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Fatherhood: Crisis and Opportunity

The Crisis

The dignity of the human person and stability of the traditional family are under attack.  A variety of ideologies have emerged which are antagonistic towards traditional Judeo-Christian values, promoting instead competing values, such as materialism, gender neutrality, individualism and consumerism, each of which risks severing close, meaningful relationships among family members.

One particularly harmful aspect of this trend is the absence of fathers in their children’s lives.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24-million children [1] in America—one out of every three—live in a home without their biological father.  Such homes come with a host of negative consequences (educational, behavioral, mental health, physical health, sexual, criminal, substance abuse) for the children.  Unfortunately, even within an intact family, some men can become distracted.  Whether it is obsession with technology, gadgets or the media, or an undue focus upon careers and the severe pressure to succeed, such distractions take precious time and attention away from their role as parents.

The Opportunity

Fathers are a critical part [2]of their child’s attachment process—and their impact on children is important in a different manner than maternal love [3].  Two aspects appear to be key: the father’s involvement and his warmth.  A father’s involvement [4] most importantly impacts positive adjustment and competence, particularly if it is of high quality.  This quality suffers if he is more attuned to his tablet, career, or phone, than to the child on the playground or the ball field.  In a different way, a father’s warmth is associated with less aggression and depression, increases in life satisfaction, and plays a significant role in shaping adolescents’ attitudes towards social issues such as marriage [5], divorce [6], sex roles [7] and teenage childbearing.  This shaping occurs as fathers play an essential role in guiding children and demonstrating how manhood can be powerfully, yet appropriately, manifested.

A father’s sacrificial approach to the family teaches children valuable lessons [8] counter to those offered by competing ideologies: for example, the ideas that children are “grown up” when they take care of others (not when they can take care of themselves); that success comes from long-term planning (not instantaneous gratification); and that long-term commitments to family life are valuable (as opposed to spending leisure time away).  Almost every value a father publicly exhibits becomes either a shared value or is rejected, depending in part on whether his children are strongly attached to him, or perceive him as disconnected and uninterested in their lives.   With a father who is strongly present to his children and exhibiting virtuous behavior and choices (how he treats his wife, his integrity and trustworthiness, work ethic, practice of his faith), children are set up for success.

How Things Go Wrong

Fathers, however, can falter in a couple of ways.  First, a father who is present and active in his children’s lives, but demonstrates poor choices and unseemly behavior (vengefulness, rages, unforgiveness, white lies), will inculcate in his children a disregard for virtue and confusion about how to live life well.  Second, the man who is distant and detached from his children creates problems of a different sort.  This father’s children are wounded by the rejection they experience, and are ambivalent about identifying with him and his values.  Even if he is making other decisions in life that are worthy and laudable, his failure to connect as a parent precludes his children easily adopting the positive values he models.  There may be others in the child’s life—an uncle, mother or grandfather—who manage to pick up some of the slack, but that hole can never be fully filled by anyone else.  The bottom line is that whether we like it or not, fathers’ characters and values imprint themselves for better or worse upon their children.  In fact, if fathers had a true conception of the importance of their fatherhood in determining the character and lifelong emotional and moral welfare of their children, most sane men would be painfully afraid of failure.

What Can Be Done?

The mental health, degree of connection, and decisions of fathers have an enormous impact upon their children.  And, as families are the cornerstone of society, those impacts reverberate through us all.  When a father doesn’t provide structure and guidance, when he fails to understand the importance of the role he plays in his child’s development, then not only does the child suffer, but the father suffers as well.  His identity becomes uncertain and distress surely ensues.  After all, if a man with a child is not a father, then what is he?  In contrast, fathers who are tuned into their children, who teach and share the family’s religious and cultural traditions, who warmly guide and listen to their children, those fathers provide coherent meaning in their children’s lives.  It is a father’s duty, along with his wife, to embrace his role as a primary educator of his children.  But it is not easy.

Barriers to a father’s growth are not uncommon.  Many fathers who have not benefited from secure attachment relationships with their own parents might need mentoring or counseling, as those who have personal histories that are less than ideal will have greater difficulty embracing their call to be fathers.  Unfortunately, the prospect of vulnerably sharing their concerns, insecurities or worries, does not come easily to men.  However, in my experience, some of these barriers come down when the therapist shares the man’s world view and value system.  Many communities are sponsoring men’s groups and retreats to help fathers understand they are not alone in their struggles.  For some men, seeking assistance along with their wives can be helpful and can enhance family life both through improving the marital relationship and the cohesion of the family overall.  Regardless of the method, what differing approaches have common is the opportunity for a man to become more of whom he was created to be, in meaningful and focused relationships with his wife and children, detaching from the distractions and pressures of modern life, and returning to his destiny.