So, what kind of father are you?
Children need fathers who are kind and protective, but most importantly they need fathers who are present
Published 19/09/2011 | 05:00
The word 'mothering' conjures up images of warmth, nurturing, caring and hours spent by a woman in close contact with her child or children. It is as if mothering is a process of engagement and commitment to children.
In contrast, the word 'fathering' evokes the dismissive delivery of sperm, and not necessarily much more. It is as if fathering is an event or a once-off occurrence.
Such connotations do an injustice to fathers and their crucial role in the rearing of children. I am a father and I know that I am crucial to the lives of my family. I don't get a sense, however, that my role is much valued in society.
I do feel the brunt of societal anger at the lack of fathers, but very little celebration of the presence of fathers. For example, in response to the rioting and looting in London, British Prime Minister David Cameron consistently included the absence of fathers in family life and the lack of male role models in his diagnosis of what caused the problems.
Last month, too, when the Bishop Of Elphin, Christopher Jones, described children who were born into a family that was not secure as "born losers", he implied that the cause of the insecurity was the lack of fathers' presence in families.
The negative press that fathering gets most of the time really bothers me. Part of my frustration is that we are, a lot of the time, authors of our own misfortune. The criticism of some fathers, who are feckless and irresponsible, is warranted. However, a general view of fatherhood as a failed enterprise is not fair.
Children need fathers in their lives. Families function better with a balance between the maternal and paternal energy.
A systematic review of research shows that active and regular engagement with children, by fathers, reduces the frequency of behavioural problems in boys and psychological problems in young women, and helps cognitive development, while decreasing delinquency.
Taking on board these findings, the key, of course, is to have the right kind of 'active and regular' fatherly engagement. Children need dads who are present, kind, humorous, resolute, determined, wise, protective and expressive. They need fathers who can be believed.
To be that kind of father, though, we do need to be there while our children are growing up. There is no point in being a capable, and even powerful, man if that capability only exists in a public arena and never gets to be present in family life.
A man who commits fully to his job, spending hours developing his career instead of being available to his developing children, does them no good. This man might be able to provide many 'things' but he is of no use to his family because his children won't know him and can't learn from him.
There are plenty of homes, still, where fathers return after a day of work, waiting to be treated like a king. Although present, this kind of dad is equally unhelpful for his children.
Master of all they survey, these dads see their parenting role as the punisher of wrong-doing ("wait till your father gets home") or the pardoner of sins ("sure boys will be boys, what do you expect").
Under such strict authoritarian rule most youngsters just want to get away. They will seek freedom from the tyranny and will not learn to trust their own voice, since it never gets heard. These youngsters will struggle to accept responsibility for their own behaviour.
A harsh and critical father, driven by his own disappointments in life, is another scourge to his developing sons and daughters. This kind of man may, again, be very present and active in his family but his criticism and put-downs of his children will strip them of their self-esteem and their potential and their willingness to try; "can you do nothing right?", "I see what you did, but what you should have done ... ", "just give it to me; I'll do it myself ... "
The legacy of constant failure to meet the expectations and standards of a critical father can be felt for years. This father, who may have felt he was doing you a favour by keeping you on track, was actually doing you a disservice and costing you your creativity, and your ambition.
A passive father feels like no father at all. Unable to assert himself with his wife or partner, his boss and even his children, this man retreats to his newspaper, his hobbies, alcohol, gambling or the TV. He'd prefer to live in any fantasy rather than his real world.
The children of this dad will grow up hating him for his weakness and his lack of example. These children are not protected and they are not guided.
Fathers need to provide more than an exterior superficial surface for their children to see and touch. They need to deliver their experience of the complexity of being a man.
Children need to be able to witness the struggle that men have to assertively express their anger and their strength, coupled with limits that keep themselves and others safe.
They need to share and be immersed in the joys, the hurts, the pride, the doubts, the effort and the disappointments that may come with real engagement in the world.
The active engagement with our children can start from the moment of conception. Research shows us that a foetus can hear sounds in the womb. Those sounds, like the sound of a father's voice, can later be instantly recognised and often associated with calmness, reassurance or soothing.
When your daughter or son is born spend time with them and their mum. Be present and available. Hold them to you, letting them smell you and feel your physicality.
If you can afford it, take time off work beyond the paltry three days paternity leave you are miserably entitled to; this will allow you to build your bond with your child in an unhurried way.
