On Psychology

Jewish World Review March 15, 1999 /27 Adar, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

Contributions of Dads Cover Many Fronts

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: We have a 17-year-old son who is floundering at school and in general. I see that there has been a lack of limits and consequences in our parenting. It is very difficult to help my husband see this and that our roles as mother and father have been confused. Could you say something about what a son needs from a father?

A: To understand why a son needs a father, requires an understanding of why children need a father.

There are three different views on this subject. The first is the "cash machine" view. It says that fathers are mostly important as economic providers, either as breadwinners or as child support checks. Everything else of importance is contributed by the mother.

This view is nonsense, of course, and is fortunately falling out of favor. But once in a while it still creeps into our view of what a "good father" is and does, and how we should treat them.

Witness, for example, the recent attempt by the Maryland State Police to deny a veteran state trooper paternity leave to take care of his newborn and seriously ill-wife. One female supervisor even told him, "God made women to have babies, and unless you can have babies, you can not be a primary caregiver." Talk about your Neandrathals!

A second view is that fathers are useful because they represent a "second pair of hands." According to this view, the advantage of living in a two-parent household has nothing to do with there being a mother and a father in the home, but merely the fact that when it comes to parenting, two people are better than one.

But if this were so, why is it that children growing up in a single-parent headed household, but with another adult present, such as a grandparent, do not do as well as children who grow up in intact, two-parent households? Apparently, it matters greatly to whom the "second pairs of hands" are attached.

The third view is that fathers' contributions to child development are in some important ways different than those made by mothers. There is, in fact, a good deal of research support for this idea.

We know, for example, that beginning when children are very young, mothers tend to be more verbal with their children, whereas fathers are more physical. Mothers also tend to encourage personal safety and caution, whereas father are more challenging of achievement, independence, and risk-taking. And mothers tend to be stronger comforting figures, whereas fathers exert more control over the behavior of their children.

The fact that moms and dads tend to parent differently, is not to say that one does it "right" or "better" than the other. Nor is the point to straight-jacket men and women into strict gender roles. Rather, what this research suggests is that to develop optimally, children need the combination of what moms and dads uniquely bring to the parenting equation.

Take, for example, the "rough and tumble" play of fathers. During the 1970's and 1980's, it was frequently asserted that the physical play of fathers was superfluous to childrearing. Some "experts" even exhorted fathers to stop playing with the kids and do more housework, fearing that the rough and tumble play of fathers taught children -- and especially sons -- to behave aggressively.

But recent research reveals that in reality the physical play of fathers helps children, and especially sons, develop the capacity to self-regulate their emotions and behavior, and to recognize the emotional cues of others. In effect, the rough and tumble play of fathers gives children practice in regulating their aggression and activity level, for if the child's play gets too out-of-hand, the father instructs the child to "calm down" or otherwise places a limit on his behavior.

At the same time, the fact that moms talk more with their children than do dads is extremely important, particularly in the early years, in terms of language development. It is not, then, that "rough and tumble" play is better or worse than reading stories to one's children, it is that kids need both.

So what does a son need from a father? First, he needs him to be there. A famous comedian once quipped that 90 percent of life is just showing up. Being a good father is certainly more than that. But showing up does seem to be a prerequisite for everything else.

Second, a son needs his father to show him that he is loved. The anachronistic image of the cold, distant, martinet, who ruled the roost with an iron fist is just that -- an anachronism. In fact, research shows that sons who have fathers who are nurturant and physically affectionate toward them, grow up more well-adjusted and more secure in their masculinity than sons whose fathers are not.

Third, a son needs his father to place limits on his behavior. There need be no contradiction between setting limits and showing affection. Indeed, a father's ability to set limits is enhanced when the father has a close and warm relationship with his son. But without the imposition of external limits, sons grow up with a reduced capacity to set internal limits. These are the sons who are often described as "floundering."

Fourth, a son needs his father's example. If the son grows up watching his father regularly and consistently controlling himself despite the presence of strong emotions, than that son is more likely to learn to do so as well.

Similarly, it is through the son's observation of how the father treats the mother that boys learn how men should treat women. If the father treats the mother with respect and dignity, than it is likely that his son will grow up to treat women with dignity and respect. If the father treats the mother with disdain and cruelty, then his son is likely to grow up to do the same. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the best prevention for domestic violence, is to have boys grow up in homes where their father respects, loves and supports the mother.

Finally, a son needs his father's help in transitioning from boyhood to responsible manhood. As described by noted psychiatrist Frank Pittman, for males to make this transition successfully, they require an affirmation that they are "man enough." Historically, such an affirmation has been provided either by one's own father or by social rituals, often organized and run by the community of fathers. If a male transitions into adulthood in years, but does not receive this affirmation, he will search for it through other -- and often socially inappropriate -- means, such as through gang activity or the abuse of women.

So yes, fathers are important -- critically important -- to the healthy development of their sons. And so, of course, are mothers. Lucky is the child who has both.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn