Fathers and Sons, American-Style

Men love to talk about the big subjects: politics, war, religion, and football. There is, however, one subject that is taboo among men—the subject of fathers. Men rarely talk about their fathers with other men. The subject is too sensitive, too fraught with our deepest hopes and fears. No matter who or what we have become, there is almost always one looming presence in a man’s life—a father. By contrast, the absence of a father in a son’s life represents the opposite: a void of incalculable loss.

American society has always held out the promise to fathers that the lives of their sons will be better than their own. This is part of the American Dream. The greatness of our society for several hundred years is that it has delivered on that dream for the vast majority of Americans. Only in America can the sons of farmers, factory workers, bus drivers, waiters, carpenters, janitors, and mechanics become doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, professors, entrepreneurs, and presidents. 

To be a father in America offers enduring satisfactions. American fathers typically live to see their sons exceed their own accomplishments. What could be better than that?

To be a son in America, however, is a more complicated matter. Ironically, no matter what one’s life accomplishments, no matter how much one has exceeded the economic and social status of one’s own father, American sons often feel inferior to their fathers. The medical doctor who is the son of a barber, the lawyer who is the son of a plumber, somehow feels that he is not quite the man that his father is or was. Why this should be so is not easily explained.

In America, the relationship between fathers and sons is one of high expectations. We also live in a culture that values and honors hard work regardless of profession. High-powered and wealthy lawyers can talk to plumbers precisely because such men often remind them of their own fathers. Deeply ingrained in the American psyche is the idea and the reality that by working hard and living one’s life in accord with certain virtues one can achieve just about anything. Our history even teaches us that the child born in a log cabin to poor parents could one day grow up to be president of the United States. 

No matter who one’s father is, whether he is a bank CEO or a street sweeper, whether his work collar is white or blue, we live in the long shadow cast by his expectations for us. Sons are expected to surpass the accomplishments of their fathers. I often meet men of wealth, power, and high social status who are still driven by deeply rooted insecurities that they haven’t lived up to the expectations of their “working-class” fathers.

In the end, though, there is something much deeper at play here. What sons fear most is that they don’t have their father’s moral character. Great fathers come in many forms, but they all share common virtues that stand as a looming presence in a son’s life. As young boys, we see how hard our fathers work, we see what it means to live a life of honesty, justice, integrity, fortitude, and courage. Not all grown men are virtuous all the time, but they almost always are in the presence of their children, and that’s the only thing that counts in the life of a child. Sons see their fathers as anchors whose virtues provide the necessary moral weight and stability that is required in the life of a boy. A good father never fails to be there for his children. 

Most importantly, the relationship between a father and son goes to the very heart of what it means to be a man. 

Manliness, rightly understood, is a virtue, and for most boys, the deepest symbol of what it means to be a man is embodied in the person of his father. Every boy has a father who defines what it means to be a man, for better or for worse. What young boy doesn’t think that his father is brave or gallant in some way? Fathers give sons that first and lasting glimpse of what manly honor is and why it matters. 

In the end, it comes down to this: a good father shows his son how to be a man. This is why we all live with the fear that we haven’t lived up to the moral expectations of our fathers. It haunts us. This is why men can’t talk about their fathers. Our reverence cuts too close to the very core of who we are as men. Boys love their fathers too much to talk about them. 

As a son, I live and will probably always live in the shadow of my father—even after he is gone. As a father of two sons, I live with the happy expectation that they will surpass me in all that they do. The wheel turns, and so it goes. 

About C. Bradley Thompson

C. Bradley Thompson is a professor of political science at Clemson University and the executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. He received his Ph.D. at Brown University, and he has also been a visiting scholar at Princeton and Harvard universities and at the University of London.

Photo: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

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