Fatherhood (2)JAMES STENSON
Over the years, we've observed several traits in common among the most successful fathers we've known. With some variation in emphasis, the same approaches and attitudes seem to show up again and again in such families.
Western middle-class families today
In the span of two full generations, two broad social developments have drastically altered family life. First is the unprecedented and ever-mounting level of prosperity enjoyed by the middle class. It's no exaggeration to say that our standard of living has greatly exceeded the wildest ambitions of material success that our forebears dreamed about at the turn of the century. In a real sense, we have all become very rich. The second is the rise of mass electronic communications, which has introduced powerful images, ideas, values, and authority-figures into the life of the family. It may be said that the natural relationship between parents and children has been complicated by the presence of strangers in the home – entertainers, rock singers, TV dramatic stars, new announcers, advertisers, and a host of other personalities.
These two developments have seriously altered the formative dynamics between parents and children. When we compare the situation today with that of the "natural" family, or even the modified natural family life of a few decades ago, the differences are striking. Let's look at some of these characteristics, paying special attention to the diminished role of the father.
1. Middle-class children today almost never see their father work. Dad leaves
the house in the morning and arrives tired at night, often quite late. The children
do not see him exercise his personal powers of mind and will while dealing with
the outside world; they do not witness his character in action in the job, frequently
under stress. They therefore lack his model of the virtues in action: discerning
judgment, responsible control of events, personal toughness in solving problems,
self-control in dealing with setbacks and difficulties.
If conversation with parents is minimal, that with other adults is even more sketchy. Typically grandparents live at some distance from the home. So do other close relatives. Neighbors are, at best, only superficial acquaintances: social visits are brief and infrequent. The family's relations with teachers and clergy are fleeting and far from the home. All of this separation leads to the parents' isolation from the support of other adults, and this has several serious consequences.
For one thing, the children no longer see a range
of real-life grown-ups who can serve to round out their concept of adulthood.
No outside adults are known well enough to reinforce and give depth to the parents'
values (such as the children understand them). There is no one to show, by word
or attitude, that the parents' judgments are worthy of respect. Thus the children
have only one other source to form a vision of normal adult life: television.
4. Older children and adolescents today function as consumers, not producers. In most reasonably well-off middle-class households, the children's active labor is not really necessary. It may be convenient, but it is not a genuinely needed contribution to the life of the family. Many parents, in fact, find it easier in the long run to do the children's chores themselves rather than nag incessantly. In such households, canny children can learn to evade work by delaying action; sooner or later, the parents will give up and let the kids get on with their own business, which is amusement. Domestic peace is more important here than acquaintance with adult reality.
Families with tighter financial circumstances, however, continue to have a real need for the children's contributions. This is especially true of families with many children. Relative poverty means added work, as it always has, and this leads to real responsibility. Teachers have long noted that children from large or financially disadvantaged families generally show more initiative, reliability, and healthy self-confidence.
What social function, then, do most middle-class youngsters serve? It would seem that they mostly consume goods and services. Having plenty of time and disposable income, and a host of exciting new interests in adolescence, these young people constitute a substantial market for commercial exploitation. They have become, in effect, an artificial leisure class. Their only real usefulness to the economy is to spend money.
When they do eventually secure part-time jobs, it is often poignant to see the eagerness with which they set to work. The same thing happens when they work at a social-service project or volunteer their help during a civil emergency (piling sandbags against a flood, for example). At last, somebody needs them. They have a chance to prove – perhaps above all to themselves – what strengths they really possess. In a sense, they are seeking respect, a genuine esteem based on adult-level assessment of their character. In former times, the conferring of this respect, and therefore the building of self-respect, came principally from Mom and Dad.
But even with part-time employment, the adolescents' life-circumstances remain those of child-like dependency. Though a 16-year-old has 95% of his adult height and weight, he cannot really support himself. He has most of the powers of adulthood with few of the responsibilities. For all practical purposes, he is still essentially a child and is expected to remain so (at least in economic dependency) for several more years. The lifetime habits of amusement, which in former ages dropped off sharply at puberty, now continue more-or-less intact until the early 20's, or even later. Meanwhile, their part-time employment provides "spending money." (Note the significance of this term.)
If one's outlook on life is formed largely through personal experience, we should not be surprised at the relentless pleasure-pursuit of so many young people. A substantial number of our young adults arrive at their 20's with almost no experience – either personal or vicarious – of productive, satisfying work. Instead, the preponderance of their experience has centered on leisure activity: play and entertainment. Small wonder they come to equate happiness with amusement.
