On a late fall Thursday evening Steve's father says he wants to have a private talk after dinner. Steve, a seventh-grader, knows all too well what that's about: since the school year began two months earlier, his grades have been low and he was reported for "bad and disrespectful behavior" by two teachers in the same week. Around the house Steve has been quieter than usual, almost depressed.
When the rest of the family goes upstairs, Steve is alone with his father in the living room.
This scene, with minor variations, is a typical one experienced by fathers and their sons and daughters. But different fathers handle the same scene differently, and the three following examples show a range of responses that might be expected by fathers today.
One father, Frank, bluntly said Steve was in deep trouble and would be in for worse unless he stopped being a problem at school. Frank reminded Steve that he had worked hard to provide a good home for the family, and that Steve had a clear obligation to behave himself, work hard and do what he is supposed to do - no questions asked.
To emphasize the point, Frank told Steve not to leave the house after school for a week, and that more punishment would follow if that didn't convince him to improve his behavior and grades. Privately, Frank thought he might have a talk with Steve's teachers just in case they were giving his son a hard time.
A second father, Joe, bantered with Steve for a few minutes about their favorite football team before becoming serious. He told his son, in a calm and friendly voice, that he wanted to point out a few things about Steve's "performance problem" at school.
Joe described the consequences in life for people who fail to become "winners," and who lack the motivation to succeed. He told Steve to remember he is being constantly evaluated, and everything he does now will affect his future success or failure
Joe then gave his own analysis of what caused the conflict with the two teachers. He also outlined some steps Steve could take to bring up his grades and become better at "playing the game." He stressed his concern about the school problems and said he wanted to do all could to help. Finally, Joe asked if Steve understood all that, and encouraged his son to ask questions.
A third father, Bill, began by telling Steve to relax, that he was there to talk with him as a friend. He said it wasn't good to get uptight about such things, because there are a lot of hassles that occur in life, and the important thing in to "flow" with them and not let them interfere with having a good time. He urged Steve to be "up front" with all his feelings about what was going on at school, and to keep open their lines of communication.
Bill reminded Steve that no matter what the problems are, they will pass if Steve just stays relaxed about them. Bill then joked that maybe what they really needed to do was smoke a joint together sometime. They continued talking, and eventually the conversation drifted to a new record Steve had bought. Bill suggested they put it on the stereo and listen together.
What would you have done if you were Steve's father? Chances are your own response would have been similar to that of either Frank, Joe or Bill, because they illustrate some of the beliefs and actions of the three most common fathers today: the godfather, the corporate-manager father, and the mellowed-out father.
Not much is known about fatherhood in our society. Despite the attention paid to fathers each year on this day, the question of what the value of a father is in rearing children is generally neglected. Many men are upset and confused about how to be a good father in a world in which sex roles have been changing. They want to known what fathers are supposed to be doing.
It should be said that my analysis of the three types of fathers found today, and the reasons they all have problems with their children, is rooted in a point of view and method of research which differs from the kind of thinking found in pop psychology books on supermarket shelves, and from the mainstream of current psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.
In my view, pop psychology reflects faddish thinking based on shallow, naive and, often, self-centered views of human nature. Such writings usually teach acceptance and support of some of the worst values of our society, such as passive consumption, greed or concern only for "No. 1." All of which is done under an umbrella of scientific-sounding jargon to increase persuasiveness.
My analysis of fathers also differs from the mainstream of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, because those methods give little attention to the role of human values in the development of suffering and unhappiness, particularly among individuals within the "normal" range - those who appear successful and who have adapted to society.
Mainstream psychotherapy has concentrated on pathological passions, not the passions and attitudes within the normal range of human character which are negative and can block full human development.
The question of what forces within the individual and society support full human development and freedom is largely ignored by the mainstream. To some extent that is understandable, because most analysts want their patients to become happier, and so are led into supporting whatever helps the patient adapt to the world and its standards of happiness and success. Whether those standards and norms are healthy is not analyzed.
Recently, however, a point of view has been developing which places values and principles in the forefront of treatment and research. This point of view, on which my own work is based, is within the tradition developed by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and his associates. It combines the insights provided by psychoanalysis about the unconscious and the irrational with an understanding of social forces and ideology within society.
The method of research developed from this point of view, social-psychoanalysis, has been the basis of a variety of studies of human character and social institutions, both in the United States and in other countries. A notable example is The Gamesman, Michael Maccoby's recent study of the character of corporate exectives.
