Competence and Dogmatism Print
Childer: On Child-Rearing
Written by Douglas Wilson   
Thursday, 17 September 2009 11:12
Boys need and require strong fathers. And it is not possible to be a strong father without being a competent father and a dogmatic one. It comes with the territory. But competence and dogmatism both require an off switch, and if a father doesn’t figure out where those switches are, the result will be weak sons.
Competence does things well, by definition. Boys, especially when they are little, do not do things well. Competence wants to step in and do what needs to be done, now, and rarely has the patience to teach someone who is going to fumble around with it. It is always easier for a competent father to “just do it himself” than spend time messing around with two or three goes. But the end result of this is that the son can grow to adulthood without ever having learned how to do the most basic things. Someone more competent always has a tendency to step in, and it is not long before the son learns to hang back—thus exasperating the father, who wishes that the son would show more initiative.
Dogmatism can be reasonable, or it can be of the blustery, bow-wow variety. Knowledge is impossible apart from dogmatism, but problems arise when a father is unhelpfully dogmatic in his household, the basis for his dogmatism not being that it is epistemologically necessary for us in order to say anything, but rather because he is the tallest in that family and has the deepest voice. He therefore opines regularly on whatever it is, and brooks no room for discussion or disagreement. His dogmatism takes up all the oxygen in the room.
The end result of both these will be sons who do not know how to do for themselves, and sons who do not know how to think for themselves. At the base of this may be a worry on the part of some fathers that their paternal position will be threatened if they are not careful. A son who becomes competent might become as competent, or even more competent. A son who learns to think might come to know as much as his father does, or perhaps more. The ancient Roman orator Quintillian once commented that a son is the only man on earth that a man will gladly be surpassed by. This is frequently true, but it is not universally true. Plenty of fathers are threatened by their sons and want to keep them safely to the rear.
A father who is competent and dogmatic will tend to have a critical eye. In the perennial glass half-full, glass half-empty problem, it needs to be pointed out that both positions are exactly right. A glass half-full actually is half-empty. That is objectively true. And so when a man is competent and dogmatic in his daily interactions with his son, it should not be surprising that he will tend to be very critical with his son, and the son will (usually) withdraw in some sort of way to protect himself. Over the years I have been struck by how many strong fathers I have met who appeared to have passed on nothing but weakness to their sons. Other fathers have seen their strength of character reproduced in their sons. What is the difference?
The difference is between a father who rises to meet the challenge of a potential competitor, and a father who rises to meet the challenge posed by an opportunity to die for another. In the former situation, a man wants to talk sense when someone else is talking nonsense, to do well when someone else is doing poorly, to be the center when someone else is trying to function at the center. A son reflects on his father, and unless a man is willing to be embarrassed from time to time, he will step in so that he is the one reflecting on himself, directly. He doesn’t want other people making him look bad. In the latter situation, a father just lets it go. But in this the words of the gospel are fulfilled, because what a man grasps for, he cannot have, and what he lets go of, he is given forever.
So the irony is that a man who is not willing to let his son make him look bad . . . winds up looking bad. And a man who is willing to work over a period of years with his son, for his son’s benefit and not his own, is a man who is willing to look bad—but he doesn’t.
A son who is suffocated with competence and dogmatism (in the negative sense I have been describing) is a son who, as he grows up, will feel like he needs to seek oxygen somewhere else. When he grows up and goes to college or joins the Navy, he finds himself ill-equipped to handle what is thrown at him. His performance is frequently poor, and this just goes to “reveal” to him and to his father that his father was right all along. But it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And when he performs poorly like this, he is not going to want to come home for a visit. Why come home just to be reminded of the place where you became a loser in the first place?
One other point, closely related. Often men like this are highly respected by their wives, and such a man cannot figure out how his wife can think so much of his abilities (which she really does) and still be worried about what a poor father it appears that he is being. But there is no contradiction here. He is stumbling over his abilities—he is muscle-bound. The choice is not between being capable and incapable. The choice, as a father brings up his boy, is between being capable for oneself and capable for another.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 17 September 2009 11:17