As the traditional family unravels, men are rediscovering the importance of being good fathers
by Frank Stirk
The bad news is that more and more children are growing up without a father at home.The good news is that the people who study the family are more and more realizing the important role fathers play in shaping their children’s lives. And the even better news is that more and more men are beginning to understand this. Many want to be—and are striving to be—a good dad.
First the bad news. The typical family unit comprising a married couple with youngsters at home is breaking down. Statistics Canada says between 1986 and 2006, the number of lone-parent families—80 per cent of them headed by a single mom—just about doubled.
“We’ve had a couple of generations now of boys and girls that have grown up to be adults that haven’t had that fatherly influence in their lives,” says Dave Quist, executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.
“In a sense, they don’t even know what they’re missing. Some of them grow up to be wonderful people, anyway. But there is something missing from their background and life experience.”
In 2006, more than half of all Canadians aged 15 years and older had either never married or were no longer married. That’s the first time that’s ever happened.
Then there’s the reality of children being raised by stepfathers, live-in boyfriends, grandparents, siblings, foster parents, two moms or two dads in a same-sex relationship, or in a “blended” family where two single parents have married or remarried.
“I was raised in a so-called blended family that didn’t blend,” says retired family therapist Ed Bader, who now teaches on fathering at the Catholic Community Services of York Region in Richmond Hill, Ontario. “I have two brothers named Tom.”
But even when children are living with their father, he might not really there because he’s consumed by work. Sherman Lau, a pastor at Pacific Grace Mennonite Brethren, a Chinese-Canadian church in Vancouver, sees that firsthand, especially among older men.
“There’s still that whole ‘provider’ side of things. That’s all they really care about. They have very little connection with their kids,” he says. “And I know it hurts the kids. I know there’s a part of them that’s developmentally challenged, because they don’t have that interaction that they desire with their dads.”
But at least there’s now a growing body of research just in the past few years that agrees this disconnect is a problem that society needs to be addressed. That’s the good news.
Here’s what they’ve learned: Kids whose dads are actively part of their lives are more likely to develop higher self-esteem and more self-control, conform better to rules, make better moral judgments, experience compassion, be involved in sports or cultural activities, and pursue a post-secondary degree or find a stable job following high school.
And they’re less likely to get involved in delinquent behaviour and substance abuse, become teenaged parents, spend time in jail, or experience serious depression. Even something as simple as dads roughhousing with their kids can turn into a teachable moment. “There’s a whole series of things,” says Quist. “There’s a different form of verbal communication. There’s physical bonding. There’s a start and a finish. They play out passive-aggressive roles.”
Fathers will also let youngsters experience frustration a bit longer than most mothers would, and Bader says that too is a good thing. “It means that they’re being taught to work out their problems by themselves, but still have the support of both their parents.”
And for parents who long to see to see their kids follow Christ and get involved in church, the example the father models for them is absolutely critical.
Some years ago, a Swiss government survey found that if Mom goes to church and Dad stays home, only two per cent of their kids will become regular attenders. If both parents go to church, 32 per cent will become regular attenders. But if Dad goes to church and Mom stays home, that figure jumps to 44 per cent.
“It’s almost better if mom’s an atheist, because the kids will always go the way dad does,” says David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church.
The bottom line is that children need the balance only a mother and a father can bring in their lives, because their nurturing roles are so different. “By and large,” says Quist, “the mother’s role is to heal and comfort. The father’s role is to encourage, to help his kids to do their best. Each shows a different way of looking at the world.”
But kids are not the only ones to benefit from having a loving, involved dad. His presence also encourages his wife to feel more secure, more patient, more flexible, more affectionate and more available to her family. And he’s helping himself to feel more connected to his community and more trusting in his family and friends.
That’s what some of the studies show. But the even better news is many men are by themselves waking up to all that they have to give their children.
“I wouldn’t say it’s universal. But it’s certainly a lot more now than even 10 or 15 years ago,” says Bader. “This seems to be particularly true for men who didn’t have very good fathering from their own fathers. They want their child to have a better start.”
Lau agrees. “The younger fathers,” he says, “are seeing the value in using biblical principles in their parenting. Even if they come from Christian homes, they realize, ‘I don’t want to raise my kid culturally. I want to know how to raise my kid biblically.’”
Quist believes this newfound desire plus the contemporary solid research on fathering needs to be communicated to a society that rightly or wrongly blames men for a lot of its problems.
“I’m optimistic,” he says, “that as more people become aware of the importance of fatherhood—whether it’s through our churches, the media or Promise Keepers, whatever it may be—that we’ll take a second look as a society at some of these things.”
Frank Stirk is a freelance writer based in North Vancouver. He is the B.C. regional correspondent for ChristianWeek, and a regular contributor to Family News in Focus.
The article above was featured in the July/August 2008 issue of SEVEN magazine.