"Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck." —Proverbs 1:8-9
We wrote a piece on the value of mothers and now it is Daddy’s turn. It takes much more than an egg and a sperm to raise a child, so let’s take a look at how fathers — and father figures — make a difference in the lives of children every day.
Celebrating the essential contributions of moms and dads has become even more important to me given my work with divorce where parents are often undermined and kids sometimes fail to get what they need.
Writing about divorce has forced me to confront the gender wars. Both men and women are under attack. For example, men sometimes accuse women of filing child abuse allegations for less than genuine reasons in order to be mean or win points in the battle for control and money. Although most abuse reports have a basis in truth, there are women (and men) who have abused the system to the detriment of everyone. It is an ugly fact.
Women sometimes point to the problem of Parental Alienation Syndrome and see it as a ploy by men (and sometimes, women) to discredit mothers (or dads) in order to gain custody and financial advantage. How many times have I heard from a distressed mother; “He doesn’t really care. He’s just getting involved temporally in order to show a judge that he’s a good father. I don’t believe it.”
And so it goes.
In honor of fathers, I would like to put my two cents into the debate. Mothers count, and dads do as well: often with a unique and incredibly valuable contribution to raising healthy boys and girls. While a good mom can step up and give a child what he or she needs, in my experience, dads are equipped to parent in other important ways.
In 2012, more fathers want to be involved with raising children. It is no accident that Hollywood produces movie after movie about flawed, but loving fathers or father figures – whether in intact families or in the context of divorce. Three Men and a Baby, Father of the Bride, Imagine That , Night at the Museum, and Mrs. Doubtfire all come easily to mind. Nowadays, fathers are participating more with raising children and collaborating with mothers who often are in the workforce, themselves.
Feminism has succeeded in an unexpected way by fostering a generation of more involved and committed dads. For many families, raising kids is no longer the primary domain of women.
So, what are some of the unique contributions that a father can make? Let's boil it down to four, like quarters in a football game or bases in a baseball diamond. There are more, but simple is good.
For a young child: A father can make a difference in the life of young children by injecting a different parenting style into the mix. If mom has been home all day or been the primary caretaker, her kids can feel a sense of consistency and regularity from her. She is there to feed them, pick them up and drop them off. Even if she’s working, the maternal instinct is often one of nurturing and providing for their many needs. A father comes home and all hell can break loose. Some moms don’t like it, but there’s real value in being picked up and wrestled with — or jostled a bit. It’s a sense of surprise and excitement that is in the world to go along with consistency and nurturing. While exciting a toddler is not an exclusively daddy trait, it’s my professional experience that men dominate this part of child rearing. And ask any toddler or school age child; they are rarely interested in giving up such fun. Down the road, these early memories can even encode a type of dramatic pleasure that can be a source of adult adventure and well being.
How to treat a woman: A father can show by example how to treat his wife or ex with a dignity that comes from strength. While no one is perfect all the time, a mature man’s deeds are even more important than his words. His boys need to see a healthy way to treat a woman, even if he’s upset with her at times. His girls need to see a standard that is not to be ignored when it’s their turn to have a partner in life. In the Intelligent Divorce, I argue that kids watch what we do and emulate it, whether we like it or not. If your wife or ex is provocative or belligerent, there are ways to protect yourself (as required) without stooping to a low level. This is true power and a great life lesson.
For a daughter: A father is so very important to his daughters on two crucial counts. First, girls benefit greatly by a father or father figure who believes in them. It's natural to cheer your son on; after all, he's a chip off the old block. Great fathering is to be found with those dads that see excellence in their daughters. Count your successful woman out there, and you'll often find a supportive dad. Second, and not less important, every young girl deserves a daddy who loves her for who she is. A girl who is truly adored by her dad internalizes this good experience and knows in her bones what it means to feel special. She is less likely to make a mistake in choosing a good partner in life; she knows intuitively what it means to be loved. While some feminists may critique this point, I do think there is some validity here. I have seen too many women in my practice who consistently pick unreliable men, and few of them had the experience of simple paternal adoration in their youth. It is a vaccine of sorts.
- For a son: A father can help a son handle the power of his adolescent surge of aggression and need for independence. Too often, adolescent boys are being raised by competent mothers who have been saddled with passive husbands or absent ex husbands. While this sometimes works out, it’s usually a recipe for disaster. Adolescence boys have difficulty taking direction from a mother without male backup. It may be politically incorrect to say this, but many teenage boys can experience the powerful feeling of emotional castration and fight back, even if they don’t know why. Somehow, they sense that if they give in to mommy, then their ‘manhood’ is at stake. It’s asking a lot of a 16-year-old to handle powerful feelings of aggression and frustration this way. A strong and caring dad can more easily set limits and show his son how men find dignity and honor in managing their power rather than being overrun by it. Think of the movie Officer and a Gentleman, in which the Richard Gere character has an alcoholic father and is unruly himself. He is straightened out by his Sergeant Major, played by Lou Gossett Jr., in a role that defines tough mentorship. Or, better yet, consider the powerful mentoring of a father figure as seen in the two Karate Kid movies. Both movies depict a timeless truth that male mentoring — usually by a father — meets a boy’s aggression constructively and helps move him to adulthood, feeling more competent and worldly.
We wrote Ode to Being a Mommy because there is nothing like a competent mother. But Dads deserve their day in the sun as well. We internalize much of what our fathers teach us. When they handle themselves poorly, we are likely to have impaired intimate relationships in the future as well as other issues. Dads can be exciting, loving, strong, and yet, set appropriate limits that encourage us to grow in healthy ways. If you’ve had the opportunity to be influenced by a great father or father figure, then you have indeed been blessed.
Only a dad but he gives his all,
To smooth the way for his children small,
Doing with courage stern and grim
The deeds that his father did for him.
This is the line that for him I pen:
Only a dad, but the best of men.
- Edgar A. Guest
The Intelligent Divorce book series, online course , newsletter (here) and radio show (Divorce Source Radio) is a step by step program to handling divorce with sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.