Over the past nine years, I’ve been privileged to write a number of opinion pieces for the Deseret News. For my 50th column, I wanted to write about what matters most to me. You might say that I wrote the first part of this column last year when I addressed how father’s love their daughters. To complete the thought, I wanted to write about how fathers love their sons. From my experiences in both roles, fathers can be with their sons, work with their sons, play with their sons, and sometimes, just hold them.  

I should preface these remarks by observing that neither camping nor fishing were my father’s or my own forte. The annual fathers and sons camping trip generally culminated with he and I sprawled out, respectively, on the front and back seats of our 1981 Chevrolet Impala. Fishing didn’t fare much better. At the age of 5, while my father was a doctoral student at North Dakota State University, a snapping turtle violently yanked at our line on a cold, misty Minnesota morning. I was terrified and had little interest in returning to the river.   

But dads make their mark in other ways. 

Sometimes all it takes is being with our sons. During junior high and high school, my father drove all over West Texas to watch me run the mile and two miles at outdoor track meets. There he was. Always. Come rain, shine or a fierce Texas wind. With his signature aviator glasses and a stoic expression. He’d sit for hours, only to watch me run two miles in under 10 minutes (at my best).  

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I wish I’d have joined him on what must have been lonely drives home over hundreds of miles with little except scrub and tumbleweeds for company.  But I was too cool back then. I missed out. 

Fathers can work with their sons. At the age of 8, my dad transformed my Radio Flyer wagon into a moneymaking machine. He told me that if I asked neighbors to save their gently read newspapers (they did that back in the 20th century) for me, I could collect them on Saturdays and take them to a recycling center for cash. $30 each month was a big sum in those days and helped me learn how to work.  

Later, as a teenager, he pressed me into service chopping weeds on his cotton and wheat farms. I have less fond memories of those days, but they motivated me to find softer jobs in retailing before going to college.  

Some sons relish playing with their fathers. I used to love climbing on my dad as he bent over the floor over putrid colored woven carpet from the 1970s and goaded me to take him down. I also remember desperately invoking “uncle” if he pinned me down a little too hard.  

A Cambridge University study, cited in The Guardian, “found that fathers tend to engage in more physical play like tickling, chasing and piggy-back rides, which researchers claim appears to help children learn to control their feelings.” 

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Sometimes fathers just need to hold their sons. Boys need affection from their fathers. My 9-year-old runs down the stairs when I arrive home from work (mainly to see if I’ve brought him some candy) and then sits on my lap, with no words exchanged. At other times, he will come and sit on my lap while he plays Minecraft on my phone.  

These many forms of affection sometimes overlap but are all equally effective. While we may not realize it, sons are equally susceptible to attention and affection as our daughters. Research from scholars, including Chelsea Romney, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, suggests that appropriate contact (e.g., a hug or perhaps even a “takedown” in the wrestling forum of the living room — my thought, not hers) enhances the body’s ability to restore cortisol levels, a key chemical for stress relief. What she found for university students is clearly true for fathers and sons. 

It’s truly remarkable to note the abundance of studies that credit father-son interaction with positive mental health benefits for the next generation.  

I won’t deny that camping and fishing are the focal point of many father-son relationships along the Wasatch Front. But I’m going to need some help. We can’t take Mom to set up the tent on the fathers and sons outing.   

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history. Most importantly, he is the proud father of a son and daughter.