Father-son outings strengthen relationships

Courtland Milloy
Columnist July 20, 2012

What does a father have to do to make his son proud?

The question arises in “How to Train Your Dragon,” a live extravaganza appearing at Verizon Center through Sunday.

A Viking warrior and chief wanted to train his son to become a dragon slayer. But the son breaks with tradition and befriends dragons instead of killing them. There is a generational conflict, but by the end of the show it’s the father who gets trained by the son.

In the audience were many fathers and young sons. Nothing you’d call spectacular about that. Father-and-son outings are so commonplace that they tend to go without notice. It’s usually when a young man goes astray that we begin to wonder about the dad’s involvement.

And it does make a difference. A man’s guidance and encouragement — sometimes just a sympathetic ear — may set the course for the rest of a boy’s life. The relationship may determine whether he engages in criminal behavior, stays out of jail, uses drugs or graduates from high school.

“We really enjoy doing things together,” Andy Jones, a 34-year-old Web producer, told me. He and his son, Oscar, 5, were at the Verizon Center waiting for the show to start.

“We like attending the big spectacles, like monster truck shows and demolition derbies,” he said.

Oscar stood close by, appearing to hang onto every word.

“I want Oscar to see that you can be a responsible father and have fun, too,” Jones said. “He’s learning early on that you can hold down a 9-to-5, raise your children and have a great time. It’s not either-or. You can do both.”

Conflict of some sort was inevitable, but for now they were on the same page. What could be more rewarding?

Back in 2010, when the movie version of the story came out, David L. Kenrick wrote about the popularity of father-and-son themes in Hollywood on his blog. Many such movies followed one of two arcs, he noted:

● The father and son disagree, but eventually the father learns to accept the son’s way. That was the case in movies such as “The Rookie,” “Return of the Jedi” and “How to Train Your Dragon.”

● The father and son disagree, but eventually the son learns to accept the father’s way. That was the arc in movies such as “The Lion King,” “The Godfather” and “In the Name of the Father.”

“Intergenerational conflict represents an important theme in the evolution of human culture,” Kenrick wrote. As psychological anthropologists have often noted, “there is a lot to be gained from heeding the wisdom of the previous generation, who have learned how to solve many of the local problems (how to build a boat that won’t leak, how to catch fish, how to avoid being eaten by lions and other dragonoid creatures). At the same time, cultural evolution also involves innovation, and sometimes the younger generation recognizes that the world has changed, or that there’s a better way to catch a fish.”

The fathers I met at Verizon Center, like Jones, had a unique mix of wisdom that spanned the generations.

Scott Perkins was another. He’d brought his son, Jackson, 8, to the show.

“When I was growing up, the emphasis from our parents was on being citizens in your community,” said Perkins, 51, a senior vice president at TV One. “I would like for my son to be a citizen of the world, bilingual, with a global perspective and not limited by geography or his own demographic.”

As for the show, the animatronics were simply fantastic. My last “live spectacular” was back in the 1980s, when the Power Rangers (remember that craze?) appeared at the D.C. Armory. The difference between that light show and the dragon animatronics is the difference between watching a Philco rabbit-ear TV and an 80-inch digital 3-D set.

No doubt the show made a big impression on the boys. But long after the high-tech magic wears off, they are likely to remember something even more special. Their dads had unplugged from work on a Thursday evening to spend some quality time with them.

And the youngsters could not have been happier — or prouder.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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