There are four key parent-child combinations: mother–son, mother–daughter, father–daughter, and father-son.
All these ‘dyads’ (shrink-speak for a dual-relationship) have their own dynamic. But the father-son relationship has its particular pleasures because it offers male solidarity – and the opportunity for utter blokeish immaturity.
I was brought up in a large family with two brothers and two sisters, and it was great fun.
When my son Bruno came along in 2000, I wanted some of that fun to play out in our relationship. So as soon as we could, I took him out into the world.
We went swimming and played Sunday morning football with local friends, usually with Tunnock’s tea cakes and babycinos afterwards.
I noticed my relationship with Bruno becoming less like that of a parent and guardian, and more like that of a mate or a boisterous brother
It was bliss; moreover, it was like coming home again, allowing me to relive my childhood. So along with the need to provide pastimes for our growing lad, it fulfilled my own regressive needs.
As the years progressed, I noticed my relationship with Bruno becoming less like that of a parent and guardian, and more like that of a mate or a boisterous brother – a relationship I hadn’t had with his cerebral sister, who is 11 years older.
We would fight and laugh and fight some more. (He has actually broken one of my ribs and a little finger in play-fights over the years, which I consider my fault for starting it all).
As he moved into the so-called difficult teenage years – in reality, a ‘piece of piss’, to use one of our typical word formations – we’d watch YouTube clips of the most bantering variety, laughing like drains as each video jock prated on in an endless blizzard of puerile profanity.
Every ‘OMFG!!!’ emanating from the screen would annoy his mum more.
‘Why do you have all the fun while I do the dirty work?’
Indeed, our whole mate-cum-brother schtick increasingly annoyed her, eliciting responses such as: ‘Could you stop being so immature?’ ‘What’s so funny about that?’ And the killer: ‘Why do you have all the fun while I do the dirty work?’
Such questions were humbling and irritating but ultimately, I had to learn to understand them. To me, a cushion ambush as you round the corner followed by a chase is hilarious – surely everyone knows that? But for her, it was like being the only sober person in a pub full of drunks.
This is the era of informal parenting. Few of us late-baby boomers are stern Victorian parents, let alone having any concept of moral authority with our variously chequered pasts.
Also (and yes, it’s a generalisation) fathers often seem to have handed the primary-parent baton to mothers, and in doing so have created relationships – with sons in particular – that are fraternal rather than paternal.
Anyway, in the face of our collective male pathos, Bruno’s mother would often retire, miffed at the silliness of it all, sighing at the way she always had to pick up the administrative slack.
It’s the same for some friends. “I’m definitely soft-cop to her hard-cop,” says a friend, Andy, about his son. “We do fun. She does the hard stuff like school, doctors and dentists.”
Perhaps I had handed the father’s traditional disciplinarian role to my partner. But in doing so, was I diminishing myself, and transgressing parent-child boundaries by adopting this ‘brother-mate’ role?
Fathers tend to be more physical with their children
After all, the ‘parent as friend’ model has taken a severe battering in recent years, with most psychologists arguing for a separation of those identities. Perhaps I needed to get some of these ‘boundaries’ back and become more of a proper parent.
There is, of course, a defence. It’s good to play, and it’s very often dads who take the play-parent role. Fathers tend to be more physical with their children: a scenario once looked at askance and now mostly seen as a good thing.
In the influential 1981 book ‘The Role of the Father in Child Development’, the psychologist Michael Lamb noted that while mothers emphasise verbal exchanges and intimate engagement with toys, fathers are more likely to indulge in physical games – and also that boys are more likely to be described by way of fraternal and friendly traits such as ‘cheeky’ and ‘playful’, as opposed to the ‘stroppy’ and ‘argumentative’ labels that stick to daughters.
Studies have also found fathers often parent differently than mothers, playing in a way that is more physical, full of humour and excitement. A paper from Emory University in the US found that parental rough-and-tumbles can help children better manage their emotions, while Swedish research has shown that children who played with their fathers displayed fewer behavioural problems.
There’s another, older notion that fathers expand their children’s horizons beyond the family, while mothers protect children from discomfort. Perhaps, but in all this, I found my counter-argument. Sports, cushion-fights, even bantz videos; they were there for a bigger purpose.
Not that my partner wanted to know. It annoyed her that our father-son relationship sometimes appeared to be a bit exclusive and she was also nervous Bruno would pick up smutty laddish ways: “He might come over as creepy to girls.” In essence, our brotherly-matey relationship annoyed her.
As it turns out, the authoritarian dad wasn’t always a thing. Historians often date the stern, remote father role to the Industrial Revolution, when dads left home to work and became the distant provider-patriarch, bringing capital and discipline back to the home as well as offering an evening audience to childish accomplishments: “Show daddy what you did at school today!”
‘Fathers are a biological necessity but a social accident’
Raising children became a women’s job and the father’s role, due to various reasons, fell into a kind of decline and lost authority with every subsequent generation.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead set the tone in the mid-20th century with a notorious quote that resonates today: “Fathers are a biological necessity but a social accident.”
I wondered whether my playful parenting style might have been to establish a parental foothold at a time when roles are still shifting, when fathers need to reassert their raison d’etre.
Now our son is 17, this story has run its course.
We are still infantile and annoying, but we have reached a memorandum of understanding: that play is necessary but there’s also a time for seriousness.
Between my partner and I, we’ve mixed up some of the roles, so the fun stuff isn’t all mine and the business and ‘needs-based’ stuff isn’t all hers.
But there’s still a basic difference between us that speaks volumes. If he ever pisses me off, I offer this chilling warning: “Wait till your mother gets home”.