I survey the crashing waves and howling wind for a moment, and then sprint with my dad and brothers towards the ocean. I dive in head first, and the cold, salty water engulfs me. My brothers and I swim stroke for stroke with my dad out into the deep ocean water. Up and over the waves, towards a piece of driftwood that’s about 30 meters away.
I’m seven years old, and my brothers Daniel and Jonathan are eight and five. We’re all good swimmers — we’re all on a swim team and were taught how to swim by our dad around the age of three. But this is the first time that he’s taken us out to the rough ocean to swim in the waves. My dad was a standout swimmer growing up, and all-American water polo player. He also just loves being in the ocean and riding the waves. So, it was only natural that he wanted his sons to learn how to swim in the ocean.
. . .
We swim further and further out into the ocean, towards the piece of driftwood that doesn’t seem to get any closer. My dad seems to sense the fear in our eyes and reassuringly reminds us, “Don’t worry boys, you’re safe with me.”
As a young boy, my dad was my hero. He was strong and courageous, and there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He taught my brothers and I how to ride our bikes, swim, and defend ourselves all before the age of four. As I got older though, I longed for more from my dad. Instead of his physical presence and instruction, I wanted his emotional availability.
. . .
The first time I heard my dad say, “I love you,” was when I was 22 years old — and it was only because I said it to him first. It wasn’t something I heard him say to his dad, or our mom, or any of my other siblings. I longed to hear him say those three simple words. What’s in those three words? Those three words remind you you’re valued and appreciated, that you matter, and that you’re important.
More than anything, sons crave the feeling of acceptance from their fathers, and hearing the words, “I love you,” are such an important part of that.
I used to fantasize about my dad telling me these words. I’m sitting on the steps of our house and looking off in to the distance. My dad comes to join me, and sticks his arm around me. He tells me that even though he’s shown that he loves me through his actions; he recognizes the importance of telling me. And he looks at me with his arm around me and says, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.”
I’m still waiting for that moment to happen. My dad says I love you now when we talk on the phone, or when we say goodbye after visiting. But fathers — sons need you come up to them, look into their eyes, and tell them regularly that you love them.
. . .
The first time I saw my dad cry was when I was 17 and my older brother was leaving for college. I saw him cry as he was saying a prayer to send our brother off, and I couldn’t believe my dad was crying. I’d never seen it before. Ever. As a boy, even when I got spanked, my dad would tell me to cry quietly, and to save my tears for things that mattered. But he never told me what those things were. So as a boy, then as a young man, and then as a young officer in the Army, I never allowed myself to cry.
Boys who are told not to cry will eventually become men who force themselves not to. I didn’t cry when I was hurting emotionally. I didn’t cry when I was hurting physically. And I didn’t cry when I was hurting spiritually.
Fathers, your sons need to hear from you that not only is crying ok, but it’s healthy. They need you to validate that crying, and showing emotions, and being vulnerable is a sign of strength. They need to see you doing it, and they need you to look them in the eyes and tell them that real men cry and that it’s nothing to hide or be ashamed of.
. . .
My dad used to tuck my brothers and I into bed every night. He built us a triple bunk bed and would sing us songs and tell us stories from his time living overseas as a kid. I loved our bedtime routine — it was something that I always looked forward to.
My dad shared a lot of stories from his childhood with us, but as I got older, I never heard my dad tell me stories about when he was older. I wanted to know my dad in his teens, in his early twenties, as a newly married man. What were the things he struggled with? What were the things that scared him? What were the mistakes he made?
Instead of just being told to wait until I was married to have sex, I wanted to hear from my dad about his experience with intimacy. What were the things he was going through in this area? What were the things he had questions about?
Instead of just being told to not drink until I was 21, I wanted to hear my dad tell me about his own experience with alcohol. Did he ever drink too much, and if so, what were the consequences? Did he have friends that drank too much? If so, what was the impact on them and the people in their lives?
I wanted to hear stories about what made my dad sad. What made him happy? What were the things he and mom struggled through?
I wanted to know the things that made my dad human.
Dads, your sons want to know the real you. Not just the good things, but all of you. The good, the bad, and the ugly. They will become better men by hearing from you what you went through. So allow yourself to be vulnerable. Show them the real you. They’ll not only love you all the more for it, but it will make them better men.
This post was previously published on P.S. I Love You and is republished here with permission from the author.
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