Mentors often play a crucial role in helping us to grow and develop into the kind of person we genuinely want to be. The role of the mentor is to challenges us to excel, and achieve new heights of ability, skill, and virtue. From childhood to adulthood, mentors can help us stay on a path that is conducive to our well-being, and for many men, they are craving a male mentor who they can look up to and trust as a source of guidance. Fathers are tasked with being male role models for their sons. Unfortunately, many boys grow up without the mentor they need, for a variety of reasons.
In this discussion, we will take a look at the importance of the male mentor for boys and men, why it is of paramount importance in men’s mental health, and how boys and men can find male mentors if they feel they need one in their lives.
The Father as a Male Role Model
The father is the first and – for most boys – the most prominent male mentor. As a young child, a boy naturally looks up to his father as an experienced and trusted adviser. Indeed, the influence that a father has over his son cannot be overstated. The father stands out as an authoritative teacher; a source of wisdom, morality, and discipline. When boys are trying to figure out what a man should be like, their fathers provide the model to go by.
Of course, the influence of the father means that his presence (or lack thereof) can end up having wildly different effects on their son’s mental health. For example, a father who is himself well put together, aware of his strengths and shortcomings, and fully engaged and present as a father, can help to teach his son how to be a virtuous man.
In contrast, when a boy grows up without this kind of father figure as a constant feature in his life, he may struggle to know how to conduct himself in life in an emotionally healthy and balanced manner. This is not to say that a boy growing up in a single-parent household cannot develop in the same way as a boy growing up in a household with both parents; not at all. All families are different. A single mother can endow her son with much more maturity than other parents who live together. What’s important is the nature and extent of the father’s role in the son’s life.
Divorce rates differ around the world. But they tend to be highest in developed Westernised countries (e.g. France: 55%, US: 46%, UK: 42%). UNICEF has ranked the well-being of children as extremely low in these countries. Edward Kruk, Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, states that child poverty, race, and social class are, undoubtedly, contributing factors in children’s mental health. But he argues:
A factor that has been largely ignored, however, particularly among child and family policymakers, is the prevalence and devastating effects of father absence in children’s lives.
Kruk, however, is careful not to lay the blame on single mothers or fathers who don’t live with their children. The problem is much deeper than that. He adds:
…I do not wish to either disparage single mothers or blame non-residential fathers for this state of affairs. The sad fact is that parents in our society are not supported in the fulfillment of their parental responsibilities, and divorced parents in particular are often undermined as parents, as reflected in the large number of “non-custodial” or “non-residential” parents forcefully removed from their children’s lives, as daily caregivers, by misguided family court judgments. My target of concern is those responsible for laws and policies that devalue the importance or, to use an old-fashioned word, the sanctity of parents in children’s lives, and parental involvement as critical to children’s well-being. Children need both parents, and parents need the support of social institutions in regard to being there for their kids.
But, unfortunately for men in society, fathers often lose out the most when it comes to custody rights. Fathers can be crushed by the struggle to gain equal access to their children and feel they become little more than financial providers. This can affect the mental health of both fathers and their sons. Kruk claims:
Whereas parents in general are not supported as parents by our social institutions, divorced fathers in particular are devalued, disparaged, and forcefully disengaged from their children’s lives. Researchers have found that for children, the results are nothing short of disastrous…
Indeed, the research has produced a long list of issues that can arise for children without a father figure in their lives:
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of emotional security
- Behavioural problems, such as issues with social adjustment and forming friendships
- Truancy and poor academic performance
- Delinquency and youth crime
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Mental health disorders, with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide
Moreover, these issues seem to correlate more strongly with fatherlessness compared to social class, race, and poverty. This suggests that we cannot protect the mental health of boys while ignoring the consequences of absent fathers. Kruk believes that the solution needs to take place at a legal level. He says:
A legal presumption of shared parenting would affirm the primary role of both parents, and make clear that even in the absence of a spousal relationship, both mothers’ and fathers’ parental responsibilities to their children’s needs are “sacred,” and therefore deserving of full legal protection and recognition.
Present Fathers Who Act as Poor Role Models
The purpose of being a positive male mentor is to provide your son with the tools and resources they need to develop into a healthy, confident, and respectable man. Unfortunately, there are many fathers who are present in their son’s life but who act as poor models. On this issue, it is crucial to emphasise that most fathers are doing their very best to act as mentors for their sons, and they cannot be blamed for the many outside forces that frustrate these efforts, such as traditional expectations about masculinity (e.g. being disconnected from one’s emotions), as well as the baggage they inherited from their parents and upbringing.
