stuck, their maturity is really behind. They are functioning at a junior high school level or thereabouts, and it isn’t realistic to expect them to jump from there to adulthood in one leap. You can’t get a turtle to come out of its shell by beating on it.
The anxiety they experience is real and genuinely paralyzing. The depression that their mammalian brain generates in anticipation of failure is real and serious. These are not under voluntary control. The unique combination of barriers faced by each young person needs to be identified and realistic plans made to overcome each one.
Unfortunately, the “habilitation” of young people is at least as giant an undertaking as normal adolescence. If we are tempted to take a shortcut and expect him to leap over his deficits, the young person will go into survival mode. The result is usually not pretty. It can be drugs, becoming a marginal person, suicide, or simply doing the minimum to keep the parents from cutting off support, while going nowhere.
So, in my view, there is only one answer. It is a thoughtful, disciplined, realistic, honest plan, taking advantage of the young person’s dependence, to hold him accountable for making realistic and gradually more significant steps out of his comfort zone and into engagement with life.