Fathering Matters

As Father’s Day approaches it is important to focus on the many benefits children derive from being well fathered.   The role of fathers has changed considerably and understanding how men can fulfill this role in our modern society is important.   It is only since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (about 200 years ago) that a father’s role has shifted so dramatically.  Although a father continued in his role as the primary provider he became far less present for day to day protecting and teaching.  However, despite changing roles men with children still seek to have a portion of their mastery needs met by being perceived as good fathers.  Unfortunately, for many men, this has become focused entirely on providing. In modern society this means working at a job away from the family.  Men, therefore, have become increasingly isolated from the routines of family life with the results being that they feel validated only as sperm donors and as check writers.

This narrowing of the source of validation has created a number of consequences for men and their families.  Frequently men abandon their families entirely when their ability to earn has been curtailed.  Rather than remain in the home, without sufficient validation as a provider and its resultant negative impact on a man’s need for self-worth, men have sought other ways to prove their worth often in a manner that is harmful to themselves or others.  Additionally as men become increasingly involved in their work life away from home there is little left to contribute to the day to day life of the family.

The consequences of this emotional rather than physical abandonment of the family are considerable.  For example, recent research has shown that teenagers who don’t get along with their fathers in two-parent families are more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs than those raised by single mothers.  According to a recent report by the National Center on Addiction And Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children raised by their mother alone were 30 percent more likely to use drugs than those living in supportive two-parent homes.  But those with two parents who have poor relationships with their father have a 68 percent greater risk.  The study found that mothers influence their children’s important decisions three times as often as fathers do and are more likely to have private talks about drugs.

Beyond the obvious increased risks of substance abuse, there are other more subtle consequences of emotional abandonment by fathers.  Fathers do things a little bit differently with their children than mothers.  This special parenting style is not only highly complementary to what mothers do but is by all indication important in its own right for optimum child rearing.  For example, studies have shown that fathers play differently with their children than mothers.  A father’s play behavior tends to be more physically stimulating and exciting.  It tends to challenge a child’s physical and mental skills while emphasizing risk taking and independence while mothers focus more on emotional security and personal safety.  Both styles are important underscoring a clear message that becoming a mature and competent adult involves the integration of two somewhat contradictory human needs – power expressed as independence/individuality and love and belonging expressed as connectedness.  Fathers tend to focus on the former while mothers on the later.  When a father removes himself from the family either physically or emotionally important components of raising healthy children fall solely to the mother, stretching her ability to take on roles that are better suited for an involved father.

The challenge for men is to redefine their picture of how they satisfy their needs as fathers.  This especially true for the way men fulfill their roles as protectors. As mentioned, protection in our modern world is very different than in the past.  The job of protector was easier to define when our predators were four legged or members of an invading tribe.  The threats to our children’s well being are far more subtle and removed and require a different skill set to protect the family.  Instead of brute strength or accuracy with a weapon, fathers must orient themselves to teaching responsible decision making, problem solving and independent thinking.  To be good at it men must be especially mindful of those effective communication techniques that promote listening and two-way conversation.   Men have a tendency to problem solve before validating feelings and this can substantially impair their ability to coach their children.  As Gail Sheehy writes’ “They (men) are discovering a secret that women have always known: The easiest way to fell loved and needed and ten feet tall is to be an involved parent.” (New Passages, pg.281).