My father spent his defining years in a boarding school in India, enrolled there by his own father, who was a missionary. My grandfather was a very gifted teacher with a supernatural ministry, by all accounts a very godly man, but he was not a good father. He came from a generation that believed if you loved your family of origin, your spouse, or your children more than Jesus, you weren’t worthy of him, so in order to minimize distractions, he dumped his kids in a boarding school, only seeing them a few times a year. As a result, my dad didn’t have the tools he needed to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
No one gave my dad the sex talk. My grandfather didn’t sit him down and teach him about life, how to navigate tough situations, what it meant to be a warrior, how to deal with money, or how to stand up for himself. Because my dad wasn’t handed these tools, he wrestled with a lot of insecurities in many of those areas.
When he had me, he did his best, but he still struggled to impart the things I needed, because that skill of passing down, of raising up, was never modeled for him. I guess at some point we all have this realization about our fathers, that they didn’t quite have the tools they needed to propel us into manhood.
In one of my favorite books, The Bonfire of the Vanities, the main character, a man named Sherman, is a bond trader living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. At one point, the narrator explains Sherman’s relationship with his father in this way:
Sherman made a terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later, that the man before him was not an aging father, but a boy. A boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and as best he could, out of a sense of duty and perhaps love, adopted a role called “being a father,” so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life.
Isn’t that true? Our fathers were boys once, and very few of them were guided into manhood properly. And then our fathers were still boys when they had to take on the label of “father” to raise us, and many of them didn’t have a clue what they were doing.
Have you ever thought of your father as a boy looking for love?
One of the profound things author Richard Rohr once said was, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” In other words, if we don’t deal with our own baggage and our own hurt, if we don’t walk into our own wounds and discover what is really happening there, we’ll end up passing that pain on to someone else.
For fathers, this holds true: if we don’t transform the pain we experienced as sons, we will pass that pain on to our own sons.
So many of us feel inadequate because of the fallout of what happened between us and our own fathers (or of their absence), which means we have to spend some dedicated time thinking through the role our fathers had in our lives.
Is it tough for you to think about your father? Maybe you’re wishing he’d tried harder. Maybe you hear what other dads did for their sons at a young age, and it hurts because your father never did those kinds of things for you. Maybe Father’s Day is the day you hate the most because there’s a giant hole in your life that a father should have filled for you.
It’s important to realize that all of us have complicated relationships with our fathers, whether because of what they did or what they didn’t do. What we have to learn to do is actually begin to view them as men.
Psychologist Carl Jung taught that we truly become adults when we don’t view our parents just through a chronological bias, but we see them as adults for who they are. That’s how we can begin to have compassionate understanding for them—they were young once too, and they’re struggling through life, often with the same difficulties and insecurities that we have.
It’s important we make peace with our fathers.
What I want to encourage you to do might not be easy for you. In fact, you might hear what I’m about to say and think, There is no way I can do that. There is no way I am going to do that.
Keep an open mind.
Here it is.
I want you to write a tribute letter to your father as a way of honoring him.
When I was preparing to go on this journey with my son, Nate, I realized I needed to have this kind of a moment with my own father, so I spent an entire evening thinking through my childhood and my relationship with my dad, and I wrote him a letter. I tried to list every single thing I remembered that he got right, and I opened the letter like this:
Hey, Dad, at this point in your life, now that I’m a man and raising my own son, you’re probably wondering what I think of you. You’re probably looking back over your role as a father with moments of pride and moments of regret. And I just wanted to let you know, here are some of the things you got right. Thank you for these things.
I wrote several pages of very specific things I remembered, letting him know what he had done, what those things did in me, and what I was grateful for. I closed it with a blessing of gratitude and said, “I want to honor you as a man.”
My parents happened to be in New York at the time, and I gave the letter to my father before they got on the plane to fly back to Australia. When my parents got home, my mum called me.
“What did you write to your father?” she asked.
I was a little worried. “Did I offend him somehow?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Something profound happened in your father’s heart. He sat on the plane weeping while he read your letter. He was so happy about it. Thank you for doing that for him.”
I’d like to encourage you to do the same thing. Now, maybe your father was absent and you have to write a letter forgiving him. There has to be a moment when you draw a line in the sand and determine you aren’t going to let the pain you experienced be transferred into the life of your own son. You have to decide to redeem what you’ve been through, and the best way to do that is to bless your father.
Several of my friends who were also taking their sons along this path told me they did this. One of them had an incredibly strained relationship with his father, and he said this was the hardest thing he ever had to do. But he took the letter and read it to his father in person, and it became a profound and powerful moment in their relationship.
You can do it.
Cover image by Jon Tyson.
This excerpt adapted from The Intentional Father: A Practical Guide to Raise Sons of Character and Courage by Jon Tyson is used by permission from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.