A public figure and gospel musician posted on his Instagram account a photo that was deemed by some to be inappropriate and potentially dangerous. This photo of the father embracing his teenage sleeping son on the couch sparked a debate around masculinity, limitations of touch, privacy, and the role of fathers in the lives of their sons.
This topic is important to me because of my close relationship with my father, whom I consider to be a close friend, mentor, and the man that I honor most in life. I find as a therapist that we as a whole generally default to perpetuating what we observed or received as a young child. Formative early life experiences set our expectations well into adulthood, and that includes how we are supposed to interact with male figures. From my experiences, it is no shock that this picture evoked strong positive and negative emotions, and I hypothesize that these reactions are based on what type of manhood each person had modeled for him or her as a young person.
For too many people, touchlesssness among males, specifically with their father, is the norm and could be viewed as aberrant, inappropriate, or potentially dangerous. I am working against this. When we come to acknowledge that our early childhood experiences could be incomplete or harmful, we can grow and improve for ourselves and others. Comments like, “My mother didn’t do that for us,” are a good statement of fact, but it is not a template for how you are to behave moving forward. “My father hugged me once at a funeral,” is a great articulation of fact. Again, it is not a template or justification for continued behavior patterns. Many people [here] have studied and written about the benefits of healthy, platonic physical touch. This type of touch lower a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety while strengthening their immune system and social bond. If the people making either of the statements above remained in their way of thinking, they would continue to perpetuate a pattern of behavior for the future generation.
When I sit with clients, I encourage them to make non-judgmental statements about their lives, giving just the facts. After acknowledging what does not work for them, they can decide what they wish to unlearn prior to putting on new ways of thinking and behaving. The Book of Ephesians in the Bible is mostly about this principle. The Apostle Paul worked diligently to instill the idea that these new believers must put off their old ways and then put on their new ways. He taught them to abandon sins of their previous life and gave them clear expectations of a new man, who is filled by the Spirit and renewed in his mind. What do you need to unlearn?
Statement: “My father only spoke to me when I was wrong, and he never hugged me.”
Acknowledgment: This was a painful experience. He did not give me what I needed.
Unlearn: Parents need to only correct children. Physical touch has to be awkward.
Learn: How to encourage my child. How to initiate healthy touch for myself and others.
Disclaimer: This is an active process that can be very difficult. It involves acknowledging unpleasant things. I have a friend who grew up without a father, and he recently acknowledged that he received no touch growing up--only punches from a football coach when he misbehaved. When pressed beyond nostalgia and justification for his mother, coaches, and strangers who observed these things, he confessed that this was no healthy way to raise a young boy. That is hard to accept because doesn't it implicate the mother? The coach? The absent father? How can people you love and look up to be so wrong? Well, it is possible. It happened. And the emotions and consequences are real. Now, what will he do about it today for his child's sake? What will you do about your particular situation?