“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” William Shakespeare
Here we are again – the annual Father’s Day marketing marathon to get us to buy something to prove we approve of our fathers. Oh my. I think fatherhood may be the most misunderstood human relationships we have. What exactly is the role of a father in the twenty-first century?
Is it to beget children? We can now beget babies in a lab.
Is it to support his children and their mother? Many men don’t or won’t support their offspring. Others gallantly step in to assume those responsibilities. Many women today earn sufficient incomes of their own to provide for their young.
Is it to play with the children? Or perhaps to teach them? Ideally fathers do both, but many others can do these things as well.
The Role of Fathers Today
So what then, does it mean to be a father in modern times?
I have some ideas, but I’d like to dispel three assumptions I think have reached their “use by” date in our twenty-first century society.
1) Please don’t tell your son, “Big boys don’t cry.” Sometimes tears are appropriate. In fact, tears are the only rational response to some situations. Tears literally wash away toxins that accumulate in our bodies. If left unwashed, these chemicals can suppress the connection between the parts of our brains that allow us to develop empathy. I think we could all benefit from a little more empathy these days. Big and little boys – along with women and girls – need to cry from time to time.
2) As a father, your worth is not dependent on the size of your paycheck. Sure, earning a livable wage makes it easier to adequately raise a family; but more income does not equate with better fathering. We need a new definition of success. I suggest this one: Success is cultivating the ability to lead others to reach their full potential and function as a team – in a family, neighborhood, or work environment – to accomplish together what no one individual could achieve alone.
3) Winning is neither everything nor the only thing. It is wonderful to win. It is equally important to learn how to lose with dignity and grace. In order for one team to win, the other one has to lose. That does not make them losers. It means they made it possible for someone else to win. No one is going to win every time. No one. Wouldn’t it solve a lot of problems between people, political parties, and countries if we taught our children that NOT winning is just part of life?
Family Schedules vs. Work Schedules
Not that many generations ago families worked more or less together. The majority of families worked the land for a living and crossed paths many times a day in the field or barn or around the kitchen table. Other families ran small business in town, often living above or behind the family business. Children helped parents with all sorts of tasks and were a vital part of a family economic system.
Then we started mass-producing things, built railways to move those things long distances, and started replacing family-owned businesses with companies. The companies merged together to become corporations. Large-scale organizations took over many functions of daily life formerly handled by individual families. Work obligations then started keeping families separated many hours each day. I’m not romanticizing the very hard and often precarious way of life when each family was more or less on its own to provide for its members. I am pointing out that these changes have wrecked havoc on a family’s home life.
In the modern world of corporate hours and travel, too many children grow up barely knowing their fathers. Fathers leave before the kids are awake. If fathers make it home in time to see them before bedtime, they are often too worn out from the daily grind to have any meaningful engagement with the children. Screen time has replaced the family dinner hour. This is a loss, not only for those children, but also for all of us as a society.
Children need fathers. Yes, there are thousands of single mothers who do a remarkable job of raising their children without fathers around to help. But children still need both male and female people in their lives to learn how to be healthy adults.
Wanted: Mature Fathers to Mentor Their Children
So what is the role of a father in the twenty-first century? I believe it is to first be an emotionally mature, caring and giving male version of a human being; a man who is gracious in winning and resilient in losing. Secondly, it is to spend enough time with his children for them to learn how such a man handles the trials and triumphs of life. Dads, we all need you, but especially our young men need you to rethink success. We really need you to show your children, especially your sons, how to accept loss and learn from it; how to care and share; and how to use their strength and skill to make the world around them better for their having been there.
We need fathers to spend time talking with their children more than we need men to earn ever higher salaries in the work world. We need fathers to ask their children about the high and low points of their day – every day. We need men to share the same about their lives so their children learn that all people have good days and not so good ones. We need fathers who read to your children, and let their children read to them, because that strengthens the bonds of caring between people. We need men to discuss the events of the day because their children need to learn their values and ethics from people who love them and not some electronic device. We need fathers who encourage their children, who bless them, and who assure them – every day in any way they can, that their father’s got their back.
What we really need these days are more men bending down to wipe away the tears from a little boy’s face and assuring him it is normal to cry when hurt. We need more men telling children that it’s OK if they do their very best and still lose the game. They just gave members of the other team the gift of getting excited about winning. We need more men role modeling making contributions to the well being of others in our communities. We need more wise men who really know their children.