The more you are available to your infant the more reassuring your presence will remain through their life.
Be wary of jealousy and competitive feelings. It is really common for men to resent the intuitive, and hormonal, devotion that mothers will often express towards their babies. It seems pretty normal to me that men can feel left out (irrational perhaps, but understandable).
The trick is to acknowledge and to accept that you are feeling left out and then you can reassure yourself that your wife or partner still loves you and that you haven't been forgotten.
As your children grow they will have different needs of you. Boys growing up need a man to identify with. Certainly by age seven or so, boys will primarily need to be identify with their dads, to begin the process of separating, emotionally, from their mothers.
In most homes where dads are present a kind of willful 'boyness' emerges that amazes and infuriates mothers but that dads 'get'.
Indeed by the time a boy reaches 14 the psychological imperative to be emotionally separate from his mother becomes urgent. He needs to feel profoundly independent of her needs, her sexual identity and her emotional states.
In this psychological independence, he can form the close and intimate relationships with girls and women in his future.
Practically, to distance themselves from their mothers, boys in their early teenage years can appear as sullen, menacing, disdainful or dismissive towards them and they need fathers who can mediate.
Fathers need to step in to ensure their sons show respect for their mother, freeing up both mother and son to negotiate the conflict that may be there.
Fathers who are involved and supportive of mothers at this critical time in a mother-son relationship are not trying to take over discipline or undermine her. They are there to provide the balance and to allow sons to break free without poisoning their relationship with their mother.
It is true that one of the reasons that gang cultures thrive in certain communities is the lack of fathers for boys, in particular, to identify with. In societies with high levels of single-parenthood (where usually it is the dads who are missing) boys will look to gangs for leadership and for acknowledgement.
If boys grow up in the company of their father and with access to his male friends then they don't need to search for that identification with a gang leader.
Indeed if you look at the behaviour of most gangs, it is designed to attract the attention of men and of authority figures. The lawlessness is often a provocation to older men to notice and respond to them.
All teenagers are influenced by their peers, but it is usually only a problematic influence when youngsters are starved of a healthy relationship with a same-sex parent. If you can identify with solid men then you don't need to identify, solely, with your peers.
Dads who wrestle with their children can teach them many things about life. The symbolism of play-wrestling is huge. Once the rules for the game are established (stop if anyone says stop; no hurting) children can test many limits in a very safe way.
They can pit their strength physically against yours. This allows you to determine if you want to demonstrate your power or let them experience their own.
Children can release huge amounts of pent-up energy, some of it, perhaps, angry, in a very safe way. Most good horse-play between dads and children ends up with nicely tired-out participants who are contented and connected.
Sometimes you will have 'won' by pinning them, leaving them immobile and laughing, but knowing who is boss. Sometimes you will have 'lost' with good grace and an acceptance of defeat, allowing them to have overcome you in this one area, perhaps to compensate them for having to bend to your will in another.
By calming the wrestling down from a pitch of excitement and frenetic activity you demonstrate to children how they can regulate their own moods and behaviours.
Boys, in particular, can also learn to contain their strength with a dad who will symbolically struggle and fight with him but won't hurt him or let himself be hurt by his son.
Dads are crucially important for girls too. It is as if dads provide a 'self-esteem bank' for girls. Fathers need to affirm their daughters. This means that their daughters will feel admired, maybe even flattered, by their father but never invaded or exploited. By talking with their dad and, other older men, daughters can gain assurance and feel worthwhile. They can learn what good men offer.
The emotional and psychological separation between fathers and daughters also needs to occur in teenage years. Daughters come to realise that the deep emotional alignment between her mum and dad makes him unavailable and helps her to recognise boundaries.
Dads have to do the work at their end to let their daughters go. First discos and first boyfriends provoke useful anxiety in dads. We must, though, find the right balance between protectiveness and setting safe limits, and allowing our daughters to flap their psychological wings prior to flight.
So letting the first boyfriend know that if harm comes to your daughter on his watch that he'll have to deal with you is probably okay, but you need to accept and get over the fact that he'll be kissing her with intent!
Fathers are not mere adornments for a family. We are central figures who play a vital role in the healthy growth and development of our children.
To really deliver on that role we must give our time, our physical presence, our decisiveness, our strength, our comfort, our caring, our logic, our love and our maleness. Our children deserve us.
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