My analysis of the types of fathers in not the result of comprehensive research like The Gamesman , nor like the studies of the federal bureaucracy currently being conducted by the Harvard Project on Technology, Work and Character, under Dr. Maccoby's direction, and in which I participate. But, those studies have created a framework of understanding that has allowed me to re-examine my clinical work.
This clinical and social-psychoanalytic work, when applied to the subject of fatherhood, reveals there are three major types of fathers in today's society, which I call the godfather, the corporate-mamager father, and the mellowed-out father. Each reflect different principles and attitudes about the purpose, role and value of a father.
The godfather was once rampant in our society, but these days he is seen less and less. The godfather is rooted in the traditional, old-European values of the patriarchal family. He rules the children from a position of power and authority, which the children accept as legitimate and to which they submit.
On the positive side, he is generally benign and loving to his children. In return, the children usually love, or, at least, respect him for strength, consistency and his sense of personal responsibility for them. But the godfather may turn vindictive and oppressive if crossed or challenged.
At best the godfather creates an atmosphere of benign paternalism and protectiveness. Visitors to godfathers' homes often describe a sense of love and "togetherness" in the air. While all this may contribute to stability and self-discipline, it also limits the children's spontaneity, their freedom to make mistakes and the father's ability to learn from the children.
More negatively, this type of father may become a tyrant who stimulates hostility within his children and who encourages a belief that life is a constant struggle between the the weak and the strong.
Today's society, with its increased tolerance of both self-expression and self-indulgence, no longer supports traditional patriarchal rule to the extent it once did. Children today are more prone to question it, demand their rights and rebel.
A second type of father, the corporate - manager, better mirrors our times. He relates to his children as thought he is the chief exective officer of a corporation, and they are his subordinates. In contrast to the godfather, the corporate-manager is more open, flexible and available to his children.
He tries to organize the children's lives along the lines of a modern corporation. For example, he will typically delegate responsibilities and various duties to each of the children. Then he will periodically evaluate their "performance" and how well they meet the objectives.
These objectives include whatever the father considers important or useful in life, such as behavior around the home, school performance, participation in sports or other "acceptable" activities in which the child is expected to develop competence, or selection of a path which leads to a career.
The corprate-manager father communicates a message to his children that the purpose of a father is to help them develop and shape within themselves the "right" skills, techniques and attitudes which will enable them to successfully compete for a piece of the outside world.
These attitudes about fatherhood are rooted within the careerist, game-playing, and often cynical demands of work found in most contemporary organizations.
Corporate-manager fathers teach their children, at best, to develop the talents highly reqarded by the system, to become "winners," and to stifle talents, attiudes or thoughts which might make them "losers". As in the large meritocracies found today, this type of father establishes an atmosphere of "fair-play" and "equal opportunity" within the family.
On the negative side, however, this type of father supports the selfish pursuit of position and power, as well as emotional coldness, isolation, detachment and lack of trust in other people.
In thier attempts to model their relations with their children after relationships within orgainzations, many corporate-manager fathers have gone so far as to schedule periodic "business meetings" with their children. In these meetings, various issues are presented, options explored and decisions made. While contributions and input from the children are encouraged by the corporate-manager father, there is often little discussion about the emotional issues and concerns his children may experience.
The real aim of these meetings is for the father to present his objectives and to persuade his subordinates to accept and carry them out. As a result, the children are often left wondering if their father really understands, or even cares, about what life is like for them.
A third type of father more prevalent is the mellowed-out father. He often reaches full bloom when his children become teenagers. The mellowed-out father wants to break down the barriers between generations and "relate" to the kids, by showing them he can be as modern, hip, mellow and laid-back as they are.
The mellowed-out father attempts to do this in various ways. He may, for example, encourage his children to call him by his first name, assure them he is really a friend who just happens to be older than them, wear adolescent clothing, smoke marijuana with them, show enthusiasm for the music they like, keep up with fads or encourage sex as a recreational sport.
On the positive side, this kind of father is often motivated by a desire to be more involved, indormal and friendly than many other fathers. He supports and believes in the relaxed pursuit of pleasure. However, he mistakenly assumes that intimacy, spontaneity, joy and caring are new techniques that can be quickly adopted, rather than attitudes that must be developed from the heart.
Also, many mellowed-out fathers are driven by a fear of growing old and dying. They attempt to put off their encounter with mortality by identifying with youth and supporting impulsive or hedonistic pleasures.
