When my father found out that I was about to become a father at age 16, he wondered whether he had been negligent in his fatherly duties. But he quickly got over that to impress on me the importance of not neglecting mine.
"I never talked to you about the birds and the bees," he told me after my son was born. "But I guess you know all about it now."
Now my son is 16, and I can only wish that he knew all about it, for time has made me no more adept at discussing the facts of life than my father was.
"Son," I say to my boy. "You like girls?" His instant tune-out tells me I have asked another stupid question. So he fidgets. And he squirms. Then he scans his bedroom wall on which select shots from Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue are thumbtacked.
"Well, uh, do you like 'em for any particular reason?" I ask with a contorted face.
"Like, wow, dad, are you square or what?" Like square? Me? Insulted, I forget about girls.
"Like what about math, son?" I snap. "Can you do equations?"
It's a terrible feeling of inadequacy, not being able to talk to a boy about something men spend half their lives boasting about. If ever there was a reason for having a father -- beyond the need for financial support -- it ought to be to have someone who can at least talk to his son about girls and sex. But this is an area where the failure rate is woeful, the consequences profound and the solution not as easy as it might seem.
It's not just the problem of boys growing up in female-headed households. Indeed, a far more widespread problem is that of boys living at home with their fathers and still having no communication.
Recent research on family relationships shows that many fathers spend very little time with their children. The pattern begins, for example, during the first nine months of a child's life, when the average father spends only three minutes a day engaged in some kind of exchange with his offspring.
By the time a boy is ready for a serious talk about the facts of life -- or even baseball -- many fathers realize that they haven't the foggiest idea about how to start a conversation with their sons.
"Go ask your mother," comes the canned response to questions more appropriately handled by the man of the house.
From my perspective, sandwiched between two generations of namesakes, part of the problem has to do with that embattled state of man known as fatherhood, which has undergone profound change since the 1950s. When I was growing up, my father's word went unchallenged. His sense of values -- the work ethic, the church and family -- were unquestioned.
Even though I had pulled a grand surprise with the announcement of my impending fatherhood, my father wasted not a moment before proclaiming with certainty what must be done.
Now times have changed, and although more men prefer to assume household duties, there exists a crisis in parenting, what with teen-agers' pregnancies and skyrocketing numbers of female-headed households. The result is that a significant number of today's adolescents are teetering on the verge of adulthood with virtually no preparation for it.
For many fathers, the historic certainty of a man's role no longer exists. In fact, in some quarters, families are being planned without them. Today, a father is just as likely to be wrestling with questions of drug abuse, crime and sexual promiscuity as his sons.
The fact that father and son may be trying to tackle the same problems could be a starting point for working them out together. But the father should never lose sight of the power he possesses, that special masculine influence that can profoundly shape his son's destiny.
I grope with this, not necessarily as a guide for fathers on Father's Day, but as a means of ushering my own son into manhood, and in recognition of the timeless truth of my father's absolute belief that a man must accept responsibility for his actions.