In all the years Ive been teaching, theres been no book that can more easily make a boy say, Wow! than J.D. Salingers Catcher in the Rye. God! they gasp. Thats exactly how it is! But then theyre somewhat taken aback when I tell them that this year both Holden Caulfield and I celebrated our 56th birthdays. Catcher was written about my generation. Not much has changed in the trials and traumas and tribulations of enduring adolescence since Socrates sat around the agora in Athens, fathering adolescent boys, luring each of them to evolve an adult self.
Oh, the surfaces change. If Catcher were written today, Holden would probably have gone from booze to cocaine to the morgue, and it would have been a short story. He certainly wouldnt have been as timid about sex. But the essential conflicts dont vary.
Heres this nice healthy little kid, comfortable with his peers and parents, as unconcerned about his looks as a bulldog, his awareness focused completely outside himself. Then, literally overnight, these subversive distilleries in his body start shooting out all kinds of magic potions--like a werewolf at full moon. His limbs elongate and go gangly and ungovernable; his face gets fuzzy and knobby; and a lot of vulpine urges start whispering in hitherto unsuspected cellars of his soul. Heaven gets blasted to hell. He knows hes the same kid, but hes not the same kid at all. Hes always been able to get his arms and legs to do what he wanted them to do; his voice never played such humiliating tricks on him; and other parts of his body seem to have willfully independent minds of their own, too. If the boys parents think theyve spawned an alien changeling, how do they think the boy himself feels?
At every natural life-crisis so far, a child has had to face an unnerving change that opens up a new and more challenging way of being human. Birth itself is a traumatic disequilibrium; then weaning and potty training; then being shunted out to play with the other snotty little kids; then the betrayal at the kindergarten doorway. But if each of those crises was a mortar blast, adolescence is the atomic bomb, because its accompanied by the birth of rational thought.
Before, the boy coped with those crises of separation more or less with his intuition and gut. But this one is almost a separation from self, and it is complicated by the questions that have troubled the souls of philosophers from Buddha to Karl Marx--arising in a boy whose previous questions have been no more complicated than how to get out of cleaning the garage and whos gonna win the World Series. Who am I? Whats it all about? Where the hell am I going? Whom can I trust? How do I determine my worth? And for a long, long time--perhaps even for a lifetime--the boy answers those questions with: I am what others think of me. He judges himself only by externals, by the mirrors. And there are many, many mirrors: parental expectations (real and imagined), peers, grades, tryouts, SATs, the media. And girls.
Its very confusing and dizzying in that hall of mirrors, and if a boy seems as edgy and prickly as a porcupine, its a sure bet that, like Holden Caulfield, hes trying to find his way through the maze on his own. Every father knows that; he was there himself. Like the young Dante roaming aimlessly in the dark wood, a boy yearns for some kind and confident Virgil to come along and guide him through--and out of-hell. The lucky few find him in their father, but only if he has been playing Merlin to them from their babyhood. Perhaps more often, some boys find a guide in a teacher, probably because its his job to continue humanizing boys when they need life lessons a woman cant give and the father is busy at more important matters.
A boys guide really ought to be his own father, but fathers are not only busy, but shy. Whats more, although little girls have been trained since their dolly-and-tea-set days to be good little Mommies, nobody has trained a boy to be a good little Daddy, just a good little competitor and breadwinner. And yet if Holden Caulfields experience 50 years ago can still speak to a boys inner needs, surely so could his fathers experience--if his father could find the time to reflect on it and put it into words the boy can relate to, and then be vulnerable enough to share his own adolescence with his son.
Both father and son tend to forget that adolescence is a gradual, evolutionary process, not a static stage. That suffix -escence signifies that adulthood is inchoate: beginning and developing, as in convalescence. Contrary to the facts, in most cases, both the parent and the child think--or at least act as if--adulthood clicked on like a thermostat. The boy himself thinks adulthood flashed on with puberty, while his father thinks it eases on only at midnight on the 21st birthday or with the issuance of a college diploma. Most mothers know that too-sudden or too-delayed weaning and potty training can affect a child for a lifetime, but most fathers and sons dont realize that a too-sudden grasp of adult prerogatives (without the responsibilities) results in the dispirited, aimless high school dropout, and a too-delayed grasp of adult prerogatives and responsibilities results in the spineless, whining professional tennis player.
