Father Figure

Why are fathers failing to teach their sons the most important lesson?

Posted Jun 12, 2014

Phil with father George, and son Adam; 1968.

Phil with father George, and son Adam; 1968.

Phil Zimbardo here – With Father’s Day just around the corner, it seemed like a good idea to discuss one of the most important messages a father can pass on to his son: What it is to be a male in our complicated society.

Most men my age have been raised to “Be a Man.” We inherently know what this means: Don’t ask for help, figure it out, buck up, suck it up, never admit failure, don’t even ask for directions. Of course, emotions are for girls and tears are for women. Crying was for sissies, and the worst thing imaginable was to be thought a “fag”-- if you had not chosen to be gay. We learned to stuff our emotions into compartments until they seeped out sideways – in irritation and anger. Like Atlas - singularly carrying our worlds on our shoulders, but many men are unable or incapable of sharing our true thoughts or burdens with others who might help us relieve them. The cost is that we end up suffering incredible stress and strain.

What’s Wrong with Being “The Man”?

We deal by working too much, eating too much, drinking too much, smoking too much, and in modern times, we retreat into the world of technology, where we can surf the net endlessly and have an illusion of being socially connected to our “contacts.” We suffer hypertension, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and die seven years earlier than our women. Social isolation permeates our species and leads to deterioration of our bodies, minds and spirits. Most men have no real friends living nearby that they can count on for help and comfort in time of need. And then half of us who do get married, can’t make it work and end up divorced, some living alone, and surviving in boring jobs, living meaningless lives.

We might also add that this sense of anomie, inadequacy, and pent-up frustration has devastating consequences, as seen in high homicide, rape, abuse and battery statistics. With few exceptions, males, many of whom felt rejected or socially excluded, carried out 98% of the 74 mass shootings that have taken place in schools since Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT, a year and a half ago. Our male veterans are committing suicide at a steadily increasing rate; 49,000 have committed suicide from 2005 – 2011!

If that negative scenario were not bad enough, we pass this wrong life message onto our sons about what it takes To Be a Man. Our sons, who are the Boomers AKA “The Entitlement Generation” who gave birth to the Millennia’s (Gen X, Y, etc.) turned their back on this antiquated lesson and put their own spin on it: They have allowed their sons to raise themselves, effectively becoming “Generation Screwed.”

The Demise of Guys

Too many of our young men these days are failing academically, socially and even sexually. They are performing poorly in school at all levels, dropping out at alarming rates, unable to carry on civil conversations with women, to befriend them, and even to find sexual satisfaction in romantic/erotic relationships. Many have reported to us in a large-scale recent survey that they find their lives meaningless, without focus or purpose, lacking a sense of personal identity and self-worth. They feel they can’t compete with girls and women in school because females work harder to get better grades. One contributor to their demise is the absence of dads as role models for achievement, given that over 40% of all boys live in a fatherless home, due to divorce, separation, and more due to absentee dads just working full time. America leads the industrialized world in this domain of fatherless families! So what are our boys doing instead of schooling and socializing? They are retreating into the world of technology, becoming addicted to video games, which are designed to become ever more enchanting, and on the side also becoming addicted to freely accessible online pornography—a new killer duo for The Human Connection. (For more in-depth analysis of these issues, see the E book, Demise of Guys, TedBooks, by Nikita Duncan and me).

Time to Get In Touch with Your Human-Side

We can do something to help our boys and young men…We have the perfect opportunity at this critical juncture in our lives, to leave behind our old ways of thinking about what it takes to be a man - or a woman. It is time to just be “HU-MAN.” Being overwhelmed, stressed and strained, are “human” experiences, especially in these tough economic times. However, learning to share our emotions and communicating about our feelings is healthy and should be an important part of problem solving. Men have to learn to do what women do, make time for friends, make time for family, and also make time to be a positive role model – a caring mentor - for sons, as well as daughters. Time is not static and fixed, it is infinitely variable and subjectively created in our minds, to be stretched to fit our needs, expanded to enjoy current life experiences more fully, contracted for painful ones in the past and present, and projected into the future to optimistically imagine a joy-filled life ahead for each of us and our community of friends.

Moving Forward

Phil with grownup Adam and Little Phil; 2012.

Phil with grownup Adam and Little Phil; 2012.

In my new book, The Time Cure (with colleagues Rick and Rose Sword), you will discover some simple truths that can change your life for the better. YOU have the power to start changing the way you view your negative old thoughts and replace them with past positive memories. You will learn simple strategies to enjoy selected present hedonism and take better care of yourself, to enjoy fully good food, drink, music, art, dancing, and especially romancing. You’ll learn the damage non-communication brings to relationships and the importance of carving out time from your busy schedule to spend quality time with those you love. Old dogs can learn new tricks just like young ones, and we older dads have the wisdom of age and experience to add to these life-enriching activities. But most of all, you will learn how to create an ideal future for yourself that will be a beacon of joys and good times ahead. It’s all a matter of time, to be used wisely and well.

Happy Father’s Day!


Phil Zimbardo




Visit our Psychology Today blogs to get a fuller appreciation of how to create a more balanced time perspective in your life!

Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at www.thetimeparadox.com to discover your personal time perspective.

See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy "http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/psychotherapy" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit "http://www.timecure.com/" \o "www.timecure.com" \t "_blank" www.timecure.com and "http://www.lifehut.com/" \o "www.lifehut.com" \t "_blank" www.lifehut.com.  

Images: Phil Zimbardo