Fatherhood Reclaimed


Fatherhood and Parenting
Author Adrienne Burgess

How important is a father for a child’s development? In this edited extract from her recently released book Fatherhood Reclaimed UK-based journalist Adrienne Burgess argues fathers provide a unique touchstone for life. (You can purchase the book through merchandise section.)

Does the fact that a father may consider himself to be in a different world from his children, and spend very little time in their company, really matter? After all, research has shown that the children of full-time working mothers do no less well in later life than the children of full-time housewives, although in the former circumstance mother and child spend much less time together. The notion of quality time may be derided, but in parent-child relationships quality is needed more important than quantity.

Yet here’s the rub: the two are connected. There seems to be a certain minimum requirement in terms of quantity which, if it is not met, affects quality. This makes intuitive sense. It is hard to relate constructively to someone you don’t know very well. Most working mothers seem to meet the necessary level of involvement: not only do they rarely interact closely with their young children for less than an hour a day, but because they remain ‘in charge’ of their lives, are continually consulting with them and their caretakers, staying in touch with their development and needs. This is not usually the case with working fathers. What is their minimum requirement? Or, to put it another way, how little fathering is fathering enough? ‘What we want to know,’ said a leading UK journalist, speaking (or so he said) on behalf not only of himself but of ‘… every other anxious father in the newsroom, is how much more time do you need to spend with you children to stop them, you know… taking drugs and so on?’

      ‘I never felt close to my parents. If I look back at my childhood and think what time did I spend with them I can’t actually think of very much. I don’t want to make the same mistake with my children. Something that bothers me quite deeply is that I still feel a bit detached from them as I do from most people and I have been very busy with other things since they were born… I hope it’s not too late. I suppose I hope pretty strongly that much of the bonding between parent and child takes place in the later years.’
Nigel, 44, father of four

How much fathering is enough?

The cowardly answer to how much fathering is enough would be, ‘how long is a piece of string?’ Not only can skilled fathers make a lot out of a little, but child development depends on many things. It depends on health, wealth, education and support; on environment; on the child’s personal characteristics and those of its siblings; on the confidence and competence of its caretakers; and on the quality of its parents’ relationship. In fact, the single most important indicator of maladjustment in children is their parents’ active hostility - to each other.

None of this, however, lets fathers off the hook. The more extensive a father’s involvement with his children at ages 11 and 16, the higher their education and career aspirations; and the greater his participation when they are seven and 11, the less likely they are to become delinquent. Even boys whose fathers have criminal records are less likely to get into trouble themselves if their fathers spend a lot of time with them. Bearing these simple facts in mind, it seems probable that many working fathers should think twice before accepting all the overtime offered, even if it does enable them to be better providers. The losses may outweigh the gains.

How does quality mitigate or exacerbate the effects of quantity? Poor father-child relationships (poor can mean either negative or distant) are clearly linked to substance abuse by adolescents, and both emotionally distant and bullying fathers feature heavily in the histories of anorexic and bulimic women. Nor do ‘close-binding’ fathers, who hamper their children’s independence through anxious over-involvement do them any good. This, too, is linked with anorexia and bulimia, as well as with other stress-related conditions such as asthma.

"Where’s Dad?"

Children cannot be relied upon to see their father’s focus on matters outside his family as a positive. Some may buy into ‘Daddy’s working all weekend because he loves you so much’, but others experience this as rejection and may rationalise the situation by concluding that what they have to offer apparently detached parent can’t be of much interest. Adolescent delinquents often have fathers who don’t pay much attention to their comings and goings, or who react unsupportively or defensively towards them. One of our interviewees, a man whose adult adjustment had been very troubled, recalled how, when he had rushed in to tell his parents he had won a scholarship to the best university in the land, all his father had said was, ‘Look at that mud you’ve trekked across the hall’!

      ‘I saw this face with glasses behind the locked gate … It was Scott. It was about a year before he died of an overdose … Dad did his best. But of course, Dad was always super busy. And when he was making a movie he just wasn’t available … When Someone you love and need can only see you now and then for just a few hours, you love and hate … When you really love someone as Scott loved Dad, you hate the fact that he can’t be with you.’
Paul Newman’s daughter, quoted in, Fathers and Sons

Alcoholic fathers and fathers who are depressed tend to spawn children with adjustment problems (although, interestingly, the school performance of children of alcoholics does not necessarily seem to suffer). Genetically, we are only just beginning to understand the subtlety of fathers’ contributions: 30 per cent of the sons of alcoholic fathers will, themselves, become alcoholic. Such a strong link is not found with daughters’ alcoholism, although they show higher than average rates in marrying alcoholics.