The process is further complicated by the fact that many boys become as uncommunicative as autistic infants. If that happens, then the father has to become as subtly aware of the boys signals as the mother was aware of the difference in the tones of his crying when he was an infant. And the kicker is that most fathers were never trained to do that.
As boys, males were trained for competition, aggressiveness and domination--none of which is a handy asset for fathering. As a result, in too many cases, the nurturing is left to the mother and the discipline is left to the father. Its not that mothers care more for their sons than fathers do, but more often the mother comes at the child as a concerned inquirer rather than as a worried preceptor. When the child cant articulate where it hurts, the mother is long used to helping him in the childs own terms, while the father deals with the child most often in the fathers terms. Mothers empathize; fathers tend too quickly to categorize. Mothers listen; fathers lecture. Fathers could learn a great deal about fathering from studying mothers.
I wonder if fathers and sons dont unwittingly develop a common interest in sports because its an ideal way be together and talk together without either one himself in any intimate way. No problem with that; far better than nothing at all. Idle chit-chat is not worth recording, but there is still a more significant conversation going on beneath it that says, I enjoy being with you. But if that is as close as a father and son can get, the boy is left to wrestle for his manhood alone, and both father and son are missing so much of one another. Sentimental songs that ask where did this man suddenly come from are saccharine confessions that the father wasnt very much a part of his sons growing up.
The Androgynous Soul. A great deal of the unnatural dichotomy between fathering and mothering comes, I think, from a simplistic understanding of sex and gender--stereotypes that are accepted by even the most sophisticated and educated males. The female is pliable and nurturing; the male is a hard and unyielding place against which to hone ones adulthood. The female supplies warmth; the male supplies order. If you spare the rod, the kid will end up in San Quentin; if the father caresses his son after puberty, hell wind up in some Christopher Street bar. On the contrary, a study by A.W Adorno and others in 1950 found that inmates in San Quentin prison espoused more deference to parental and other authorities than did any other population they studied, and Dr. C.A. Tripp, who interviewed over 700 homosexuals and scores of field anthropologists, concluded that homosexuality has its highest incidence in macho and competitive societies such as Greece, Rome and our own, and doesnt rise much above zero in societies that eschew heroics and glorification of the male body and its powers.
Contrary to the simplistic stereotypes, each of us--male and female--is psychologically androgynous. Every fully evolved female develops the so-called masculine qualities such as analysis, decisiveness and autonomy, and every fully evolved male develops the so-called feminine qualities of intuition, vulnerability and inclusive relationship. A woman has not only a right, but a natural human need to voice thoughts beyond the cramped radius of laundry detergents and white sauce, and a man has a natural human right and need to show his feelings beyond the cramped radius of anger and patriotism. To validate the truth of that, one need only look at the dead-ended lives of doormat women and macho men.
No matter what our sex, each of us has a left brain that gathers, classifies and draws logical conclusions, and a right brain that empathizes, has hunches and makes judgments in a human context rather than strictly by some hierarchical code. A man who deals with his son only with his own masculine side, who approaches the boy only as a teacher and disciplinarian and not also as a fellow-learner, is dealing with his son half-wittedly. And the son evolves just as half-wittedly.
How would a father react, for instance, if his sons girlfriend became pregnant? (A) Burst into fury and perhaps even into violence? (B) Sag into shame and agonize over where the father himself had gone wrong? (C) Take charge and tell the boy what to do? (D) Put his arms around the boy and weep with him, leaving explanations and recriminations and advice until the pain and shame had been shared?
Another crippling result of this one-sided teaching from the father is a conviction within the boy of a need to be perfect. It is one of the greatest, and most persistent, anomalies Ive found in 25 years teaching boys. No one has ever told a boy he must be perfect, surely not his parents or his teachers; and yet every boy I have ever taught is infected with the subconscious conviction that, if he doesnt succeed, he wont be truly loved. I have absolutely no idea where it comes from, unless it arises from a fearful need in a child to cling to approval from outside, because he finds so little approval from inside.
That, combined with a lack of significant, intimate conversations with parents, in which the parents very vulnerability to the boy is a wordless validation of his worth to them, leads to the build-up in the boy of a Tyranny of Wordless Expectations. If fathers have forgotten how to read the smallest expressions and tics on their sons faces, the sons have honed that talent to an art and very often beyond, into an obsession. Every tilt of the eyebrow is a judgment, every arc of the mouth an oracle.
Perfectionism is frustrating, because it is by definition impossible for any human being. When a boy cant throw from home plate to second base, and his father says, Okay: son, then aim for center field! that may well be a motivation. But it becomes corrosive when the boy finally is able to throw to second base--and hates himself for still not being able to hit center field.
Overly masculinized males--fathers and sons--seem also almost pathologically wary of touch. Somewhere along the line, even fathers who have quite nonchalantly caressed their sons all through childhood suddenly stop. Both the father and the son seem wordlessly to agree that its not quite right anymore. It happens sometime after grade school and the onslaught of puberty, since 10th-grade boys are constantly wrestling and rough-housing with one another--because something natural in them still craves body contact, and they have not as yet had much or any physical contact with girls.
This happens, of course, only in the Anglo-Saxon countries that are more susceptible to puritanism. In most Latin, Arab and Slavic countries, two men greet one another on the street with embraces and kisses, perhaps because they have no need to suppress their fear of homosexuality. With tragic irony, the young men who end up in Christopher Street bars are quite often men who never felt any palpable love or affection from their fathers.
By the nature of the human being, one cant deny or repress natural and harmless affection. If one does, that need does not evanesce. It retires inward and builds up steam. Sooner or later it will erupt in violence or pornography.
Even in the severely masculine era of the Vikings and knights, the hero knew that the sword was not enough. He also needed the gentle stirring of the harp to give some lasting meaning to his derring-do.
Sharing Vulnerability. Even the best of fathers today have still another obstacle: the myth of the perfect father on television. Does Bill Cosby ever lose his temper? Was Pa Walton ever wrong? In the real world, youre going to make mistakes; youre not perfect either. Why try to hide the truth? If a son inevitably finds his impeccable father has clay feet, how is he ever going to put the pieces back together once the idol has toppled? Here, as before, the only sane and salvific answer is honest vulnerability.
When most fathers speak of having a man-to-man talk with their sons, they are really talking about a man-to-child talk, as if the two were still working under the same old contract, except the boy is a bit larger. Sitting down and thinking a problem through, together--as adult with becoming-adult--will have a far greater chance of penetrating and surviving in the boy than an hour-long, self-righteous monologue. (Did it work with you when your own father did it?)
In a book of reflections I have high school seniors write, about 60 percent say they couldnt--or even wouldnt--talk to their fathers about anything important because itd just be one more hassle. And Ive read 3,100 of these notebooks. A father has to remember that, if a communication doesnt get through, its the senders fault. If an advertisers pitch doesnt get across, he doesnt throw up his hands and walk away from the audience. He goes back and works out a new pitch. After all, his livelihood depends on it. All the more true for a father: The son he loves depends on his fathers humility and willingness to rethink.
Weve had the answers to fathering an adolescent boy for 2,500 years. Socrates gave them to us. The first step is to ask the student what he understands the question to be and--crucially--to listen, not with the fathers understanding of the words, but with the sons understanding: to get into his sons skin and listen with his ears. Only then will he know what really divides them. Unless the antagonism has gone on far too long already, the division is rarely rooted in an evil, Oedipal desire to best the father at any cost; it is usually a misunderstanding of the real issues--often on both sides--and a lack of experience with thinking and with human living, at least on the boys side.
Then the father can push the probing further, not with precepts, but with questions: But if youre right, wouldnt that lead to ... ? or But have you thought what effect that would have on the other people involved? The ideal father would then become more like a therapist leading a boy to a healthy selfhood than like a drill sergeant trying to nip trouble in the bud. It takes far more time than a quick Thou shalt not, but its time with ones son.
That ability to sit down with ones son as vulnerable fellow-learner rather than as preceptor-to-receptor holds true on all the issues over which fathers and sons have bickered since the caves: sex, education, religion, freedom.
Sex. The father who shouts, Dont ever let me hear youve gotten some girl pregnant! can be sure his wish will be fulfilled. That doesnt mean it wont happen; he just wont hear about it, or about much else important to the boy. I cant help but wonder how many abortions would never have happened if the boy (and girl) didnt have to say My father will kill me.