5. Adult society, outside the family, also fails to make responsible demands of older children and adolescents. The significant problems afflicting secondary-school education are too complex and controversial to explain here, but we can safely make at least one generalization: Compared with their counterparts of 20+ years ago, today's high-school students do not work as hard or learn as much about adult-level standards of professional performance. The documentation for this decline is mountainous.
Though the very brightest students in top-track courses still receive a reasonable rigorous intellectual challenge, most of the rest do not receive anything resembling an introduction to adult responsibility. Such an introduction, it would see, is what schools should be all about. Why else would we deliberately keep the most energetic part of our population out of the workplace, and at such expense? In so many aspects – dress, comportment, work-expectations – our large high schools seem like extensions of the elementary-school ambiance rather than introductions to life as adults know it and enjoy it. To look at it another way: How many high-school students, between class work and home assignments, actually put in an eight-hour day?
Some critics have noted that teen-agers actively seek part-time employment because they are eager to work for a change. Their natural need for a challenge is simply not being met in school. Even flipping hamburgers is more "grown up" than lifeless grammar-school-level instruction and work expectations. In the eyes of many teen-agers, the high school ambiance seems determined to treat them like children, not to launch them into responsible adulthood.
Of course, there are great numbers of dedicated teachers who make serious demands on their students' abilities. These people consciously use high standards of performance to strengthen their students' abilities. These people consciously use high standards of performance to strengthen their students; powers of mind and will – to form their characters. Such teachers, like their counterparts in coaching, enjoy affectionate respect from their young people – if not right now, then later in life.
What about organized athletics for children? What effect do they have on character development? At the very least, of course, they induce bodily conditioning, and this is certainly preferable to stretching out in front of the television. But the point here is: What happens inside the child's mind and will?
Some critics have commented that belonging to a highly organized suburban sports league is like being a low-level employee in a huge, impersonal corporation. That is, you're expected to perform a well-defined function and you dare not make a mistake; beyond that, everything happening above you is an unknown entity. If this is true, then what (besides technical skill) are the children learning?
The sandlot pick-up games of yesteryear were, to be sure, woefully disorganized and filled with endless squabbling. To this extent, they were inefficient. But they belonged to the children. It was the youngsters themselves, with some occasional minimal direction by adults, who divided up sides, apportioned responsibilities, set and followed the rules of the game. All the apparently pointless squabbling, in fact, taught the children a lot about the way adult society works – conflict, discernment, personality-assessment, compromise, fairness, agreement.
Note that adults then directed children's efforts but did not manage them. In terms of character-building there is a huge difference between these approaches.
An over-managed and under-directed set of activities seems to accomplish less for children than most parents imagine. If everything important is done for the children, including their physical transport from place to place, then how much do the children really learn about adult life, or about themselves? In our quest to keep them busy, do we direct them toward self-reliant responsibility – or merely away from boredom?
6. Television and the other entertainment media have become the principal means by which children form concepts of adult life. The rise of television as an authority-figure – diminishing or even replacing that of parents and other adults – has been one of the most subtle and significant social changes of the past several decades. Its effects are only now beginning to be appreciated.
As we have seen, it is natural for children and adolescents to imitate, mostly unconsciously, adults who serve as models of personal strength and accomplishment. For centuries, it was the father who filled this role. If the family had no father, then some other adult male served in his stead. (Such was the case with George Washington and his older brother, among other examples in history.)
But, as we've also seen, today's children seldom witness their father display his character strengths outside the home. Moreover, the children almost never see other adults show respect toward Dad. And finally, since TV-watching has practically eliminated serious conversation between Dad and his children (whereby the kids could learn of Dad's strengths at least second-hand), the children are left with a weak overall picture of their father's character. Dad appears as a relatively weak individual: friendly, likable, leisure-oriented, somewhat dull, but not really deserving of high respect.
We use the term "relatively weak" here because, through television and the other entertainment media, children have a constant framework of comparison in assessing Dad's character. Every home with a much-used television presents children with an array of authoritative adult figures: rock singers, musicians, dramatic actors and actresses, talk-show hosts, comedians and miscellaneous "celebrities." Studies have documented how these figures come to be accepted in the home, especially to children, as intimate family acquaintances. In many families, in fact, these professional entertainers are the only adult acquaintances that the family has. Many children know more about game-show hosts than they do about their grandparents.
