Mad at Dad

Please Note: I got knocked down with a serious bug this weekend in New Hampshire which has had me flat on my back all week. So thanks for bearing with me, and my posts will be back on a regular schedule now.

I’m at the age when I, and many of my friends, are standing at the dock with our parents. They’re getting ready to board and we’re reluctantly facing it, while reflecting on how much they mean to us, and how surprisingly huge their role in our lives has turned out to be. All of which gets me thinking about fathers and sons.

Dads figure pretty largely in the lives of the men I’ve worked with over the years.

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Well, duh, I know –  Dads figure largely in any man’s life. But I think the reason I hear a lot about them from my clients is because problems between fathers and sons often become the roots of so many other problems. So in my work, when talking about a person’s life and history, Dad comes up quite a bit. Sometimes as a monster; sometimes invisible; sometimes unapproachable; sometimes as a terrific guy with a few flaws.

And in fairness, nobody gets a straight A report card in parenting. I know, as a father, that both my sons would give me a mixed set of grades, and I’d say our relationships are pretty solid. Still, tension between parent and child is inevitable, and it’s the nature and degree of the problem, not its existence, that determines how serious it is. And along those lines I’d have to say there are plenty of people who are plenty mad at Dad.

I’d also have to say, with all due respect for the pain anyone’s experienced at the hands of an imperfect father, that while anger may be legitimate, forgiveness is still a mandate.

I wrote my first book twenty-four years ago, and much of it had to do with father/son bonding. But it was too easy, in 1991, for me to write about what fathers should or shouldn’t be.  I was new to the game myself, the proud step-father of a lovably energetic eight year old boy, who I’d known for five years but had spent a mere three years actually parenting.  Huge mistakes, mostly mine, hadn’t yet been made. His adolescence was years off, so our days were playful and I was his hero, tossing a ball with him daily, snatching him up after school for bowling, football games and junk food.  No wonder it was so easy for me to look critically at older fathers.  I was determined never to become one.

I had a lot to learn. Since then, the boy I loved has become the man I admire.  But between then and now we certainly jumped into the power struggles and mutual disappointments I‘m sure every father/son relationship is doomed to, and I careened from rigid strictness to cold fury to indifference, depending on which battle we were fighting. We weathered some tough years, re-bonded, and today I couldn’t be prouder of him when I see the outcome.

But happy ending or not, I’m sure there are things I said and did to him that were wrong, and can’t be undone.  So like all sons, he could write his own book, delivering a rather mixed summation of the old man, and I understand more than ever how difficulties between fathers and sons come about.  For obvious and very personal reasons, I appreciate and stress the need for a forgiving heart.

There’s a time for anger, of course. I remember too well the first time I admitted to myself how enraged I was with my own father, and how blasphemous and childish I felt for even thinking that. But it was a crucial beginning.  Dad is that enormous figure assigned to us who may, for better or worse, affect us more profoundly than anyone else in life.  So your relationship with him can play into much of what you’re dealing with now.  “Be angry, and sin not”, Paul advised. (Ephesians 4:26)

Anger’s not just allowed; it’s advised. When a child’s been violated, humiliated, neglected or abused, anger’s in order, both as a legitimate response and a necessary part of his healing. If you were wronged, you were hurt;  if you were hurt, your anger is justified.  So let it come. Learn from it; talk it through with a Christian professional or trusted mentor; confront when confronting is called for; set boundaries if new ones are needed.

And forgive. Forgiveness never means pretending a wrong didn’t happen, but it does call us to give up the right to punish or retaliate.  Because as surely as you need to express and resolve your anger, there’ll be someone else, someday, who’ll need to do the same with his or her anger towards you.  And you, like all of us, are subject to the laws of sowing and reaping, so be sure to sow forgiveness while you can.  You will, unquestionably, be grateful it’s there to reap when you need it.


  1. This strikes a note with me, as my father never wanted me and I grew up unloved. I have made so many mistakes as a father, choices I made that continue to affect my children. One has forgiven and reconciled with me, the other…we are still praying.

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