"Fathers and Sons"
by Ronald C. Reece, Ph.D.

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
”When you coming home, dad?” “I don't know when,
But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."
From “Cat's in the Cradle”
by Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin’s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” speaks volumes about the relationship dynamics between fathers and sons.  The son’s desire for contact and the father’s unavailability physically and/or emotionally are heartfelt.  Perhaps that was Chapin’s experience as it is with so many fathers and sons.

What’s the deal?  The importance of fathers is well documented, but it seems we are still evolving when it comes to nurturing and emotionally connecting with our sons.  We are still better at providing and doing.  Affection is felt to be appropriate, with young sons, but the message is also be tough, be strong.  By adolescent years, sons and fathers both seem uncomfortable with the emotional closeness.  Sometimes it is okay when we play together.  However, truly connecting with each other is still scarce.

Fathers want to teach; sons want to be taught, but not all the time.  Boys grow up trying to figure out how to be men by watching and learning from their fathers and other adult males.  The process is complicated because in order to become “himself” or “his own man” the son’s individuation is necessary.  Individuation often reaches fervor in adolescence and conflicts arise over clothes, hair, breaking the family rules, etc.

Maturing into young adulthood results in the oft spoken “Wow, Dad sure has learned a lot.”  Well, maybe.

But how does this dance play out when father and son are in the family business together?  More often than not, it is very difficult and individuation takes longer.  A good friend of mine worked with his father for years and the conflicts were great.  He was about to quit and sought the advice of an older man who knew his father.  After several conversations, the mentor suggested he stay and learn to “come along side his father” by recognizing more of his own value and accepting his similarities to his father rather than focusing on his father’s anger or criticism. Easier said than done but he did it.

In my work with family owned businesses, I have seen incredible volatility, open hostility and disrespect between fathers and sons.  In essence, the son wants approval and recognition.  The father wants the son to do more or do it better.  Of course, sharing power, control and authority requires a high level of communication and trust.  When the relationship pain or possible damage to the business gets great enough, I get a call.  We begin with a process I have labeled Emotional and Interpersonal Due Diligence.  First the focus is on understanding the individuals, then bringing them together to strengthen and reshape how they understand each other as people, father and son, and as business colleagues.  One of our primary initiatives is to establish  boundaries between their personal world and their business world.  Often, I hear family members say, “No matter what, we are family.” 

Fathers and sons know this too.  I just ask them to focus on it at the right time and place.  To listen longer before speaking is the father’s task.  The son needs to demonstrate patience, respect and consistent value.  Their personal relationship must be nurtured.   Putting sincere deposits in their relationship bank account can do wonders for each other and their business relationship. Perhaps they will, “have a good time then”.

© Reece & Associates, P.A.