The key point is this: These people radiate a power (or rather an illusion of power) that overshadows, as it were, the children's perception of their father's strength of character. The entertainers seem to possess, in superabundance, those qualities that older children and adolescents long for. They appear confident, self-assured, supremely competent, socially and financially successful, popular and respected, sophisticated, brimming with unrestrained energy. They are thus, in effect, rivals for the children's respect and emulation.
Young people's attraction to these father-substitutes may account for two curious phenomena in late 20th-century life.
First is the strange assemblage of young people's heroes. When high-school and university students are polled about people whom they most admire, the result is an odd mixture of personalities: Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, one or two prominent political figures, and then a collection of names from the entertainment industry. Genuinely saintly people stand alongside politicians and assorted "celebrities." What on earth do these people have in common? It certainly isn't character. Perhaps it's simply that they all appear frequently on television.
The second phenomenon is the enormous influence, all out of proportion to their numbers, that entertainers have on the adolescent sub-culture. Though they comprise an infinitesimal percentage of our population, professional entertainers exercise a direct effect on the way young people talk, think, dress and behave. An extraordinary portion of adolescents' conversation deals with the doings and (perceived) character of singers, comedians, and other television "personalities." Young people seldom talk seriously about any profession other than entertainment. When they do discuss other lines of work (law, medicine, law enforcement, business, etc.), their concepts reflect largely what they've seen dramatized on television.
Small wonder that such a sizeable proportion of young people display bewilderment, apprehension, and lack of realistic self-confidence when they reach full adulthood in their 20's or later. Since childhood, their images of adult life have been literally illusions. And their father, unwittingly, has done little to anchor them in reality. His own life has not given counterweight to the television's influence. Indeed, he has often been a quietly devoted part of the TV audience. Not much strength or effective direction can emanate from an armchair.
7. Finally, the practice of religion is seldom a significant part of family life. Throughout history, periods of great prosperity have always seen a rapid decline in religious belief and practice. Perhaps this is because material riches crowd out the central realities of life – that we are all totally dependent on God, and that we answer to Him for the way we live. Wealth gives us the illusion that we have life under control, and wealth's power diminishes our sense of ultimate responsibility.
Our Lord Himself gave serious warnings to all of us about the dangers of riches. Surely it's a mistake to think that He was referring only to the tiny minority of the Roman Empire's upper classes. He was also addressing us. The Western middle-class of the late 20th-century enjoys far greater powers, security, comfort, and possessions than the wealthiest contemporaries of the Apostles. The abundance of our way of life exceeds the dreams of the Caesars.
For the very young children, the sight of their father showing deference to a Higher Power is important to their lifelong concept of God. If even Dad shows affection and respect to God, then God must be all-powerful indeed. He must be a Father Himself – loving, protective, all-knowing, capable of doing everything.
As children grow older, their father's attitude toward God has deeper and more subtle effects. Psychologists have observed that the father (who appears, as we've noted, the "expert" on extra-familial affairs) exercises serious, and in a sense final, shape to the children's conscience – the internalized ethic, the firm judgment of right and wrong by which we live as adults. By his attitude and actions, he says in effect: "This is the correct way by which we adults comport ourselves in the world, whether we feel like it or not. This is the way we please God, our Father, and live honorably among other men and women."
Religious conviction is one of the greatest strengths in a person's life. It leads to many other personal strengths as well; it firms up judgment, purpose, confidence, and self-control. The children are looking for these things, eager for them. If they see this pre-eminent strength in their father, they are likely to adopt it themselves – if not now, then later. But if it's missing...
If it's missing, they will find other values elsewhere. Surrounded as they are by the allurements of a materialistic culture, they can swiftly adopt the nationalized life-outlook of modern materialism – that man is just a clever animal, life ends with death, morality is mere social convention, religion is a sham, life's purpose is the pursuit of pleasure and money and power.
In short, as children approach young adulthood, they face an existential choice: religious faith or materialist faith. That choice seems to depend enormously on the religious leadership of their father.
The changes outlined here have slowly and almost imperceptibly altered the formative relationship between fathers and their children. Over several decades, fathers have lost much of the moral leadership in the home, perhaps most of it. In our experience, most fathers remain unaware of this erosion and of its serious implications for their children's future happiness.
A great many fathers think they are adequately filling their fatherly role by simply providing for their family's comfort and then sharing in it. They're wrong. Unfortunately, they usually don't find out how wrong they are until their children are in high school, or even later when they're grown up and gone.
