The importance of fathers should not be discounted
A mother recently wrote to a newspaper advice columnist, asking who should walk her daughter down the aisle on her wedding day: the bride’s biological father or stepfather.
“It’s challenging these days, when families are so complex,” the columnist responded, suggesting the bride could skip the worrisome part of the ceremony or have her mother walk her down the aisle instead.
In a culture riddled with broken homes and strained parent-child relationships, such dilemmas are common. Whether they’re contemplating a big day or just another day, many people aren’t sure what to do with dads.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 34 percent of the nation’s children live apart from their biological fathers. Of those, 40 percent haven’t seen their dads at all in the past year, and half have never been to their father’s residence.
Men who are engaged in their children’s lives often find themselves at odds with the negative perceptions born of a fatherless generation. From the beer-guzzling caricatures on greeting cards to clueless sitcom bumblers who contribute little to the family beyond a paycheck and a few laughs, fatherhood seems to beget more ridicule than respect.
Meg Meeker, a Christian pediatrician and family counselor, says kids are the ones who suffer most when a father’s influence is diminished. Strong paternal bonds are among the most crucial components to a child’s long-term success, she says.
“A father really is a child’s first male love,” says Meeker, author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters and Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons. “Any significant accomplishment in a kid’s life is really at risk unless he or she has a good relationship with Dad.”
Research supports Meeker’s claims. Multiple studies show a healthy relationship with a father lowers a child’s risk of academic problems; physical, sexual and emotional abuse; neglect; obesity; low self-esteem; depression; promiscuity; drug, alcohol and tobacco use; criminal activity; and incarceration.
“If a child has a positive experience with a dad during those early years, he learns a lot about trust and love,” Meeker says. “He figures out who he is by watching his father’s responses to him. This interaction can shape the entire course of his life.”
Boys are especially dependent on a father’s guidance to help them make the transition from adolescence to adulthood, Meeker says.
“Boys have a need to be able to size up their masculinity,” she says. “If they don’t have that dad influence, they never feel they’re good enough or strong enough.”
Experts agree that girls need their fathers, too, though for seemingly different reasons. Studies show females who grow up without a father in the home are seven times more likely to become pregnant during their teen years.
“A daughter is born with a desire to want to please her dad and get positive attention from him,” Meeker says. “The number one way to increase a girl’s self-esteem is for her dad to give her attention. Many girls who don’t get that from their dads seek it out in relationships with boys.”
Mary DeMuth says that’s exactly what happened in her life. Her parents divorced when she was an infant, and her biological father died when she was 10. Her mother remarried twice, which only added to DeMuth’s sense of instability.
“It left a pretty big hole in my heart and made me want to find a father,” DeMuth says. “When I became a teenager I had this insatiable need to be recognized by boys. I constantly needed attention that way. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was looking for a dad.”
DeMuth’s desperate search ended when she became a Christian at age 15. She found comfort in knowing God as her eternal Heavenly Father.
“I was healed at that moment in terms of needing that daddy, but it took years of trying to get whole,” says DeMuth, a mother of three and author of Building the Christian Family You Never Had: A Practical Guide for Pioneer Parents. “I’m 41 years old and still being healed of some of the wounds of the past.”
Unlike DeMuth, many who grow up without a father’s love are hesitant to commit to a relationship with God.
“The father puts a template over a child’s heart for how he or she is going to relate to men and male figures for life,” Meeker says. “It’s the open or the closed door to God the Father, so it’s an extremely important relationship.”
Yet many men fail to grasp the significance of fatherhood. In a 2006 survey of dads by the National Fatherhood Initiative, 91 percent agreed there is a father-absence crisis in this country, and 81 percent said that men generally perform better as fathers if they are married to the mothers of their children. However, more than half said fathers are replaceable by mothers and by other men.
W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, says this statistic highlights a tragic devaluation of fatherhood.
“Fathers are not fungible,” says Wilcox, author of Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands. “They are not second-class moms, or good helpers. Fathers play a distinctive and important role as providers, protectors, disciplinarians and playmates in the average American home. Children identify with and look up to their real father in a way that they won’t with other men, and they typically do not view their mothers in the same way that they view their fathers.”
Though there’s no substitute for a dad in the home, Meeker says there is still hope for single moms.
“We can’t pretend that kids don’t need a masculine influence,” Meeker says. “But single moms can find comfort in knowing God is the perfect Father and surrendering that dad portion of the equation to the Lord. They also need to ask God to show them other men in the child’s life who could be a solid role model for them.”
CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Refrigerator Art (cquick.agblogger.org).
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