Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Harsh And Hostile: The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From The Tree

December 10, 2008

A letter from a reader describes her father and brother this way. "Dad was a very controlling person in all of our lives. He thought the world centered around him. He made a lot of promises to get what he wanted from his family members and never kept them. That is one reason my brother stuck it out taking his verbal and even physical abuse on the farm. My brother is getting so much like Dad everyday."

Here is a research finding that I find troubling - harsh and hostile fathers are more likely to have adult sons who are also harsh and hostile in their parenting style.

Fathers are role models for how their sons may be someday. Sons who move away from their fathers have much less continuity in their parenting style. Research further shows that transmission of parenting styles are much more prominent in farm families than any other sector of society.

"Harsh" and "hostile" includes angry and explosive outbursts, demeaning and critical comments, the use of threats to control behavior, an unwillingness to listen or to share in decision-making, and a lack of recognition, appreciation or praise.

What is the link between farming and such harshness?

- Identity and pride. A typical profile of a farmer who has this parenting style is usually a hard charging perfectionist who is single minded in his approach to farming. It is his life - his bread and butter - his pride and reason to be. He has an intense need to get things done and done right.

He often assumes his work and priorities are more important than anything else. This is a source of anger when things don't go his way. Relationships are secondary to this farming "battle."

Not only is a lot at stake economically, but his identity and prestige in the community are tied to how his management and work habits are perceived. This commitment to work is not offset by a balanced commitment to leisure, family, social life, spiritual concerns and community participation.

- Stress. In a complex biologically-driven and weather-reactive enterprise, work is often interrupted by new demands and priorities. Work goals are need driven and not by the clock or family needs.

There are time crunches and overload problems at certain times of the year The year-round and daily work loads can be excessive and the stress great. Feeling time pressured, he is more prone to anger because each problem reverberates into other problems.

He expects everyone, including himself, to function like a cog in a well-oiled machine. When family members don't perform to expectations, he gets angry. Mistakes are magnified and distorted to unreasonable levels.

- Anger. Thoughts and beliefs about injustice and victimization are one of the main causes of anger. Though he loves his profession and lifestyle, he feels inadequately rewarded and appreciated by his family and by

society for his farm-related sacrifices. Anger can be employed as a useful tool in intimidating others to do things his way.

- Rigidity and the need to be "right". He has strong expectations about a right and a wrong way to do things. He is hard on others whose methods and results do not measure up to his standard. Everything has to go his way and to be done right - the first time. Success is in details. He is knowledgeable and argues emphatically to prove his points.

It is a small step from judging someone to being angry with them - especially when mistakes cut efficiency - or worse yet - costs something. When he sees something happen he feels didn't need to happen, he takes control by correcting the offending person, often with anger.

He has a low tolerance for criticism. New ideas are seen as a challenge to his authority and knowledge. To be wrong is to be humiliated. Being "right" is his way of dealing with uncertainty.

- Fear. His verbal tongue-lashing isn't personal. Yes, he is loud, forceful, intense and demeaning but it is merely an means to an end - getting the job done right. In the farming "war" he is constantly fighting, the end justifies the means.

Though he won't admit it, he is scared, insecure and frustrated. He has built something and wants to keep it going. He doesn't like to be slowed down. He is afraid it will all unravel without his constant vigilance.

Transmission of parenting style. These sons have enormous respect for their fathers’ knowledge and accomplishments. They buy into the idea that the price of farming success has to do with this quest for getting things right. It means that harshness is a necessary by-product of a father’s love and dedication to farming - and by extension - to him and the family.

They are also willing to forgive and put up with the abuse because it holds the key to their dream of farming someday. They are also fearful that to challenge Dad’s authority or thinking is to risk everything.

Sons often enter marriage and parenting not wishing to repeat the harshness and lack of love they experienced themselves. However, the stress and intensity of farming, the rationale that the farm comes first, and the lack of role modeling of a gentle and loving fathering result in the harsh parenting style being the default position when they are under stress and conflict. It becomes a habit and despite their intentions otherwise, they become like their father.