Being a Father

How the role of father has changed over time
Practical suggestions to be an effective father

How the role of father has changed over time

Bob and Jenny have a great relationship. They're always such fun to be around, too.

As a young married couple they're part of the contemporary generation, caught in transition, trying to successfully balance their traditional family values and parenting expectations with their dual careers. And that's not easy.

Bob admits he's uncertain about what Jenny expects of him as a father. She reckons he behaves as though he's a "luxurious, but optional extra" around the place. Having come from a fairly traditional patriarchal style of family, Bob isn't used to taking responsibility for family tasks and chores.

Nor is he very good at responding to the needs of the children. He gets quite annoyed when Jenny starts demanding that he get off his mobile phone and do something to help with the kids. It's obvious that Bob's idea of his role as a father is quite different to that of Jenny's. It's the one area in their relationship that's causing them a lot of trouble.

In more recent times, economical, technological and ideological changes in our society have demanded that people redefine what it is to be a father. A lot of contemporary males seem confused about their parenting role.

Women are clearer about the fact that they desire more companionship and active involvement in raising their children. And wives seem to be less interested in their husband's ability to work and provide for the family than they are about having them participate in caring for their children.

A brief look at the history of the family in Australia, since the turn of the century, confirms that there has been a distinct shift in expectations regarding the role of fathers in the family. This shift highlights the need for modern dads to become more competent and involved as a parent.

In the late 1800s parenting roles were clearly segregated. Fathers were seen as the head of the family with ultimate responsibility for the security, protection, moral guardianship and economic support of the children. Mothers were more intimately involved in the care and nurture of the children, which led many people to regard the father's role in a child's development as largely superfluous.

By the early 1960s concern about the lack of balance between the two parents' contributions to family life and child rearing was being expressed. With greater opportunities for education and employment in the paid workplace, women were tending to spend less time on mothering. This caused discontent within many families and generated a growing demand for fathers to become more involved in child care. Because fathers have, traditionally, not been involved in the nurturing role, they tended to be confused about the new image of fathers.

During the 1970s family researchers began to highlight the serious effects that absent or non-involved fathers have on their child's development. It was discovered, for example, that a father plays a much more significant role in the proper growth and development of a child than many experts have previously realised. The amount of time a father is present in the home and interacts positively with his child was found to be strongly associated with a child's cognitive, social and personality development.

Family studies also concluded that fathers are able to be as nurturing and supportive as are mothers. They believe that children should be exposed from birth to the presence of both parents because the role each parent plays is unique and helps to lay the groundwork for a child to perceive the differences between masculinity and feminity.

It is generally accepted that fathers do play a crucial role in the identity formation and emotional wellbeing of their children. As the old expectations and roles for father have crumbled and changed, most fathers have been left to chart their own course of self-discovery as they search for new ways to be effective fathers, husbands, lovers and breadwinners.

One of the real difficulties in this journey is that moderns have no real role models to show them how to successfully deal with the newly emerging demands of home and family life. One thing is certain, however. In the 1990s the role of father has definitely changed from provider to nurturer of the family.


Practical suggestions to be an effective father

This isn't an exhaustive list, but if you get the fundamentals right, you're more likely to receive appreciation from your wife and your children.

  1. Be Available

    Get more involved
    in the daily academic and social activities of each member of your family. Engage your kids in mutually rewarding activities to show that you really care for them. To achieve this you'll need to work hard to balance work and family commitments.

    I have a suspicion that workaholic fathers may be very successful in the workplace, but not highly regarded by family members who long for emotional understanding and support. By spending more time with your kids in play and family activities you'll enhance the bonding process that is so vital to their feelings of security and specialness.
    Research shows that juvenile delinquency and aggressive behaviour - especially in boys - tends to increase in the family where there is an absent or uninvolved father.

    If you happen to be a dad who spends considerable time away from home on business, you might wish to try some suggestions made by youth communicator Josh McDowell:
    1. bring your kids home a gift from where you've been;
    2. call home every day and talk to them personally;
    3. share your travel plans before going away;
    4. reinforce your love for them by saying it or showing it with hugs and kisses;
    5. reserve time to attend their school, sports or social events;
    6. endeavour to attend school report nights;
    7. speak nicely to their mother (and be a good role model);
    8. sometimes, if you can afford it, take them on trips with you.

  2. Be Responsive

    Particularly to the individual needs and concerns of your kids. By being good listeners, fathers are able to develop positive relationships with their children and respond to their developing needs and interests. When you ignore them or cut them off, you send a message that says you don't really care, you're not all that interested or you're too busy to be bothered with their views or feelings.

    By being approachable and responding to your children with openness, honesty, warmth and respect you provide them with a visible, positive role model on how to develop good, wholesome relationships.

    Fathers need to learn to be more expressive, especially with their sons.

    Current research indicates that a lot of the problems in marriages and family life would be avoided if men were taught from an early age to be more expressive and affectionate, and more responsive to the issues of intimacy and closeness.

  3. Be Affirming

    Fathers are known to play a big part in the development of a child's self-esteem. We also know they have a significant influence on their children's scholastic attainments and choice of career. So efforts to encourage and build up your child will have rich dividends.

    Children relish a father's respect and glow when fathers show they cherish them personally, quite apart from their performance. Furthermore, children's ability to accept their own masculinity or femininity is greatly affirmed when you give them messages of personal value and worth.

    Ashley Montague demonstrated some 20 years ago that affectionate touch on the part of their fathers, especially towards their sons, is a significant factor in the physical and emotional health of children. Touch affirms a father's love and respect for high children and offers the possibility for increased understanding of both family relationships and the evolving gender role.

  4. Be Safe to Be Around

    Children instinctively feel and know that you are a fair, kind, trustworthy and reliable person.

    Children don't hang around parents who make them feel worthless and insecure.

    It's really important that you build rapport with your kids by allowing them to dialogue with you as a father in a way that invites them to challenge, question and doubt issues and ideas.

    In this way they can safely explore the meaning and purpose behind life in a non-threatening environment.

  5. Expose Your Own Values

    If you're willing to expose your own values and spiritual commitment to their scrutiny, you provide them with a safe forum in which the transmission of your cherished values can occur. Tell them that you respect their opinions, even if you don't agree with all their conclusions.

So remember, while you may feel uncertain about how to handle the challenges of being a postmodern father, with a little forethought and planning it can turn out to be the most rewarding experience of your life.

By Bryan Craig - as published in Signs of the Times