Last weekend, we had a family lunch to celebrate my mother's birthday. Unfortunately, I forgot to tell our eldest boy, 14, who'd already made plans. I asked him to cancel and a row ensued – with the inevitable: "I hate you!" But he accompanied us to the restaurant, behaved beautifully and later confessed he'd had "fun". I told him that we loved his company, he'd made Grandma happy, but that next time I'd be sure to give him more notice.
It would have been easier to avoid incurring my son's wrath by letting him skip the lunch. But in my heart, I knew it would have been wrong. Certainly, Barnaby Lenon, the ex-headmaster of Harrow, is on my side. He believes too many boys are grossly underperforming, falling behind and getting into trouble because too many fathers want to be their son's best friends and fail to enforce the discipline that boys need to thrive.
Laying down the ground rules
In his book Much Promise, to be published this month, he states: "Boys need disciplining by schools and parents. They need it... and, what is more, they can take it." Lenon suggests that because we have handed over so much authority to our children, we have to negotiate with them as we do our friends, and discipline has collapsed with it.
This is hard to argue with. From David Beckham and his son Brooklyn getting joint tattoos, like a pair of mates on a stag weekend, to fathers I know who send their 14-year-old boys to parties with bottles of vodka, my generation doesn't seem comfortable with being the father figure who knows right from wrong.
In my experience of raising boys in a leafy part of London, this laissez-faire trend is becoming endemic because of the way we live now. Fathers of my generation are less formal, yet probably more separate from our children than we have ever been. Where once we worked and hunted together, now we often feel like strangers who share little more than the same postcode.
Peter Pan fathers
Part of the problem is my generation's reluctance to grow up. We might have jobs and families, but we also need to be personally fulfilled – our kids are often at clubs or socialising, while we're off playing golf or riding bikes. This leaves little time for the old-school humdrum family life. In the very brief moments that we assemble as a family, we dearly want the experience to be fun, not fraught, as if this is another "success" box that must be ticked.
A friend, a City accountant, is typical. He cycles into work early, goes to the gym, puts in 10 hours, and cycles home again. If and when he actually crosses paths with his son, he wants to bro-out and watch sport with him. Neither he nor his wife wants to be the bad guy, meaning that it's the nanny who says when it's time for homework. When we last met for a drink, my friend told me that he doubted his son would do A-levels – not because he lacked ability, but because his father refused to create tension by pushing him.
A generation of tiny tyrants
As a parent, you are fundamentally responsible for providing care, structure and authority. Certainly, past generations of fathers often focused too much on stern authority at the expense of kindness. My generation has over-adjusted on the caring side. The cult of the childhood is also to blame: the notion that allowing fundamentally clueless people (kids) to make decisions based on what feels emotionally rewarding for them will somehow lead to utopia. It doesn't. It leads to chaos.
We've moved from one extreme to another, and are now raising a generation of tin-pot tyrants. As fathers, we need to take back control. I have great sympathy for the ex-headmaster of Harrow in having to deal with weakly parented children.
Avoiding the responsibilities
Years ago, we lived next door to a man who refused to set boundaries for his son. The boy was allowed to stay up until 2am on school nights, watching TV (my bedroom shared a wall with his). Sleep-deprived and lacking routine, the boy fell behind at school – but his parents wondered why.
My cousin experienced a similar situation: his neighbours would often vacate the house so their son, 15, could invite friends round. (It was tantamount to deferring the fathering duty to the neighbours, who routinely trotted round to ask him to turn down the music.)
It's for your own good - and theirs
This approach is disastrous for boys who, says counsellor Janey Downshire, the co-author of Teenagers Translated, need measured authority if they are not to become directionless and insecure.
"Teenagers - in particular boys - are going to be risk-takers. It's really important for the developing male brain to know where the limits are by developing boundaries. It particularly does that through the father-son relationship, as it's the male voice that the adolescent male brain picks up on the 'no, not that' in a way that he doesn't quite so well pick up on in the mother's voice. The male voice gives the authority, it helps the child start to find his brake pedal, and also to be able to ultimately self-police, develop a conscience in the long term and have that moral compass." It's really important, she adds, to have the kind, but firm male authority, "because otherwise he's like a rudderless ship".
It's so beneficial for fathers and their teenage sons to be close, but – for our personal development and sanity – also separate. Perhaps this is why I found the pictures of David Beckham (clearly a loving, and devoted parent) overseeing his son Brooklyn getting a tattoo "just like him" so unsettling. Brooklyn might be an Instagram celebrity in his own right, but his initial fame was borrowed from his father. Does he really need his father's tattoos, too?
Finding the right balance
How do we strike the right balance? We do not want to repeat the mistakes of uncaring parents, nor do we want to wear rainbow pantaloons and applaud each time our 14-year-old gets an F in Meditation Studies. I think the trick is to see yourself as a leader, not a dictator.
The best father I know also works longer hours than any of my friends. He travels frequently for work, but always makes time to speak to, and listen to, his kids. He wants to be buddies but, equally, always pushes them to do better and constantly encourages them and reminds them of their goals. Because he spends time with them, his knowledge about his children's lives helps him make good decisions on their behalf, but more importantly also gives him the authority to deliver a hard "no" when required. While he is not always popular, he is adored and respected (begrudgingly) by his kids, who are all flourishing at school.
A healthy distance
The absurd thing about all this, is that my generation benefited enormously from strict parenting. My father did not get everything right. He had far too many rules and lines that I shouldn't cross and barked far too loudly when I transgressed. He made me play rugby for the school for five years (I broke my nose twice), and tennis and golf (both of which I loathed). I cannot remember being asked for my opinion. It might have been my childhood, but he was paying and he knew best.
Not once did I consider him to be my friend. He was my father, I loved him and we enjoyed one another's company, but there was a distance between us that I think now was healthy. He was not trying to be popular. His authority seemed eternal. His "no" was final, like rain stopping play. Later, I could live my own life and, as he always said, I could do what I liked then. The discipline, the structure, provided the kind of certainty you never find again in adult life, except, of course, when you provide it for your own children. As such, I am happy to say no.
The Telegraph, London
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