Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Sons Love The Farm Too Much

November 3, 2008

Dr. Farmer, have you ever written any articles about teenagers and their love of and over-commitment to farming? Our oldest child is a 15 year old farm boy. His interests are narrow - farming, farm equipment, animals. He doesn’t show much interest in anything that will take him away from farming.

We keep telling him he has a lifetime to farm but only four years of high school, sports, friends, academics. He is simply not interested.

Our son is not just a help on the farm but a "partner". Maybe we have made a mistake by letting this partnership happen at an early age.

I have met a number of highly motivated, focused, dependable, self-disciplined teenagers and young adults with an inordinate love for farming. They are of great help. They are almost too perfect in their adult-like grasp of responsibility and dedication. They already know what they want in life and have developed skills and work habits that will make them into good farmers.

They are great work companions to their fathers and this is very seductive, both in terms of the work getting done and having a partner to share the workload.

Here are some of the problems that result when I’ve seen this kind of focus too early in young people.

The passive worker bee. They are budding workaholics who don’t develop social skills or interests that help them to fit in socially with their peers. They don’t learn the value of leisure and fun in their lives. They are vulnerable to stress when farm mistakes or setbacks occur because all their emotional energy (eggs in one basket) is placed into their farming objectives.

They have little patience for higher education or specialized training that could complement the needs of the farm. They want to do the work right now. As a result, their knowledge base is limited to their experience and not what they can learn from others.

If they go to college, tech school or a community college, they look forward to the weekends, summers, and seasonal work. It is like they are hardly away. Emotionally, they haven’t left. They don’t invest themselves in making new friends, exploring interests, or learning things from intersecting fields of endeavor.

They aren’t focused enough on dating because of their love of farming. If they do date, they are probably seen as too narrow and driven to be very good husbands that will understand and know how to meet and nurture the needs of a future spouse and children. After some unsuccessful dating, they retreat into their farming lives and that seems to be enough fulfillment for them.

The snot-nosed know-it-all. Some teens get to be full of themselves and their farming contributions while still in their teens. When they get into their early or mid-20s, they may become so cocksure and arrogant in their knowledge that they start throwing their weight around. Add a college degree and they are even bigger trouble.

They push for expensive improvements and ideas, become critical of their fathers and see them as impediments to farming the way farming needs to be done. Their fault-finding, aggressiveness and lack of respect eat away at their relationships. Farming feeds their ego and doing it on a grand scale can’t happen fast enough.

When Dad and son are on the same wavelength - farming comes first - Mom is the odd man out. The son turns his disrespect on her. Her demands for personal responsibility other than farming, such as doing his share of work in the home or for the family, fall on deaf years. He is the second boss or at least aspires to be.

He usually lives in the basement and has his domestic needs met without understanding the service involved. He doesn’t have experience in managing personal finance, living on his own, making friends or developing a support system. She feels her husband is being pushed into more extreme commitments to farming and is expanding the work to satisfy her son’s goals.

When the son marries, he will be self-centered on his own needs and goals and, if his wife buys into his viewpoint, they won’t be good partners but chafing underlings who agitate for their farming goals at the expense of family considerations. If his wife wants a more balanced life, they will have marital problems.

What I recommend. Young teens need the normal social life of high school, time away from the farm after high school (2 - 4 years minimum) where they can live on their own, develop broader interests and learn complementary skills that will contribute when they come back home. They need to live in their own place after high school. They need to experience working for someone else and fitting into a workplace other than home. The more travel, education, social life and exposure to new ideas, the better.

With your son who is already a "farm partner", you already know he’ll be a great successor and partner someday. But not now. Stop the partnership. Don’t become so overly dependent on his farm help you undercut your willingness to confront him on things he needs to do for his personal development. Get back to being parents and guide/push/cajole him into areas outside of his comfort zone.

Put strong expectations on him regarding social life, extra-curricular activities, and after high school, a break between him and the farm. He’ll protest, but in the long run, it will be better for him and everyone else.