Fatherhood and Parenting
Finding innovate ways to reach fathers is a challlenge for modern society reports Alan Barron, convenor, The Memucan Institute of Men's Studies, Geelong. Vic. Australia Phone 03 5243 0205 mobile 0425 785 619
The problem of fatherless families is not just a US phenomenon, but a world wide trend according to visiting US expert, Dr Wade Horn.
Dr Horn was addressing a public meeting in Melbourne organised by the Australian Family Association last Tuesday. He is an adviser to President Bush, and is the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services which has an annual budget of $46 billion.*
Dr Horn said 20 per cent of households are now fatherless. In the US, in 1960 there were 10 million fatherless homes. By 2003, this figure had climbed to 25 million. This has lead to the situation where one in three families is fatherless. Children often view the separate living arrangements of their fathers as a deliberate decision by them to live elsewhere he said.
The lack of male influence in these families is a cause for concern Dr Horn said. And it's not just in single parent parents, but also even in intact families, parents are spending less time with their children; parents today spend 40% less time with their children than they did a decade ago.
There has been a change in altitude to fathering he said. Fathers have become viewed as optional to parenting, kind of like a sunroof on a car. They are nice to have around sometimes, but they aren't really necessary. This is a myth according to Dr Horn. Boys from a female headed household had a 60 per cent greater chance of committing rape and a 75 per cent greater chance of committing urder. Most of the inmates in prison come from single parent families. Children from such homes tended to under-perform in education, and many of them lived in poverty, and were themselves likely to end up in poverty.
Children need both their mother and their father if they were to grow up a balanced healthy adult. While children from a single parent family can grow up healthy and balanced, the probability of this happening in a typical two parent family was much higher.
Dr Horn then told the attentive audience he wished to share something radical with them. "Men and women are different!" You could have heard a pin drop! Dr Horn said while he was training to be a psychologist, it was the fashion in the 1960s and 70s, to try and re-program boys, as it was thought socialisation made the differences between the sexes (not biology). But this is not so. Men and women are different and they parent differently he said.
When a mother plays with her child she is cautious and holds her child securely. Dads on the other hand are more adventuress. Research shows that when a baby sees his or her father approach, their neck muscles tighten and the eyes dilate - it's as if the baby is saying `Here we go again!' Dads tend to be more physical with their boys, and girls as well.
There was a `natural complementary' between mothers and fathers, Dr Horn said. Mothers are for cautious, while fathers are more adventuress which leads to children developing a cautious adventurism. He said fathers playing with their boys taught them how to control their aggression and boys also took note of how their fathers related to their mother. If boys see their fathers showing respect and love to their mothers, then they will in turn treat women in a similar manner.
Dr Horn said with many boys today is that they lack an appropriate initiation into manhood and positive male role models. It was important for boys to learn appropriate masculine models of behaviour as boys who lack a positive role model often over-compensated by promiscuous (trying to prove their manliness), and by becoming aggressive and resorting to bullying. He said a father's involvement in his daughter's upbringing was also beneficial as this gave her a greater self-esteem and confidence, and
girls who had active father involvement also did better academically.
Many men are not adequately prepared for marriage and fathering Dr Horn believes. Fatherhood is vitally important - like the 4th wheel on a car he said. A car can travel on 3 wheels, but so much smoother and better with 4! Fatherhood, he said should be encouraged as a worthy ideal throughout society. New ways must be found to reach men with this message. He cited two recent developments in the US. A former salesman had started a `boot camp' for men to help them come to terms with fathering. Another
initiative involved forming a basketball league made up of fathers only. This helped men to open up and to relate their experiences to other men.
Central to the notion of the importance of fathering, Dr Horn said marriage and fathering go together. Once marriage and having a family was an automatic sequence for nearly everyone. But this was not so today. For many people forming some sort of relationship and having children did not necessarily happen in that order. He said the importance of marriage was not understood by many. Research showed there is a real difference between co-habitation and marriage. Marriages were more permanent and durable, the
best environment in which to raise children. 'If society is genuinely interested in renewing fathering, then it must renew its interest in
marriage' he said.
While there needs more to be done to prepare couples for marriage, Dr horn said much more could be done to save troubled marriages. He was of the opinion that it was possible to repair many marriages. `Often what was lacking was support and the encouragement to work through the issues involved' he said.
Dr Horn concluded by drawing out an incident from the film, The Princess Bride. One of the main characters, Inigo Montoya, was seeking revenge on a six-fingered man who had killed his father. Finally, when he had tracked down his father's killer, the cornered man pleaded for his life. He said he would give a vast sum of money in exchange for his life. Montoya shock his head. How about fame? Not interested was his reply. The man said he would give anything Montoya wanted, so long as he spared his life. Montoya
replied; "I just want my father back."
And so it is boys. The influence of fathers forms an indelible impression on their children. If we are to build a world comprising balanced, well adjusted men, then they are going to need involved and caring fathers living with them.
* The USA's Administration for Children and Families is responsible for programs that promote the social and economic well-being of US children, youth and families including the national welfare-to-work program, foster care, child support enforcement, runaway and homeless youth, low income energy assistance, and community services just to name some of the department's wide umbrella responsibilities.