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Do fathers know how essential they really are?

Published: Monday, June 16 2014 5:10 p.m. MDT

Dads truly matter. As fathers commit their lives to their children, they build something in their children no other can do in the same way. And it makes all the difference.

Mark A. Philbrick, BYU Photo

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It’s been 50 years since manhood experienced a massive cultural shift. Support for feminism seemed almost to require it, and in its wake manhood was moved from the pedestal to the mud.

As scholar William Doherty explained, masculinity became stereotyped as “egotism, propensity for aggression, emotional distancing, and overcompetitiveness,” and the main forms of male nurturing — protecting and providing — viewed as unnecessary.

The resulting cultural message, in Kay Hymowitz’s words, is that husbands and fathers “are now optional,” and “the qualities of character once needed to play their roles — fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity — are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.”

But the truth is that husbands and fathers, with their male forms of nurturing, are not optional. They influence children in ways that are distinct, in critically important ways, from the type of influence provided by mothers. And decades of research, along with a generation of fatherless children, have shown us why.

The question is this: Do dads know how much they matter? Do they have any idea how significant their fathering is?

Do fathers know how much their sacrifice to provide financial resources means in the lives of their children? Hard work has tremendous implications for the quality of home, neighborhood, school, nutrition and health care that children experience while growing up.

Although women increasingly contribute essential resources to family life, married fathers are still the primary earners in the majority of married families. In nearly 70 percent of married families, men take the lead in providing essential resources. And it is families without fathers that are most likely to suffer the challenging consequences of poverty.

Do fathers know they are the most effective source of protection a child can have? A father's way of checking on a child's comings and goings, who the child is spending time with and what he or she is doing sends a strong signal that that child matters and is protected.

In Brad Wilcox’s words, “Fathers, by dint of their size, strength, or aggressive public presence, appear to be more successful in keeping predators and bad peer influences away from their sons and daughters.” Simply by being present in their lives, fathers play a critical role in protecting their children.

Do dads know they have a unique capacity to encourage children in taking risks — leading them to appropriately push themselves beyond what they believe they’re capable of?

“Men seem to have a tendency to excite, surprise, and momentarily destabilize children," as Daniel Paquette explained. "They also tend to encourage children to take risks, while at the same time ensuring safety and security, thus permitting children to learn to be braver in unfamiliar situations, as well as to stand up for themselves.” A father's natural focus on fostering independence is key to a child’s ability to take initiative and develop skills.

Do fathers know that even their way of “tickling and tossing” their infants, wrestling on the floor, chasing and playing ball has a profound effect on a child’s ability to handle his emotions and respond to the feelings of others?

Even a father's verbal play — teasing and joking more like a peer — helps develop identity and independence. In several studies, children whose fathers played physically with them had the highest popularity ratings of their peers, especially when fathers allowed them to direct some of the play.

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