Fathers stimulate a child’s sense of identity, empathy and self-control
Conflicting cultural communications barrage the expectant father. A juicy steak with the tag-line, “ a rare, well-done for Dad” sizzles in a Fatherʼs Day promotion while in the television show Dad Camp, the letters DEAD BEAT etched on one manʼs knuckles broadcast his heritage and serve as a warning. Media portrayals have devolved from Father Knows Best to buffoonish cartoon characters, yet this generation sees a young family man in the White House who speaks openly about fatherhood. Sports stars and societal achievers used to serve as male role models, but so many have fallen from grace that the image no longer assumes ethics. Similarly, the financial crisis has exposed the underbelly of the success striver. So where is our father hero hiding?
Todayʼs father is spending more time with his children than in previous generations. But what difference does a dad make? In June, the New York Times hosted a forum on the question. As a college student, I remember a popular phrase at the time: A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Being a child of divorce at the height of the breakdown of the nuclear family, I was searching for a positive vision for my own future including a husband and father of our children. Where could I find a point of view that didnʼt take sides in the gender wars? When I imagined the perception of a newborn with no preconceived notions, I found a place to begin.
From the faces of expectant fathers in hospital pre-natal classes to the shy smiles emerging even on the tight expressions of teen fathers, I have personally seen the power of father recognition. As part of my early research, I gathered groups of fathers of preschool children across the economic and ethnic spectrum of San Francisco. After completing the survey, in thanks for contributing their time, I gave a quick summary of some fatherhood research results then stepped back and watched these men drop their reticence, their expressions grow animated, and their words rush out. Once these fathers learned that they were important to their childrenʼs development and that they were different from mothers, the conversation could have gone hours past the arbitrary stopping point.
Research shows the difference between fathers and mothers
Your baby first meets you at the moment of birth as the first other, as separate, non-merged. You first appear on the horizon of your childʼs being wholly distinct from that state of fusion shared by mother and child during pregnancy. Though the child eventually can conceive of mother as a separate person, you have always been separate. You are outside and beyond the childʼs self. Your presence challenges rather than reassures the child.
“My son loved to climb in dangerous places and so long as I could go with him we would take the chance, and enjoy the rewards. If it were way too dangerous I would try to explain why it was so. When he asked me why he had to look both ways before crossing the street, I said because a car might hit you. His answer was “Iʼll jump over them.””
This basic distinction between parental relationship patterns has undergone a variety of interpretations over the years. Unfortunately, most of them wrongfully devalue fathers. Here are some of the misconceptions:
· Bonding is naturally maternal, therefore father-bonding is less important
· The child needs the mother-child relationship more than the father-child relationship
· Father-love is activity-based more than an interpersonal connection so emotional distance between father and child is natural and acceptable
Although psychology has focused on fatherʼs role in modeling how to be a man for his son, you contribute to both your sonʼs and your daughterʼs development on many more levels. You stimulate your childʼs sense of strong identity and self-control.
“My son would cry or be upset with a very high volume. One day, at a restaurant he started acting up. I took him out to the car and put him inside his car seat and cracked open the window. (He was about 3 years old). I watched him from outside the car, and let him scream. This went on for about 10 to 20 minutes.
“After his tantrum, I explained that I would be there for him, but he had to behave in public. This was very difficult for both of us, but something special happened after that interaction. My son grew to have a deep trust for me. He also behaved well in public, but we also let our emotions show for each other in private. I am a very lucky father indeed!”
Since you have always been separate from your child, he or she works hard emotionally to understand you, which generates empathy. Finally, the dynamic environment between you and your child mobilizes moral development and aspiration. Fathers remain an untapped transformational force. You have been standing in the shadows.
—photo by Mt. Hood Territory/Flickr