Alan Flashman
Alan Flashman

The Children of Israel 16: Sons and Fathers

Adolescence has been discovered and rediscovered on several occasions in the history of psychoanalytic developmental thinking. And it is worth pointing out that psychoanalytic thinking is deeply developmental. Following Freud’s third of the Three Essays on the Theories of Sexuality, August Aichhorn broke new ground with his Wayward Youth. Anna Freud contributed two chapters in her The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, and was followed by her students Erik Erikson in the USA, famous for Identity, Youth and Crisis and the Laufers in London (Adolescence and Developmental Breakdown ). Winnicott devoted part of Playing and Reality and one case in the “squiggle book.” Less well-known in the USA, Francoise Dolto and Serge Lebovici of Paris and Helm Stierlin in Heidelberg contributed significant studies. All these works treated the adolescent’s struggle to separate, gain personal identity, leave his family behind and get on with life.

Towering over all these figures, at least in terms of influence in the USA, was Peter Blos. In 1962 it was Blos who contributed what became an instant classic, On Adolescence, and in the 1970’s he became justifiably famous (and somewhat controversial) for recasting adolescence as a “second separation-individuation” period, the ultimate statement of the theory of adolescence as leave-taking. That was just before the feminist critique of Carol Gilligan and others began to question the one-sided (male, chauvinistic) view of becoming independent as the dominant challenge of adolescence. Of course, the new critique suggested that development runs from dependency to mutuality, not to independence. In 1985 Blos published an extraordinary work called Son and Father in which he (unconsciously?) took up one side of this challenge and reformulated the adolescence of boys.

Blos’ new formulation takes note of the two psychological functions that Freud had grouped together in the “super-ego.” The first and better known function is that of conscience, the “NO”. This frunction grew out of the father’s saying no to his son’s wish to take mother from him, the well-known and today mostly misunderstood “Oedipus complex.” Here the father’s role is “triadic” – it takes place in the context of a threesome. Blos then asked when and how the other “super-ego” function develops, the “YES” technically known as the ego-ideal, the aspiration to become oneself. Blos proposed that the YES develops in adolescence within the context of a dyadic relationship with the father. He argued that adolescent boys have enough incest taboo to let go of desires towards mother by themselves, but they turn to father now in a twosome, seeking his support for their self-aspirations. So adolescent boys, far from leaving father behind, also turn to him for support for their self-aspirations. This is almost  mutuality. If you add to Blos’ work a change that fathers need to undergo in relation to their sons, you get full mutuality.

Peter Blos Sr. (Jr. also became a child psychoanalyst) created quite a sensation in the USA with this proposal. He was already very famous and considered the last word in adolescent psychoanalysis. But now he put Oedipus in a very new context and added a crucial piece of personal development that takes place very very late in the psychoanalytic scheme of time. And he suggested that a dyadic relationship could come after a triadic one, the very opposite of all analytic thinking about mothers. To top it off, one chapter of the book was devoted to this development in none other than Sigmund Freud, whose adolescent development had been almost completely ignored.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that Blos’ last work was and to my knowledge still is almost completely ignored in Israel. It was cited in one excellent doctoral thesis on boys and fathers which I had the privilege to informally supervise and which has yet to be published. Blos has never been translated  into Hebrew (that includes his first classic work). I am tempted to suggest (among friends, here, I hope) that Blos’ formulation would be treated as no less than subversive in Israel. There is no place whatever for a pastoral-father-function in the extreme governmental dispotif which needs young males to be hyper-independent as they move into their security and economic roles. I have also suggested elsewhere that Israeli society is rooted in adolescents breaking away from their families and becoming “pioneers.” Men are heavily discouraged from the bugaboo of dependence and to think that a boy in the tenth grade really needs to talk with his father rather than leave his father behind places nearly a century of youth movement ideology in question.

Let me sketch out the full picture of mutuality that I breezed by a moment ago. Let us pay attention here to the oft-stated paternal declaration,” I’ve been your father now for fifteen years just this way, don’t expect me to change now.” Now let’s ask ourselves, is being the father of a two year old like being the father of a fifteen year old? Do we want the fifteen year old to act like a two year old, even towards his father? When and how does this pair grow? Does the father lose something of his “fatherness” if he changes? We could easily appreciate a more developmentally robust situation in which father, challenged by his son’s growing up (and hopefully assisted by his spouse) says to himself, “My son needs to grow and so do I. His resisting freezing our relationship in the past is a vote of confidence that I can grow with him. And it looks like he is inviting me to grow beyond the place at which I froze my own development in relation to my father a generation ago.” The father puts this into action and gives his son the experience of being effective in the world, first in being a partner with his own father in effecting mutual change.

This minor miracle takes place in some exceptional families from which we have much to learn. It is my contention that it can take place in more families if society supports it. It seems to me that Israel society today does the opposite of supporting this change, in the following ways:

  1. Adolescents, especially boys, are not encouraged to be effective in changing the social world in which they live. They are encouraged to be “independent” in their technical thinking, i.e. making start-ups and being good soldiers, but entirely conformist in their social thinking. A Prime Minister (and several wannabes surrounding him) put on “Father Knows Best” personas while they ruthlessly (and illegally) crush any statements of opposition.
  2. High Schools do not encourage kids to take any significant part in defining their own educational environment. This is all the more startling because the world into which kids will need to function is changing at the well-known speed of light, and kids know more about tomorrow than their teachers. The Education Ministry for the last say two decades is entirely closed to meaningful input from its consumers. Is that the way they should then run their legendary (as opposed to real) start-up successes?
  3. Israel becomes more macho by the year. The absurd discourse of “Winners” and “Losers” reduces political conversation to a pissing contest and a shouting match. Fathers are supposed to measure up to some obsolete authoritarian model and be judges by their male progeny’s Bagrut score, army career and income. They are expected to wield “Authority” and are immediately judged as wimps if their sons do not comply with such “authority.” Even many therapists have been overwhelmed by this narrow and anachronistic view and provide “parental counselling” that is about power plain and simple.
  4. Fathers are effectively excluded from any voice about their sons’ upbringing, in schools and in youth movements.
  5. It is interesting to imagine what fathers and sons would say to each other about the father’s experience with the continuing conquest of the Palestinian people from ex-soldiers to future soldiers. I doubt recent governments want to find out.

As usual, I myself certainly do not have an answer. That is where I welcome readers to use their experiences to think about steps that could privilege the simple fact that a father-son relationship has a special opportunity for mutual growth during adolescence. Suggestions?

About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry specialties at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Bronx, NY. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. Alan has edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005) in Hebrew, translated Buber's I and Thou anew into Hebrew, and authored Losing It, an autobiography, and From Protection to Passover.