Positive Fathering

What benefits children enormously is positive involvement, and plenty of it, with their fathers. This is not only of terrific value in itself but can act as a buffer to negative circumstances, such as economic hardship or a hostile or difficult mother. Adolescents with depressed mothers do better in life if they have had good relationships with their fathers.

In the previous chapter it was pointed out that parental achievement was an important predictor of positive outcomes for children, and that effective breadwinning was one of the most vital functions of parenthood. That is so, but it does not tell the whole story. Life success very often comes to the ‘emotionally intelligent’, to individuals whose psychological competence has enabled them to optimise their intellectual gifts. Emotional intelligence can develop over the whole life-span but it is forged in our families of origin, and in particular, in our relationships with our parents, fathers as well as our mothers.

      ‘If I’ve been around enough, then things can be left half said. If not, then things need to be fully said. If they are having problems with their homework, say, then I would know it may be because of what happened yesterday. If I can’t do that, then I’m not spending enough time with them.’
Roger O’Connell, quoted in
Go on, leave. They’ll survive without you.

For a long time it was believed that babies formed just one ‘primary attachment’ (usually with their mothers) on which their emotional health depended. And, certainly, children with only one main caretaker are substantially dependent on that person’s well-being. However, we now know that tiny infants develop simultaneous attachments with anyone in regular cooing distance. A father doesn’t ‘interrupt’ a more significant attachment between mother and child, and his function in infant development is not secondary to hers unless circumstance (or his own desire) makes it so. Positive high-level engagement by fathers matters from birth. Babies so blessed in the first four weeks of life are performing better than their peers on their first birthdays. Well-fathered six and seven year olds not only achieve better at school - socially and academically - but have higher IQ’s.

Sensitivity is key

Sensitivity to the child seems to be the key, and it may well be that a minimum level of involvement is not so hard to achieve. A study of Israeli fathers of nine-month-olds showed that employed fathers who had spent 45 minutes a day actively engaged with their children ‘understood’ them as well as the (non-employed) mothers. This meant that, when playing with their infants, they offered the right toy or response, which in turn stimulated the baby’s achievement. Right through adolescence, and in many different ways, the benefits to children of positive and substantial father involvement can be measured: in self-control, self-esteem, life skills and social competence. Adolescents who have good relationships with their fathers take their responsibilities seriously, are more likely to do what their parents ask and are less limited by traditional sex-role expectations. The boys have fewer behaviour problems in school, and the girls are more self-directed, cheerful and happy, and willing to try new things. Among adults, both men and women, the strongest predictor of empathic concern for others is high levels of caretaking by their fathers when they were little. Father involvement is also one of the major predictors of whether adults in their twenties will have progressed, educationally and socially, beyond their parents.

You can only try…

However, even the best fathering is not a cure-all. While 80 per cent of women who feel emotionally distanced from husbands or lovers have had bad experiences with their fathers, and 90 per cent of those whose parents split up do not settle easily into satisfying love relationships, 40 per cent of well-fathered daughters also have trouble settling down to domestic bliss.

      ‘I don’t know if men ever have long and intensive discussions about personal relationships. Well, you do with your wife, but not with other people. My daughter feels that this is a problem. She feels I don’t tell her I love her, I do not talk to her about herself, everything. I say I’m here, but then she doesn’t talk, she gets embarrassed.’
Alec, 50, father of three (two families)

Fathers Matter

Fathers are of value to their children in many ways - as carers, companions, providers, protectors, educators and life-models - as well as through their potential to be ‘irrationally emotionally involved’ with them. That is, to love them madly and remain loyal to them for life. Children and biological parents measure themselves against each other in unique ways, and although substitute fathers can, and often do, fulfil many of a father’s functions, a man who has created a child and is then lovingly involved in its upbringing supplies it with unique touchstone for life.

‘These excerpts are taken from FATHERHOOD RECLAIMED, published by Vermilion (an imprint of Random House) by Adrienne Burgess. Copyright Adrienne Burgess 1997.’

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