Friend or Absent Figure: The Father’s Role in a Son’s Life

Today, the most favored parenting model for both relationships and offspring is the partnership model. It is more than just evenly sharing household chores. There is a significant shift in both the quantity and quality of child-rearing and the evolution of the father’s image is a natural consequence of changing cultural expectations of men. 

Hard times marked by war, totalitarianism, or economic crises demanded men return to their primal roles as protectors and providers. They had to be strong and brave, and for many, showing emotions was seen as a weakness, an indulgence they could ill afford.

Three Golden Years: The Crucial Early Childhood

The first three years of a child’s life are crucial for psychological processes that shape later emotional and social development. According to British physician and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, it is during this period that attachment, understood as the emotional bond between parent and child, can form. Women, for physiological reasons, are often closer to their newborns and more quickly reach an affective state akin to love. This is influenced by complex psychological mechanisms and biochemistry, including the production of oxytocin, commonly known as the “attachment hormone.”

Many men believed that mothers were primarily responsible for a child’s early years, a role culturally assigned to women. Not long ago, women were expected to devote themselves entirely to household maintenance and child-rearing, handling feeding, diapering, entertaining, and putting to sleep. This image was not confined to one culture; it could be seen as a societal standard from the 1960s and 1970s, from the American suburbs to the Polish countryside.

The transgenerational trauma of two world wars and totalitarianism in Eastern Europe left a mark on parenting models across generations. However, with each generation, this influence has waned. Economic improvements and the emergence of a more affluent world in the northern hemisphere have allowed for greater attention to children’s emotional and spiritual needs. This social evolution has gradually included fathers in the world of the child from the earliest days, from participating in childbirth to equally sharing childcare responsibilities. Consequently, fathers, like mothers before them, have the opportunity to bond with their children and offer them the chance to form secure attachments not just with one, but two “objects”: mother and father.

Son or Daughter? 

It is commonly believed that every man desires a son. Certainly, most parents, especially those expecting their first child, have a gender preference. However, fathers’ declarations do not support the age-old myth tied to historical realities: the son as heir and key to the family’s continuation. Today, regardless of the child’s gender, the key seems to be the presence of both parents.

In the early months of life, when parenting mainly involves caregiving tasks, the gender differences between parents seem less significant. Yet it is the children, not the parents, who are to adopt perspective. The idea that boys and girls are raised differently faces strong opposition today. Nonetheless, observing a child’s development reveals certain interests and behaviors as gender-specific stereotypes.

Why Do Boys Play with Hammers?

The simplest answer to the title question is: because their dads use hammers. Experienced parents know that all toys can be discarded, and the child will still be most fascinated by what the parents commonly use. Children are excellent observers, akin to walking “radars” who see and hear everything. Their minds are adapted for continuous learning about the world.

Imitation is a common way of acquiring skills. But why do boys often mimic their fathers, and girls their mothers? In early childhood, a child perceives themselves as “the same as” or “different from” their mother. Freud’s key element of psychoanalysis, the psychosexual development of a child, speaks of boys in the phallic stage (ages 3 to 6) developing a sense of their gender identity. It is then that two key “conflicts” occur. Girls experience the Electra complex, and boys the Oedipus complex. Briefly, both processes involve competition for the opposite-gender parent (father for the girl, mother for the boy). Ideally, when the complex is resolved, identification with the same-sex parent occurs. This identification means consciously believing, “I am like daddy” or “I am like mommy.” Modern psychology recognizes that this process is much more complex than Freud suggested, but studies confirm that the controversial doctor had good intuition.

Photo: Hannah Nelson / Pexels

Once identification occurs, children learn through imitation. That is why boys are very interested in what their fathers do and often repeat their behaviors or reach for their objects like a hammer, guitar, or TV remote (!).

Will You Allow Your Son to Lend a Hand?

Home maintenance, beyond daily cleaning, is a series of endless tweaks, assemblies, and installations. Challenges lurk at every turn, with the responsibility falling to the partner skilled with specialized tools. This slightly mocking picture, far from stereotyping, recognizes that many women are more eager to use a drill than their male counterparts. And in the middle of it all is: the son. He grabs everything his father just had in his hands. He cannot be sent away or distracted; he needs to be where the action is. Almost instantly, the screwdriver that was just lying there disappears, and the spirit level joyously races in the hands of someone who just wants to do what daddy does.

Participating in DIY activities is more than just a series of funny photos for social media. Imitating the father, a figure of attachment and a model of “someone like him,” is a true lesson in adopting social roles, embracing an identity in line with self-perception, and stabilizing one’s own “self.” Allowing a child to participate in adult life, warmly welcoming and affirming his competence to be himself, is an invaluable confirmation that he is sufficient to “be like daddy.” It does not take much effort, but it does require patience in many small, repetitive situations for psycho-physical development to get on the right track.

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There is no greater hurt to a son than to make him feel he has no place by his father’s side in situations testing his masculinity. The resulting sense of being “insufficient” or incompetent leads to feelings of rejection by the father and erases the child’s self-image as someone similar to his dad. This weakens gender identification or significantly lowers self-esteem and belief in one’s agency. The guilt that arises is a deep wound. It carries an unfair punishment, often self-inflicted, expressed through a strong sense of inferiority, sometimes compensated by various, often self-destructive behaviors.

Parenthood: Prioritizing What Matters

Men are task-oriented, thinking straightforwardly and focusing on one thing at a time. These are stereotypes, of course, and overgeneralizations. The real challenge lies in finding a balance in a busy life between duties and being present with one’s child here and now. It may happen that daily, seemingly trivial events from our perspective are perceived as crucial by our growing son. No one can hurt us quite like our loved ones. Yet, we learn to forgive and even draw lessons from suffering. The hope is that the wound is not so deep that it refuses to heal. Preventing such wounds is our task, as both fathers and mothers.

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Krzysztof Zaniewski


A careful observer of reality, a musician, who likes philosophical considerations as a hobby, and professionally works therapeutically with children and youth, from whom he draws inspiration and positive energy. The proud owner of the dog Isolde, who is an example of unconditional love. A passionate admirer of Richard Wagner.

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