Perhaps more serious for his children, the mellowed-out father tries to deny differences between father and child. So he misses an opportunity to be an example of an adult who believes in and practices principles or who has a point of view about the priorities of life.
These, then, are three of the most common fathers. Despite their faults, they are among the best fathers when compared with some of the worst extremes of their types: the Gestapo father, the zombie father and the milquetoast father. A discussion of these three worst types takes us from the realm of the normal to that of the pathological.
For example, the Gestapo father has developed the more negative and pathological tendencies of the godfather. He is driven by a deep hatred of life and by a desire to control and deaden everything around him. His relations with his children are marked by punitive domination and destructive control. He wants to squash any display of spontaneity. His authority in all matters reigns supreme, and it is frequently arbitrary and irrational. Any child who attempts to challenge or question it is met with swift and severe punishment.
The Gestapo father is not a man without passions, but his are cold passions of hatred, vengenance and destructiveness. Relations between the Gestapo father and his children lead in some cases to emotional sickness for the children, who are often subjected to brutality and who lack a positive alternative. The relationship may also lead to violence or escape.
The zombie father has developed some of the most negative tendencies of the corporate-manager father. He has lost his capacity for human relatedness. He is often so detached and emotionless that his children wonder if he is among the living dead. In their daily routine some of these fathers come home from work, eat and then sit in front of the TV until they fall asleep.
The zombie father is not driven by the destructive tendencies of the Gestapo father, but he has developed such a numb heart that he is virtually useless to his children and irrelevant to their lives. It is for this reason that the zombie father must be considered one of the worst.
Many children of zombie fathers, after they become adults, report difficulty in remembering anything about their fathers.
The milquetoast father is a third example of the worst fathers. He is emotionally alive but weak-hearted. He seems to have developed, to an extreme, the "anything goes" philosophy of the mellowed-out father. Because he is unable to take a stand on anything and is easily intimidated, he frequently gets little respect from his children, who often secretly yearn for him to show some strength.
The milquetoast father often cares for his children, but is frightened to be strong with them because he equates that with being callous and hard-hearted. This type of father, often married to a domineering woman, was satirized in a popular cartoon strip in the 1940s by H.T. Webster called Caspar Milquetoast.
To return to the three main types of fathers, which account for the majority, they are all, for the most part, well-meaning. They usually have their children's best interests at heart. How is it, then, that their attitudes and behavior as fathers seem to lead so often to frustration, unhappiness and deterioration of the father-child relationship?
The answer to this is, of course, complicated. But part of it may be found by looking at the psychological consequences of how the father conducts his own life, both at home and at work. For example, at one end of the spectrum one might find a father whose attitudes toward life are rooted in such principles as respect for others and love of full human development. He might demostrate a commitment to seeking and supporting the truth, both at home and in the outside world.
On the other hand, one might encounter a father who is only interested in matters which directly affect him or his personal comfort.
Some fathers develop attitudes, beliefs or goals whose consequences actually contribute to general unhappiness in life and to poor relations with their children.
For example, all three types of fathers, as members of out society, share a common theme: they are driven by self-centered derires, such as power, position or quick pleasure. Some of these desires are supported and awarded by institutions and organizations, which make them less visible. And some of these desires, when they dominate the personality, feed attitudes of greed and selfishness, even though they may be unconscious to the individual, or masked because they are widely shared by others.
Yet the major philosophic and religious traditions, including the Jedeo-Christian in the West, and the Buddhist and Taoist in the East, have always maintained that whenever such pursuits dominate and take hold of one's life, the inevitable result is suffering, misery and alienation.
It is, of course, reasonable and natural for people to desire the rewards of success in society, to desiree comforts and the like. But destructive consequences occur for emotional health and human reltaionships when these pursuits become the main purpose of one's existence.
There is often considerable resistance to understanding this point. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described, more than 20 years ago in The Sane Society, the tendency to equate adaptation to society's norms and values with emotional maturity and health. He wrote that can be particularly misleading and even dangerous if the norms are unhealthy.
In our own society, domination by the desire for power, fame and material possessions has practically become the standard by which we are supposed to measure healthy emotionl attitudes and behavior. In contrast, there is growing evidence from several line of research that the ancient teachings of philosophical and religious figures bear up scientifically: that a life which becomes devoted to pursuing ambition, power, greed or fame, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, does contribute to emotional and spiritual suffering.
While this is a sobering conclusion, there are possibilities for constructive change. It is possible for some fathers to develop themselves beyond the limitations of whichever type of father they tend to be, while retaining the positive qualities.They come to realize it is not the exercise of domination and control, if they are godfathers, nor the skillful coaching of a child's "carreer," if they are corporate-manager fathers, nor the adoption of the latest technique that promises intimacy and quick pleasure, if they are mellowed-out father, that constitutes the worths and value of fatherhood.
Those fathers who do try to develop an alternative usually begin with a struggle in their own daily lives to develop their reason and their capacity to be fully awake, emotionally, to life and reality.
But how would a godfather, corporate-manager father or mellowed-out father put all this into specific practice? What would be some concrete examples? There is no prescriptive formula, no magic. There is only a process of experimentation and development.
However, the father could begin by drawing upon the positive side of whichever type of father he tends to be, and to develop himself from there.
For example, one godfather type, Gregory, tried to ease his demands of obedience by his children and his domination of their lives. His relationship with his children had grown into that of a military commander and his troops. Gregory's genuine love for his children allowed him to see the destructiveness of his need to dominate, control and order his children's lives. He could observe that his children's obedience to his commands led to dependency and resentment, something he recalled only too well from his own upbringing.
While no real crises had developed in his children's lives, either at home or at school, Gregory observed that the everday situations his children faced, such as doing chores or asking permission for something at home, as well as the usual childhood conflicts with peers at school, presented an opportunity for change in his relationship with them. Rather than simply "laying down the law" about what they could do, Gregory tried to show the children the principles behind his "orders," principles such as respect for the rights of others, priority of family cooperation over selfish wishes or showing kindness to others.
In his children's eyes, Gregory became more a wise and competent resource and guide, who believed in and practiced moral principles.
One corporate-manager father, Roy, was stimulated to experiment by a crisis in his relationship with his oldest son, a crisis which had been building for several years around the issue of his son's lack of "motivation" for schoolwork. Roy worried that would hold his son back from getting ahead in today's competitive world.
Roy began an experiment to become a more active listener to what his son felt and thought. And, he tried to support some of his son's interests and talents which were not necessarily "marketable." He had always believed, and with some justification, that it was natural for all fathers to be concerned about how their children would "make it" in the world as adults. But he came to understand that corporate-manager fathers do not recognize their children's emotions and therefore raise children who are detached and emotionally empty as adults.
Roy learned he could be more helpful by cultivating his son's full personal and moral development, and not by focusing just on what is his son would make of his life as an adult. It was essential for Roy to find a balance between empathy for his son's experiences and a rational consideration of the realities of living.
The mellowed-out father faces the task of establishing a realistic destinction between himself, as an adult man, and his children. Mellowed-out fathers tend to identify with and idealize the passions and impulses of youth. They equate structure and discipline in life with repressive moralism and authoritarianism.
By trying to be "tuned-in" to their children and to understand the normal human passions for pleasure and joy, they throw out the baby with the bathwater. They are motivated by a self-centered and potentially exploitative desire to "do your own thing," or whatever "feels good."
One mellowed-out father, Harry, was forced to face the emptiness of his relationsip with his teen-age daughter, who lived with him following his divorce.
In a painful confrontation with his daughter, Harry was shocked when she told him all she had ever really learned from him was to be upfront with him about smoking marijuana in the house (which they often did together), and to accept herself as a "sexual being."
She angrily told him she would prefer to have a father for a father, rather than a middle-age hippie. Harry began to realize he was attracted to an indulgent, hedonistic life, which he masked with hip jargon about "relating," and "finding your own space." He really cared only about himself, and did not feel deeply about anyone.
He began to realize there were principles in life which were important to him. So he began to develop the positive side of his mellowed-out attitudes, such as openness, flexibility and enjoyment of life. He encouraged his daughter to recognize the inner happiness that grows from self-discipline and activity rooted in the practice of honesty, courage, fellowship and compassion.
So Harry and his daughter volunteered to help with local group that served free meals to the indigent. He believed that such service to others represented a small, but specific, step toward balancing a life that had become too dominated by indulgence.
These, then, are ways in which sone fathers have begun to develop themselves and their relationships with their children. The father who makes such an attempt is never going to suceed completely. None of us are saints, nor do we live in an ideal world. But the father who tries is the father more likely to enjoy the pleasures of a long, loving and stimulating relationship with his children.
Names and identifying features of persons in this story have been changed. CAPTION: Illustration 1, Godfather, By Gloria Marconi; Illustration 2, Corporate; Illustration 3, Mellow; Illustration 4, Gestapo; Illustratiion 5, Zombie; Illustration 6, Milquetoast