03/15/2012 12:30 pm ET Updated May 15, 2012

Respect Between Fathers and Sons

I always remember Saint Patrick's Day because that's the day my son was born 45 years ago. I raised him as a single father from the time he was a year old and felt a depth of love -- and an overwhelming sense of responsibility -- I've never experienced before or since.

Single fathers raising babies is still an anomaly, but more married and divorced men are stepping up their game with energy, gusto and pride. I salute fathers who are intimately involved with their kids, and who are a major part of their upbringing. I feel sad for fathers who aren't, and who miss the opportunity. You can't swing a cat in my community without hitting children, and I feel joy watching fathers play with their kids.

Despite the confusion and difficulty of those years, I feel so fortunate to have had that time to enjoy my son and help mold his life. I saw him through all the phases of his development -- from babyhood through adulthood -- and tried to respect his personal choices as much as I could. It was hard watching him grow up and away from me, though. I tried to keep him a baby, but he resisted. I tried to keep him a toddler, but he resisted. I tried to keep him a teenager, but he joined the Marines right out of high school. When he mustered out, he asked if I would pay for college. I was thrilled I could afford to send him.

His preference for country-and-western music took some getting used to, since I was a rock 'n' roller, but I respected his passion. His country persona -- replete with cowboy hat, shirt, and boots, and can of chewing tobacco in the back pocket of his jeans -- never became an issue between us. And I never suggested that he cut his long hair. His choice of girlfriends sometimes puzzled me, but I tried to allow him social freedom. His wanting to order two dinners when we ate in restaurants did cause some conflict, even though he wasn't overweight. I just couldn't afford two meals.

We had our conflicts, of course, but I've managed to keep our relationship loving, healthy, and supportive over the years and have always been available to him in his times of need. Probably the most important lesson I learned was not to give him advice unless he asked for it. Whenever I pushed my agenda on my son, he naturally pushed back -- and worse, stopped sharing what was going on in his life. He'd remind me in his fledgling voice of independence and manhood that it was his life, not mine. Of course, he was right.

In not giving him advice, I earned his trust. He's able to share what he's dealing with openly and honestly because he trusts I'll listen respectfully and won't tell him what to do unless he asks. Men sometimes tell me that, when they give their kids advice, their attitude is their kids can take it or leave it. Bullshit! A parent who pushes his agenda doesn't do it that casually, and is totally responsible for the conflict with the child that frequently results because boundaries weren't respected.

My son has a son now, and I'm gratified and awed that he not only turned out to be such a great father, but a calmer, more confident, and more creative parent than I was able to be. Instead of dictating to my grandson, my son gives him a sense of empowerment and independence by offering him choices whenever possible. And he never yells at his son, because he doesn't have to. When his boy gets overly rambunctious or out of control -- as all boys do -- he simply says softly, "Now son, we talked about this, remember?" My grandson acknowledges their agreement and they move on. It's a beauty and wonder to watch.

Mutual respect is the foundation of good parenting, and my son and grandson have a beautiful mutual love and respect for each other, which both of them frequently express. By treating their children respectfully, fathers give them an essential sense of self-esteem. And never underestimate the importance of praising your children and letting them know that you love them. When men say that they don't have to tell their kids they love them because their actions show it, I say, "Think again." Kids deserve and need to be told -- not just shown -- that their parents love them. If a man has a hard time expressing his love verbally, he might consider looking at why sharing his feelings is so difficult for him.

Did I show my son that I loved and respected him? In spades. And I still never miss an opportunity to tell him how much I love him and how proud I am of him. And he's played that forward with his own son. I pay him the highest compliment I can pay a man when I say that he's the father I wish I'd had.

Happy birthday son.