On the other hand, we should draw attention to the ways that physically present fathers fail to live up to the psychological needs of their sons. This is not to pass judgement on these fathers – since every dad has good and bad days – but only to ensure that future fathers are mindful of how their words, actions, and behaviour can influence the development of vulnerable children. After all, it may be better for a son to have no male role model than one who is having a negative impact on him.
If you grow up with a father who is always angry at you, criticising you, disparaging you, calling you names, and putting you down, then this can lead you to develop an extremely negative self-image as you grow up. Children absorb these kinds of comments like sponges. Their sense of self is significantly comprised of what their parents say about them. So, if a father takes a mean, critical, and harsh approach to parenting, his son may grow up with low self-esteem and an inner critic that follows him around everywhere.
The psychologist Lisa Firestone has written extensively about the inner critic and points out that it often originates from our parents. The critical voice of a parent (or both parents) becomes internalised. Many boys and men end up carrying a voice in their heads that bears a resemblance to the attitudes of their fathers. During the critical stage of development in a boy’s life, it’s imperative for fathers to act in a way that is supportive and validating, without, of course, being overly praiseworthy. This other side of the extreme may lead to different problems, such as narcissism. Fathers must engage in a difficult balancing act, making sure to avoid both extreme punitiveness and mollycoddling.
As we can see, the kind of relationship a father has with his son can have major consequences down the line in terms of self-esteem and self-confidence. But fathers are not the only male mentors who can enter a boy or man’s life and make a lasting difference to him.
For many men, their sense of self-esteem and well-being is closely connected to their professional life. Young men may have aspirations about owning a highly successful business or becoming an entrepreneur, yet don’t really know how to go about achieving this. A father or other male familial figure (such as an uncle or older brother) may be able to act as a role model in this respect. But you cannot choose your family. Not every son has a male figure in their family to turn to when it comes to matters of business.
Nevertheless, men can seek out male business mentors in all sorts of ways. In the workplace, a business mentor may be their line manager or someone in a more senior position who they look up to and seek professional guidance from. Business coaches are another alternative, as they help men achieve their long-term business aspirations and realise their true potential.
A lot of men find that their mental health and self-development is encouraged by athletic endeavours. So important mentors for men may be personal trainers, sports coaches, or martial arts instructors. These mentors can help boys and men overcome physical challenges, teach them the art of discipline, and show them what they are capable of achieving. These lessons are invaluable. Teaching men how to be disciplined, determined, resilient, and strong in an athletic context can spill over into other areas of their life.
Men get a sense of how to conduct themselves in relationships in a variety of ways, from masculine norms, their male peers, how relationships are portrayed in the media, and from their father, especially in terms of what their father’s relationship is like with the son’s mother. But the father-mother relationship is not always the best guide for a son, even if both parents are together. If the parents’ relationship is unhealthy, this can set in stone a negative template for the son’s future relationships. Viewing the inconsiderate or disrespectful behaviour of a father towards a partner can be a poor model to go by.
If men find themselves struggling to find and maintain healthy romantic relationships, it’s important to seek out positive male mentors. These can take the form of relationship counsellors, dating coaches, or male figures that have experience of healthy relationships (e.g. an older brother, cousin, or peer).
Mental Health Mentors
When men are struggling with their mental health, they may feel desperate to talk to another man who will understand them. But their father may come from a generation in which the idea of men talking openly about their emotions was even more stigmatised than it is today. So it can be difficult for sons to open up to their fathers, especially when past experiences of doing so have been met with a lack of compassion, or straight out criticism, with comments about manning up and the like.
A mental health mentor can, therefore, play an extremely beneficial role in the life of a man who is going through emotional hardship. Male mental health mentors can take many forms – it could be a friend who has also been through depression, a therapist or counsellor, older peers in a men’s support group who have learnt how to cope with lifelong mental health issues, or a peer support worker.
Of course, there are many aspects of a man’s life that contribute to emotional health. At some point in their life, men may feel they need a financial or spiritual advisor to guide them a particularly difficult time. It’s vital that men understand their diverse needs and seek out male mentors who can assist them in living a full and happy life.