Involvement, influence, and affection:
three keys to father-child relationships. Though they may sometimes
find it difficult to express their feelings, most fathers care
about their children and families.
In a 1980 Gallup poll, six out
of ten fathers said their families were "the most important
element of my life at this time." Only 8 percent said their
families were unimportant to them. When asked what they found
most satisfying about their families, fathers rated "children,"
"closeness," and "being together" as personally
This hearty endorsement of family
life contradicts some of the traditional roles or popular images
of fathers in our society:
The Wallet: This father is preoccupied
with providing financial support for his family. He may work
long hours to bring home his paycheck and does not take an active
part in caring for the children. Making money provides this father
with a distraction from family involvement.
The Rock: This is a "tough"
father - strict on discipline and in charge of the family. He
may also believe that a good father remains emotionally distant
from his children, so expressions of affection are taboo.
The Dagwood Bumstead: This father
tries to be a "real pal" to his children, but his efforts
are often clumsy or extreme. He doesn't understand his children
and feels confused about what to do. He may also feel that he
is not respected within the family.
These traditional stereotypes
are now clashing with another image of a father:
The Caregiver: This father tries
to combine toughness with tenderness. He enjoys his children
but is not afraid to set firm but fair limits. He and his wife
may cooperate in childrearing and homemaking.
This type of father has always
been around. But the number of men who choose this role is increasing.
Many fathers today recognize that family life can be rewarding
and that their children need their involvement.
This shift in roles is influenced
by two major social changes: the increase in the number of women
working and the rising divorce rate. As more and more mothers
join the work force, fathers are being asked to take on more
responsibilities at home. In 1979, 40 percent of the mothers
of children under age 3 were employed. Instead of remaining
on the fringe of family life, many fathers are helping more with
child care and housekeeping.
Fathers are also profoundly influenced
by the escalating divorce rate. For every two marriages there
is now one divorce - a tripling of the divorce rate between 1960
and 1980. If they are not directly involved in a divorce, most
men have friends who are. They witness the loss their friends
have experienced and reexamine the importance of their own family
relationships. Remarriage and stepfathering are also creating
new challenges for many fathers.
Because of these changes in our
society, many men are being forced to develop family relationships
that are quite different from those they had with their own fathers.
They cannot easily fall back on their own childhood experiences
for guidance. What worked very well for their fathers 20 or 30
years ago may not work at all with the kinds of challenges fathers
These changes in social attitudes
mean that men have more options for meeting their obligations
as fathers and husbands. Some men will express their feelings
more openly, while others will be more reserved; some will enjoy
the companionship and play of very young children, while others
will prefer involvement with older sons and daughters. Fathers
do not have to try to fit a certain stereotyped pattern.
According to sociologist Lewis
Yablonsky, a man's fathering style is influenced by some or all
of the following forces: his enthusiasm for being a father, his
own father's behavior, the images of how to be a father projected
by the mass media, his occupation, his temperament, the way family
members relate to each other, and the number of children he has.
No single style of fathering or mothering, no matter how ideal
it appears, is right for everyone.
Regardless of their personal
style, most fathers are interested in having a satisfying relationship
with their children. Although they might not be able to put it
into words, most fathers know they are important to their children.
According to psychotherapist Will Schutz, a good relationship
needs three things: involvement, respect and influence, and affection.
Involvement: The Foundation
of a Relationship
The first step in any relationship
is the feeling by both persons that the other is interested in
them and wants to be with them.
Many fathers begin to prepare for this kind of relationship before
their child is even born. A father who seeks involvement is interested
in his wife's pregnancy and makes preparations for the child's
birth. When the child is born he is eager to hold the infant.
In countless small ways, this father demonstrates involvement
- he may gently touch and play with his children, hold and talk
to them. By doing these things he sends a clear and emphatic
I want to be your father. I am
interested in you. I enjoy being with you. You and I have a relationship
that is important to me.
Every child wants to sense this
type of involvement from his or her father and mother. Without
it, a child feels isolated and rejected. The foundation of the
What the Research Shows
Research on father-child involvement demonstrates that :
(1) Fathers are significant for
(2) Fathers are sensitive to
(3) Fathers play with children
differently than mothers do.
These differences in play continue
as the child grows older. Fathers may vigorously bounce and lift
a 1- or 2-year-old in rough and tumble physical play; mothers
may prefer to play conventional games like "peek-a-boo,"
offer an interesting toy, or read. Fathers' play appears to be
more physically stimulating while mothers are more interested
As a result, children seem to
prefer fathers as play partners, though in a stressful situation
they may be more likely to turn to their mothers. This preference
could be due to fathers spending a greater proportion of their
time playing with their children than mothers. One researcher
noted that about 40 percent of a father's time with his young
children was spent in play in contrast to about 25 percent of
the mother's time. Even though fathers may spend less total time
in play than mothers, their type of play and their apparent interest
in that type of involvement make them attractive play partners.
There are, of course, exceptions
to this pattern. Some men simply do not enjoy playing with children,
and some mothers may prefer an arousing, physical form of child
play. Also, when both parents work, the additional demands on
the family could affect the amount of time one or both parents
spend enjoying their children.
Suggestions for Fathers
How can fathers become more involved
with their children? First, they can give each of their children
exclusive attention as often as possible. During their time together
fathers could enjoy their children's company without allowing
outside distractions to interfere. As a result, their children
would feel noticed and special. There is no single formula for
how this might be accomplished. A father and child might play,
talk, learn a skill or read together. What is important is that
they notice each other and acknowledge a common interest. This
type of undistracted attention promotes a sense that each is
important to the other.
Fathers might also give their children a glimpse of their work
world. Children want to know what life is like outside the home
and what their parents do at work. Many farm families and small
businesses include their children in the operation at an early
age. Parents in other occupations may find it more difficult
to give their children a glimpse of their work, but even brief
visits or tours will help. Business and industry are gradually
beginning to acknowledge that many workers are parents too, and
that adjustment in this role can have a positive effect on work
performance. Some industries provide day care centers for children
of their employees. Both mothers and fathers are able to visit
their children during breaks.