Where Have All the Fathers Gone?

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Where Have All the Fathers Gone?

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As soon as they heard the door open, the two young girls jumped up and began yelling, "Daddy's home, Daddy's home!" No longer quietly sitting with Mommy, their heartbeats were now racing and their eyes widened, anticipating playtime with their father.

Soon he was tossing them up and down, and they squealed with laughter when he acted like a big bear. Their mother sat by, watching with delight and amusement, ready to calm things down should the horsing around get too rough.

Who would've thought such a scene could be in danger of disappearing?

Disappearance of the intact family

Sadly, it's come to the point in many countries that fewer children than ever will have the opportunity to grow up in a home with both a father and a mother. According to the latest statistics, only a third of the children in the United States will reach age 18 with both biological parents living at home.

"Fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation," warns social historian David Blankenhorn. "It is the leading cause of declining child well-being in this society. It is also the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sex abuse to domestic violence against women" (Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, 1995, p. 1).

With U.S. divorce rates hovering just below 50 percent and the resultant single-parent households alarmingly on the rise, it's no wonder that only a minority of kids can count on living with both Mom and Dad. Usually, it's the father who doesn't stick around and leaves the mom to rear the kids by herself—which is a distinct disadvantage for the children. (See "What Happened to Dad?")

How important is the role of the father in child rearing? New studies have shown that dads, who normally are not given as much credit as moms in child rearing, actually play a vital role in the upbringing of children and their future success. Amazingly, this research reinforces the same principles written in the Bible thousands of years ago! Let's look at some of the evidence.

"And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4).

The Bible describes the ideal father as actively and tenderly engaged in his children's rearing and education.

Yes, his masculine child-rearing tactics often include horseplay with the kids that can annoy and cause anxiety in Mom, the maintainer of domestic peace and order. Yet his rowdiness actually fulfills a vital role in the children's social, physical and intellectual skills in school and beyond.

"Children's social, physical, and intellectual development benefit greatly from the involvement of fathers," observes Yale child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett (quoted by Judsen Culbreth, "What Dads Are Made Of," Reader's Digest, June 2005, p. 72A). The intellectual gains are noticeable from the first year of life and continue on past high school.

"By eight weeks," Dr. Pruett explains, "infants can anticipate differences in maternal and paternal handling styles ... When infants were approached by their mother, they slowed and regulated their heart and respiratory rates, relaxed their shoulders, and lowered their eyelids (Ahh ... Mom). When the father approached, the infant's heart and respiratory rates quickened, shoulders hunched up, and eyes widened and brightened (Dad's here ... party time!)" ( Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child, 2000, p. 25).

A father's playfulness helps his children develop motor skills, hand-eye coordination, balance and confidence. I remember teaching my four daughters at an early age to ride a bike, snow ski, roller-skate, snorkel and enjoy many other types of sports. Their favorite time as children was when we invented games like the helicopter ride, with me whirling them with my feet like the blades of a helicopter, and the volcano, where they would fall from my knees into the bed. Such activities created a lasting bond between us and helped them lose their fears about taking on new challenges.

Child studies show that this kind of rough-and-tumble play helps children develop social and emotional experiences that prepare them for school. For instance, they learn to be confident, to take turns and to become leaders. "Kids who learn these early social skills from their fathers do better with peers," says Dr. Ross Parke, professor of psychology and author of Fatherhood (quoted by Culbreth,
p. 72B).

Conversely, the lack of a father figure tends to leave kids more passive and fearful. Child research indicates that it is the closeness felt by the child to the father that is most predictably associated with a positive life outcome 25 years later.

"Children who feel a closeness to their fathers are twice as likely as those who do not to enter college or find stable employment after high school, 75 percent less likely to have a teen birth, 80 percent less likely to spend time in jail, and half as likely to experience multiple depression symptoms" (Pruett, p. 38).

Researchers further found that "both sons and daughters of the dad-involved group [in the study] had higher levels of verbal skills," with the boys' IQ being "positively associated with their father's nurturing, (appropriate emotional and behavioral response to child's needs) and, interestingly, negatively associated with their father's disciplinary restrictiveness.

"Boys with nurturing fathers scored higher than the boys whose fathers were less involved unless the father was a strict, authoritarian disciplinarian" (pp. 43-44). So, although discipline has its place, when it becomes harsh and overbearing, as the Bible warns against, it yields negative results.

"My son, pay attention to my wisdom; lend your ear to my understanding" (Proverbs 5:1).

Mothers normally give care and comfort while fathers focus more on teaching children about the world around them. Notice, for example, that when mothers pick up a baby, they usually have the infant face her—whereas fathers often pick up children so they can look outward, and explore what is in front of them. Dads are "wired" to play a very important role to separate children so they don't become too absorbed in their mother's world.

"It is in the toddler years, from 1 1/2 to about 3 1/2," says Dr. Pruett, "that fathers play one of the most critical roles they ever play in the life of their child: helping the child safely and securely separate from the intense maternal dependency of infancy.

"Healthy though dependency on their mother is for children at the beginning of their life, they will not experience, let alone practice, their own competence and mastery skills if they do not strike off in search of their own physical and emotional autonomy. And in this world, you, the father, are the expert guide" (pp. 83-84).

Actively involved dads, who let their children explore the outside world and teach them about the marvels of nature, will help them develop curiosity and self-esteem. "Infants who have been well fathered during the first eighteen to twenty-four months of life are more secure than those who were not in exploring the world around them, and they do so with vigor and interest. They tend to be more curious and less hesitant or fearful, especially in the face of novel or unusual stimuli" (Pruett, p. 41).

Eventually these exploratory skills will become crucial in school and the workplace. People who are inquisitive, socially developed and not afraid to try different methods will have an easier time excelling as challenges arise. After all, Dad already taught them how to deal in the real world, how to overcome frustrations and figure things out for themselves.

"Fathers can affect how well their children progress in school, which subjects they prefer and even the kinds of occupations they choose," says Dr. Parke. "Whether a child prefers reading and hates math or aspires to be a physicist or an engineer rather than a book critic or a historian is affected by the father's attitudes, encouragement and other behavior" ( Fatherhood, 1996, p. 156).

Studies done in the 1960s about the effect fathers had on their children surprised even the researchers. For example, they found the amount of time fathers spend reading with their children is a strong predictor for many intellectual abilities—in particular, of the daughters' verbal skills. Remarkably, the same study did not find mothers reading to children to have similar effects, indicating there was something unique in the father's role of reading to them.

For example, women who were high achievers, such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Ghandi, former prime ministers of Britain and India , respectively, mention they were highly influenced and encouraged by their fathers in their academic and political careers.

Another important role in which the father excels is teaching children about spiritual and moral values. When the father is a good role model of morality, children respect both of their parents more. If the father establishes rules that are fair and a level playing field in which the children can flourish, they tend to be more obedient. But when the mother sets the rules, children tend to defy them more.

"Sons of fathers who took more responsibility for limit setting, discipline, and helping their child with personal problems and schoolwork," adds Dr. Pruett, "had significantly higher empathy [having feelings of sympathy and compassion for others] scores ... Father deprivation is directly linked to difficulties in a child's self-control" (Pruett, pp. 48, 51).

"But did He not make [husbands and wives] one ...? And why one? He seeks godly offspring" (Malachi 2:15).

When God united Adam and Eve, the first two human beings, in marriage, He told them to multiply and fill the earth. God had carefully designed the family unit so children would be reared between two parents who would act as opposite (masculine and feminine) poles.

The child would then be in the middle of this union, receiving equal influence from both parents. An analogy would be of a metal ball suspended between two magnetic poles. Similarly, each parent exerts his or her unique influence so the child is reared to have a balanced and full personality.

Researchers have confirmed that actively involved male and female parents are ideal for bringing up balanced and mature children. Here are some of their findings:

• Children yearn deeply for dads and are born with a drive to find and connect with their fathers and not only with their mothers.

• Fathers have the internal capacity or instinct to respond to their child's desire to connect.

• Men and women do not differ in the depth of love toward their children.

• Each child is loved in a unique way by the father and the mother.

• The desire to feel emotionally connected to their children throughout life is the same for men and women, though it may find
differing forms of expression.

• Fathers and mothers are equally able to interpret their child's behavioral cues.

• Fathers and mothers are equally anxious about leaving the child to the care of someone else.

• With the exception of lactation, there is no evidence women are biologically predisposed to be better parents than men.

• Men who become active fathers gain in their ability to understand themselves and others.

• A father who is deeply involved with his children experiences beneficial health results.

• A father present at childbirth is the single most important factor that protected against birth complications and further illness or trauma in the newborn.

• Parental love that overindulges a child usually results in selfishness.

One encouraging trend in Western society is the number of parents who now want to coparent, or share in the physical and emotional care of their children as well as in the responsibilities and decision making. Instead of leaving it to Mom to basically rear the children, now more fathers want to become actively involved.

In a long-term survey of newly married couples who were asked to rank certain values in their marriage, coparenting has moved from the 11th priority out of 15 in 1981 to the second priority in 1997, a surprising shift in values in less than one generation.

"Men from Wall Street to homeless shelters," says Dr. Pruett, "speak with conviction about wanting to father their children more actively than they themselves were fathered. As a senior manager at the investment house Goldman Sachs puts it, 'I don't want my son to feel the same void in his heart where his father belongs that I do in mine'" (p. 1).

"And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse" (Malachi 4:6).

We see here that God is very concerned with preserving families. It's interesting that in the scripture above, it is the hearts of the fathers that must first turn to the children, before the children's hearts are then turned toward their fathers.

How can the hearts of fathers be turned to their children? An important way is taking an active role in their children's lives!

Simply reading to them has been shown to make a big difference in improving children's verbal skills. Playing with them, so that they feel the warmth, tenderness and masculine good humor of a father, goes a long way to establishing those bonds of closeness that have been shown to determine such positive outcomes in the future.

Taking children out for a walk and pointing out all the wondrous living things around them will arouse their curiosity and kindle their thirst for knowledge. Showing them how to overcome their fears by tackling physical challenges, such as how to ride a bike or take up a sport, helps create confidence, sociability, physical coordination and perseverance that are so valuable in school and the workplace.

Teaching them strong moral values is also another way fathers turn their hearts to the children. It's wonderful for sons or daughters to be able to turn to Dad for moral guidelines and see their father love their mother and become a role model for them.

Fathers are also ideally suited to develop logic skills in their children so they can understand not only what they should do in a given situation, but why they should do it. The Bible is a marvelous source in this regard, for not only does it reveal true moral and spiritual principles, but it also explains from God's point of view why they should be followed and what happens when they are and when they aren't.

On the other side, how can children's hearts be turned toward their fathers? Again, the best source to begin searching for the answer is the Bible, which says this turning of the heart begins with parents following God's example in His love for His children and by children honoring, obeying and loving their parents.

After all, the Fifth Commandment instructs a child to "honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land" (Exodus 20:12). According to God, both parents should be involved in child rearing, and the children should show equal respect for both of them.

As research has confirmed, there's nothing better than God's original design of a loving father and mother, along with an extended family, rearing their children in His ways. Dr. Parke states it succinctly when he says that mothers and fathers are indeed different, "but their distinctive styles of caretaking complement each other perfectly to the advantage of children" (quoted by Culbreth, p. 72D).

It is a tragedy that society has come to the point of asking where all the fathers have gone—with so many leaving or abandoning their proper roles. If you are a father or will be at some point, you don't have to follow the trend. Instead, by following God's laws and true values, you can be the kind of father He wants you to be! And your children will be blessed. GN