The father-son relationship

The father-son relationship has to be tended, nurtured and shaped, because it's a goal well worth its weight in gold

Father helping son learn to ride bicycle

Check out the history of any respectable Hindi film replete with family ties, and you hardly ever see the father.

The world of material wealth, success and prosperity, is balanced effectively by a simple subtext: mere paas maa hai [I have my mom with me]. The mother nurtures and feeds with her milk of life and her sons, from time to time, swear by doodh ka karz [indebted to mom’s milk]. Err, please excuse me, but has anybody seen a father around? No, not really. He’s probably dead, or is wayward, or conveniently not in attendance till the last hour after which he acknowledges his wife and children – and, all’s well that now begins well.

What role does a father play in a son’s life? Does he play any role at all? Or, is it like what bigoted feminists once believed – just help procreate and, thereafter, move on, or away?

Research shows that universally, fathers, on an average, spend about 33 per cent as much time as mothers in direct interaction with their children. They are about 65 per cent available and accessible to their children. And, when it comes to taking responsibility for their children’s activities and wellbeing [e.g., making doctors’ appointments], fathers carry only about 10 per cent of the responsibility that mothers carry. This is also significant in families where the mother is educated, but not employed.

One act, many roles

Few male relationships are more psychologically significant than those between a father and son. Fathers and sons can affect each other’s lives substantially, in both positive and negative ways, and the relationship has been found to be an important predictor of a son’s parenting style, his attitudes towards sexuality as well as emotional health and his success in interpersonal relationships. It, therefore, shows that a genuine positive bond between a father and son has the possibility to shape a man’s communication attributes in nearly every sphere of his life. Says an old adage, “Link a boy to the right man, and he seldom goes wrong.”

A father’s role, one has to agree, is complex. Among the three main caps that he wears are that of the provider: “Ask daddy, if you can have it,” the authority-disciplinarian: “Wait till your father comes home,” and the appreciative audience who will reward and indulge: “Tell daddy what you did today.”

If all he does is to provide, his status in the family is measured by how well he provides; hence, the father who isn’t rich is a disappointment. His position is not determined by how well he functions as a father, but by his status in the eyes of the world.

As for the disciplinarian, rigid, defensive, and over-controlling father, he only succeeds in making his son feel imprisoned and stifled, and a conflict is inevitable at some point of time in life.

The indulgent, permissive father, who rewards more out of guilt at not being able to spend quality time with his son, tries to compensate by indulging him. He doesn’t expect mature behaviour from his son at any point in time. He prefers to avoid confrontations at all cost. Surely, not a great thing to do in view of its long-term effects.

To their credit, most fathers succeed in wearing different caps at different times. But, if one of these becomes a permanent feature of the father’s persona, the result can be an emotionally handicapped son who would some day grow up to be a father himself. As to what kind of parent he would make – this is anybody’s guess.

It is also a fact that a great man doesn’t necessarily make a great father. Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph Churchill once said it all: “When you are living under the shadow of a great oak tree, the small sapling, so close to the parent tree, does not perhaps receive enough sunshine.” So, being a perfect father seems like a tricky business.

Ideal goals

Psychologists acknowledge that in an ideal situation a father helps his son realise his goals in life. In a way, he even expects his son to set out on a new path, and is curious to see how his own potential will find new expression in his son under different conditions and in a different generation.

He who’d be an authoritative father makes demands with emotional responsiveness, but he recognises his son’s independence as a person. In other words, a father who earns his love through a disciplined, velvet hand is what one would need to doff one’s hat at.

A father’s role is less intense and more playful with children than that of a mother. With passing years, his role remains that of a friend but takes the form of an instructor when he shares activities with his son.

If a father can cultivate common ground with his impressionable son – be it repairing bikes or cars, spending time doing woodwork, or hiking, or trekking together, or developing common interests – the rebellious adolescent years can pass in relative tranquillity. Like the tongue-in-cheek Mark Twain quote says, “[The time] I was 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But, when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years!”

Opportunities to communicate openly and build the father-son relationship have to be created. It’s a goal that is worth its weight in gold whatever it takes to achieve.

Get Involved

Studies have shown that children who receive higher levels of attention and interaction with their fathers are healthier and better adjusted than children without fathers or with dads who are uninvolved. According to one study, children with highly involved fathers are:

  • More confident and less anxious when placed in unfamiliar settings
  • Better able to deal with frustration
  • Better able to adapt to changing circumstances and breaks from their routine
  • Better able to gain a sense of independence and an identity outside the mother/child relationship.
  • Harvard University study spanning 26 years adds several more benefits for children of involved fathers:
  • They are more likely to mature into compassionate adults
  • They are more likely to have higher self-esteem and grade point averages
  • They are more sociable.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Gayatri Pagdi
Gayatri Pagdi is a Mumbai-based health journalist. Her areas of interest include emotional, mental and spiritual health.


  1. I quite enjoyed the insights of your article regarding father son relationships. I enjoy having fun playing scrabble , monopoly, with both my elder son and daughter.
    But bonding sessions are few and far between nowadays. the children are no longer interested in such things any more.This is the era of playstation, computer games, TV, Facebook and the telephone. My son spends most of his time doing all this. The only bonding happens is when we see TV together where I find out more about my children by their responses to a game or reality show. In modern life work pressures being too strong ,a person looks forward to family life in the evenings and but it is usually these things or boning up for tests, exams, tuition or the new fads like hobby classes.
    I feel that if you could bring these aspects in context it would be more enlightening .
    Thank you


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