On Psychology

Jewish World Review May 3, 2000 /28 Nissan, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Fathering lessons from John Lennon

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: My father, like other more famous fathers, such as John Lennon and Carl Sagan, completely neglected his sons. Although not as famous as a John Lennon or Carl Sagan, my father is nonetheless deeply loved and respected by many thousands of people and is a community leader of some stature.

I would have thought that he and other beloved and famous men would have understood their sons needed love and nurturing. Instead, they spent most of their time seeking the attention and affection of others outside the family.

Do you know what might be going on with these men, and whether they may have something in common that leads them to seek great respect from the nation and yet leave their own sons abandoned and ashamed of them? Is there anything I can do to get my father to love me, or must I just resign myself to my fate?

A: Men who have trouble fathering were not well-fathered themselves. In this way, the legacy of absent, abusive or neglectful fathering is passed down from one generation to the next.

Trakdata Perhaps the best book on this subject is Man Enough: Fathers, Sons and the Search for Masculinity (Perigee Books, 1993) by psychiatrist Frank Pittman. Dr. Pittman's thesis stems from the observation that across cultures and throughout history, it is fathers, or the community of fathers, who help usher boys into manhood.

If a son is lucky enough to have grown up with a caring, involved father, he is taught through that relationship what healthy masculinity is all about. In a very real sense, well-fathered sons do not have to guess what being a man is like; they learn about healthy masculinity from watching "a real man leading a real life with a real woman."

When sons grow up without a loving, caring and involved father, they are less confident as to what manhood is all about. Rather than growing up secure in their own masculinity, they become obsessed with outward signs and affirmations of whether they are "man enough."

Some seek this affirmation through sexual conquests. If I sleep with women, their reasoning goes, that will prove I am a man -- and the more women I sleep with, the more evidence I have that I am a man.

Others seek this affirmation through competition. They dedicate their lives to competing with other males. Sometimes this competition takes the form of physical aggression; if I can beat you up, they reason, that proves I am a man. Other men compete obsessively through sports, games, even drinking contests. These men must find ways to compete to make up for their insecurity regarding their manhood.

Still others seek a sense of being man enough through acquisition. The more wealth, power, or public affection I acquire, they believe, the more proof I have that I am a man. But no matter how much they acquire, it is never enough, for what they are really seeking, what they desperately want more than money, wealth, or power, is the affection -- and approval -- of their fathers.

This helps explain the behavior of some dysfunctional, yet famous, men. John Lennon, for example, was abandoned by his father when he was very young. Without a caring father in his life, Lennon was never fully confident in his own manhood.

To reassure himself that he was man enough, Lennon spent most of his life competing for attention and public recognition. Before the Beatles hit it big, he would lead them in a call-and-response chant in which he would say, "Where are we going, fellows?" To which the rest of the Beatles would answer, "To the top, Johnny!" Not content with merely the "top," he would press, "And where's that, fellows?" To which the rest were instructed to rejoin "To the toppermost of the poppermost!"

Lennon was, indeed, a gifted composer and lead the Beatles to the "toppermost of the poppermost." When it came to his own son Julian, however, he was clueless. How can one be a father if one is not confident he are a man?

Lennon himself was aware of his difficulty relating to his son. Fellow Beatle Paul McCartney tells of the time Lennon had brought his son Julian on a cruise. Lennon reportedly marveled at the ease with which McCartney interacted with Julian, asking, "Where did you learn how to do that?"

McCartney had learned how to "do that" from interacting with his own father with whom he had a close relationship. Little wonder it was Paul, not John, who transformed easily into a loving family man after the breakup of the Beatles.

Fortunately, there is hope for the ill-fathered son. Though not easy, sons with distant, absent or abusive fathers can move past their obsessive need to prove their masculinity by striving to work with other men instead of competing with them, achieving real intimacy and equality with their wives, and, most importantly, being an active father themselves.

In his later years, John Lennon seemed to have learned at least some of these lessons, allowing him to withdraw from his obsessive competitiveness. In Watching the Wheels, one of the last songs he ever wrote, he answers the question, "Don't you miss the bigtime boy?" with "I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round... I just had to let it go." By letting go of his need to be at the "toppermost of the poppermost," he could finally involve himself with his own second son, Sean.

Is there hope for your relationship with your father? I hope so. But even if that never happens, you can help break the legacy of fatherlessness by dedicating yourself to your own children. For, as Dr. Pittman notes, raising a better class of men requires that we first raise a better class of fathers.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn