WASHINGTON, June 13, 2013 — Language is a good indicator of what a culture values. The dictionary definition of mothering is “the nurturing of an infant or small child by its mother.” Parenting means “the rearing of children.” Fathering means “a male parent.”
Mothering is highly valued and appreciated in our culture; when people are sick or sad, they want to be mothered. The value of parenting is likewise recognized, as any number of books, blogs, and classes on the topic will attest. Fathering, however, is generally used only to signify the man who supplies genetic material.
If mothers stopped mothering in mass, we would recognize it as an extraordinary problem requiring immediate rectifying. Yet one in three children live in homes without fathers. Rather than trying to aggressively change that statistic, the bulk of our energy is devoted to ameliorating, not reversing, damage.
Like the specific and irreplaceable roles mothers play in their children’s lives, fathering cannot be so easily replaced.
We know that children suffer when fathers are absent. Children in father-absent homes are at greater risk for any number of dangers and social ills. They are almost four times as likely to be poor, engage in criminal activity, be incarcerated, be obese, have lower educational achievement, more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and are more likely to suffer from abuse.
The presence of fathers is critical in the lives of children.
This casual dismissal of the critical role that father’s play in their children’s lives is dangerous to our entire society. Fathers and the unique role they play are important. Our culture must rethink our understanding of “fathering” from merely being “a male parent” to being the specific role and acts that fathers provide for their children.
Moreover, we should realize that fathering is as important to children as mothering.
One of the obvious benefits of children having both mothers and fathers in their homes is the fact that parenting is hard work, and two people bearing the load is obviously beneficial.
As Dr. David Popenoe, author of Life Without Father, writes, “Childrearing is a demanding, stressful, and often exhausting activity that continues nonstop for at least eighteen years. Two adults can not only support and spell one another; they can help counteract each other’s deficiencies and contribute to each other’s strengths.”
But the presence of another biologically attached adult isn’t the only thing children need. Parents aren’t interchangeable: with two individuals to share the load, any combination will do, or a single person with enough outside assistance. A child needs more than to be parented, she needs to be mothered and fathered.
Dr. Popenoe explains that humans need two factors for social maturity and competence: “communion, or the need to be included, connected and related; and agency, or the drive for independence, individuality, and self-fulfillment.” Or, as has been embroidered on many a decorative pillow, parents give children roots and wings. Science suggests that mothers primarily give children roots and fathers primarily give them wings.
Fathering is different than mothering, and provide for different needs in the lives of their children. Fathers are the first and most important male role models for children. They teach their sons what it means to be men and they teach their daughters how to relate to men. They help their adolescent children navigate the change from living primarily in the sphere of the home to the greater world. Adolescent boys with fathers in their homes are less prone to violence, and adolescent girls with fathers in their homes are at lower risk of teen pregnancy.
Fathers parent differently than mothers. From play to communication to discipline, they offer teach children critical skills that are complementary to those learned from mothers. They encourage competition, risk taking and independence. They are instrumental in the development of empathy and coping skills.
From the beginning of their lives, children are learning and experiencing different things from their fathers. “Even the way fathers hold their babies communicates and teaches the child something.”
When a mother picks up her infant, she tends to wrap the baby up toward her breasts, providing comfort, warmth and security. By contrast, a father may well hold the child at arm’s length and make eye contact, toss her in the air, turn her around so that her back is against his chest, or prop her up to look back over his shoulder.
Each of these “daddy holds” underscores a sense of freedom.” Life Without Father
As a culture, we proclaim that we value children. Indeed, “For the children” is a great slogan to use when seeking to pass legislation or raise funds. But while we may place theoretical importance on children in general, it is individual parents who place value on their own children — who advocate for them, watch over them, and provide for them. Specifically it is the mother and the father of an individual child whose involvement and care is most critical to that child’s well being.
The unique and important role of fathers in the lives of their own children should be celebrated, encouraged and recognized as irreplaceable.
Happy Father’s Day, Dads. We need you now more than ever.
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