"The fathers have eaten a sour grape and the children's teeth are set on edge." (Jeremiah, Book 31, Verse 29)
This quote from the Bible represented the power of the father as the primary authority of the family for many centuries. His word was unquestioned, his decision final, his influence dominant in all matters relating to family. What he was not seen as was a caretaker of the children — that responsibility rested with (or was vested in) the mother, or mother substitute.
The world began to radically change with the social, economic and technical advances of the 20th century, and with those changes came a basic change in the structure and function of the family — with a consequent shift in the authority of the father. His influence was increasingly seen as minor, even negligible, and his importance was defined by how well he provided for the family.
Another factor in the diminished role of the father was the then-new field of psychology. In fact, psychology became part of the problem. Research studies did not place much importance on the role of the father, and his influence on the development and growth of his child was reported as "insignificant." The term "parent" was often meant as mother — and father, if mentioned, was equivalent to other influences. Only a small number of parent-child studies investigated the father's role, and the few studies that were done at that time focused on the father's involvement as reported by the mother. For example, in a number of studies that used over 2,000 parents who responded to questions about parenting, not one father was interviewed. An indirect result of the lack of research data on fathers was the implied assumption that they weren't interested in fathering. The pendulum of the father's influence swung so far that the verse would have read: The fathers have eaten a sour grape that had an influence on the mothers, who chose not to offer them to the children.
The pendulum slowly began to swing back in the 1970s, with newly designed studies beginning to support the impact of fathers. That change influenced me as a graduate student at the time to risk doing my Ph.D. thesis on father-son interactions and how those interactions may actually be an important influencing factor in an adolescent son's development. Fortunately for me, my study did find positive results of a father's influence on the moral reasoning of an adolescent son, allowing me to graduate on time.
These days, neither the general public nor psychological researchers see the father as an equivalent to "other influences." The professional journals, as well as the Internet, are filled with articles reporting results confirming the importance of the father.
What does the research say these days?
According to a report in "Fathers and Their Impact on Children's Well-Being":
Even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections.
The way that fathers play with their children also has an important impact on a child's emotional and social development. Fathers spend a higher percentage of their one-to-one interactions with infants and preschoolers in stimulating, playful activity than do mothers. From these interactions, children learn how to regulate their feelings and behavior.
Children with involved, caring fathers also have better educational outcomes. The influence of a father's involvement extends into adolescence and young adulthood. Numerous studies find that an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement among adolescents.
What is the reality these days?
There is no question that fathers do play an important part in their children's lives: the majority of studies affirm that an involved father can play a crucial role, particularly in the cognitive, behavioral, and general health and well-being areas of a child's life; having a positive male role model helps an adolescent boy develop positive gender-role characteristics; adolescent girls are more likely to form positive opinions of men and are better able to relate to them when parented by an involved father; it is generally accepted, under most circumstances, that a father's presence and involvement can be as crucial to a child's healthy development as a mother's; and experiencing validation of their importance in the general parenting literature has made fathers much more conscious of their value, which, in turn, leads to their greater desire to be involved.
But there is still a wide gap between research results and the true acceptance of the value of fathers, with many fathers expressing the feeling that they continue to be second-class citizens in the world of their children. Books, magazines, and morning television shows are filled with information about and for mothers and mothering. How many comparable ones have you seen about fathers? It's only recently that domestic courts, recognizing the research on parenting and fathers, have moved to greater equal child custody decrees. Fathers who want to become more actively involved in their children's lives often hit barriers from employers, the media, and even their wives, who may feel threatened by a child calling for "Daddy" instead of "Mommy." I'll deal with these barriers in greater depth in forthcoming blogs, as well as issues relating to the absent father, the alienated father, and the divorced father.
We'll know we've reach equal parity when Father's Day becomes as well celebrated as Mother's Day.