As we've seen, when children grow up without esteem for their father's strengths, they show weakness in their moral development. As adults, they are somehow out of balance – immature, irresolute, self-centered, irreligious, preoccupied with amusement and comfort. Though they may have gained marketable skills and a respectable income, their personal lives remain restless and unhappy. They have a 50-50 chance of winding up divorced. They sometimes desperately seek professional help, looking somewhere for the fatherly guidance that they've never known.
History has shown that children don't need comfort and convenience from Dad. What they really need, as a normal and natural necessity, is a living manly example of firm character and conscience – a man who shows them how to live in the virtues we esteem most in people: religious conviction, active considerateness, critical discernment, serious and loving responsibility, mastery over oneself. The children need to sense, quietly and unconsciously, that their father is a hero.
Any father who seems a hero to his children is the object of their lifelong devotion. He is not remote and unapproachable, a severe authority-figure. On the contrary, he is his children's greatest friend, and unconsciously a model for all their other friendships. He is a source of happiness, confidence, humor and wisdom. The children's respect for him and his values serves to anchor their years of adolescence, to thwart peer-influences and the allurements of materialism. We must emphasize: This deep respect, like all respect in human affairs, derives from the perception of strength.
Even in today's prosperous circumstances, a great many fathers enjoy this respect from their children. They and their wives do an excellent job in raising their children. By definition, it may be said that successful parents are those who raise successful children. How this works is something of a mystery.
Some such fathers are active and outgoing, natural leaders at home and on the job. Others, some of the most successful we know, are quiet and mild-mannered men, not the sort to stand out in a crowd. Some have obvious personal limitations; they are overweight or unathletic or medically handicapped. Regardless of their temperament or personal shortcomings, they all share one thing in common. Their wives and children respect them deeply for their strength of character.
As we said at the outset of this essay, we have known hundreds of fathers from all sorts of backgrounds and family circumstances. Over the years, we've observed several traits in common among the most successful fathers we've known. With some variation in emphasis, the same approaches and attitudes seem to show up again and again in such families. For whatever these may be worth as experience, we would like to outline them here. As we go through each of them, please note how they approximate, in modern-day circumstances, the dynamics of the "natural" family that we've seen before.
Sad to say, it's common for many men to reach late middle-age or retirement and find disappointment in the results of their life's work. Some men work all their lives to build up a business or a practice, only to find that these accomplishments eventually disappear. Times change. New businesses and practices replace the old. New managers undo what others have done before them. No matter how we look at it, work can't be an end in itself.
But what about the children? They do endure forever, for their souls are immortal. The children's earthly and eternal happiness depends, in enormous measure, on their father's influence during the first two decades of life. This is a brief span of time, and it passes only once. God has ordained it as a central fact of existence: Parents have one chance – and only one – to raise their children right.
Successful fathers can turn in later life to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices, their own successful children. They see their sons and daughters as confident, responsible men and women who live by their parents' principles. God commands all of us to honor our mother and father. The greatest honor that children can bestow is to adopt their parents' conscience and character.
To see one's children grow up this way is the greatest challenge and reward a man can have. It's what fatherhood is all about.
A number of fathers we know have found it useful to reflect from time to time on how they are living their responsibilities as husband and father. We're all very busy at work and at home. Immersed as we are in detail, we can sometimes lose sight of the big picture, of what we're after in the long run. As is true in business, we sometimes need to step back and question what we're really doing, and why.
The questions below form a sort of self-examination that successful fathers have used to stay on top of things. We hope that some or all of them may prove useful to you.
See the first part of this discussion Fatherhood (1)
Stenson, James. "Fatherhood (2)." Scepter Booklets, 1993.
The full text of this article is reprinted here in two installments with kind permission from the publishers. Anybody interested in acquiring bulk copies of the booklet should contact Scepter Press, 481 Main Street, Suite 203, New Rochelle, N.Y. 10801, U.S.A. Tel. (914) 636-3377.
James Stenson is the author of Anchor: God's Promises of Hope to Parents, Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership, Upbringing: A Discussion Handbook For Parents of Young Children and Lifeline: The Religious Upbringing of Your Children among others. Mr. Stenson is also the author of numerous articles and booklets including the very popular "Preparing for Peer Pressure, A Guide for Parents of Young Children" and "Successful Fathers – The Subtle but Powerful Ways Fathers Mold Their Children's Characters". An educator, author, and public speaker, Stenson was the co-founder of The Heights School in suburban Washington, D.C. and founder and first headmaster of Northridge Preparatory School in suburban Chicago.
Copyright © 1993 Scepter Books
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.