What a different atmosphere--in the home and within the boy--would arise and grow if the father had the courage to be vulnerable about his own adolescent confusions about sexuality. One of the best arguments against masturbation Ive heard was in an otherwise forgettable play. The father is trying out pitches to use with his son and finally comes up with, Son, theres not really much harm in it. But its so goddamn ... lonely. What if a father felt confident enough to say, You know, I saw a woman in the supermarket today. Wed done some pretty hot and heavy necking when we were kids. Damned if she even remembered my name.
Education. If the only questions a father ever asks is Hows school? or How are your grades? the son knows whats important: not learning, but keeping score. As the father has long since discovered, most of the data a youngster learns in high school is utterly useless. The father himself has not in 20 years found the cosine of angle AOC or a use for Napoleons dates. The purpose of education is not to ingest data but to teach young people to think clearly and honestly. Again, what a difference if the father asked, What are you reading in English class? Give it to me when you finish, okay? Ill read it, and we can kick it around. If the father who works in the real world has stopped learning, then the boys schooling is merely a durance vile till his father is sure the boys thermostat has clicked on.
Religion. What do you do when he refuses to go to church? One answer I give, not entirely facetiously, is expressed in a New Yorker cartoon. The stuffy father is looking benignly up at his stuffy carbon copy and says, Son, youre all grown up now. You owe me $214,000.
When the boy goes to college, he will be free to worship or not, as he chooses. But when he comes home to the tribe, he follows the tribes customs. The boy neednt receive Communion, but he visits the Friend of his parents just as he visits the dotty old uncles and the whiskery old aunts, not because he gets anything out of it, but because he respects the people who ask him to do it. While youre in my house, you respect my customs, just as at a Jewish funeral you wear a yarmulke.
Again, however, the father can be far more persuasive if he finds worship important enough in his own life that he has sat down and assessed why he himself believes worship something a man of honor feels compelled to do.
Freedom. The earliest years of a boys life are shaped by his mother. When her firstborn is still hardly more than a flickering in her belly, the mother has read every book on child-rearing and wearied her friends with questions. But in adolescence, when so many of the boys questions and confusions focus on his maleness, the mother can only yield to the boys father. It would seem incumbent on the father to read as many books on adolescent boys as his wife read before the boy was born and to belabor his friends, not with sons SATs and stats, but with questions about communicating to a rebellious alien species.
And the best-intentioned fathers have to be wary of the true nature of their task: not to bring out a new, improved edition of the old man, but to help a boy discover what he has--and does not have--to work with in forming a unique self that has never existed before and will never be duplicated again.
One wonders how the ordinary, kindly father would react if his son came home and said, Dad, Id like to take ballet lessons or Dad, Id like to be a social worker. It is at such moments that a man must remember that this boy is not the child of his dreams; he is the child of his love.
Legitimate Suffering. Life is difficult. Those are three words every thinking human being has had to ingest and come to peace with. But that is a fact that at least most middle-class American adolescents are shielded from by well-intentioned parents: that suffering is a natural, unavoidable part of human growth. (Can you imagine, for instance, what life would be like if all the electricity in your house went out for a week?)
That is also a part of a fathers task, to convince his son that, without legitimate suffering, one remains a petulant child his entire life. The question is not whether life is difficult or not. Difficulty is a given. The question is whether you are going to face suffering honestly and with dignity, or whether you are going to spend your life griping about it or escaping into the anesthesia of booze and drugs or casual sex. If I had to find a single cause for teen-age suicides, it would be that teen-agers have been misled to expect far more of life and of people than life and people are capable of delivering. Like inviting your child to play volleyball in a minefield.
More than a few fathers have said to me, You know, I made up my mind my kids were never going to have to wade through all the crap I had to when I was young. And, by God, I did it. I gave them everything I never had. But...you know...I didnt give them the one thing I got from wading through all that crap: spine.
Perhaps the example of the perfect father is, again, where it has always been. The good father is the man who patterns his life on the Father before whom all of us are children. Our Father doesnt fight our battles for us, but Hes always there, urging us on, if we allow Him to. And He never tires of listening to us. And He rarely interrupts. But if we make ourselves vulnerable to Him, we hear what every son--and father--yearns to hear: You are my son, in whom-no matter what-I am well pleased.
Perhaps the first step for a father--no matter the cost of embarrassment to him or his son--is Gods consistent way with Israel: to get him off into a place alone. Then, to put his arms around the boy and say, Son, I know we both screw up sometimes. But I love you. God, how I do love you.
Its worth a try.