Fatherhood (2)


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.

When they do see Dad around the house, they generally see him at leisure – when his virtues are, so to speak, on idle. Even when he does do some manual work around the house (an increasingly rare occasion), this work is more like a leisure activity, a relatively enjoyable break from the pressures of his serious livelihood. The children seldom join in this work because they themselves are otherwise occupied with leisure activities of their own.

Increasingly, of course, the children do not see their mothers at work either. Pressures for a second income frequently keep Mom also out of the home and out of sight. Thus her own example of personal on-the-job strengths is diminished considerably.

What is left for the children to see, then? They see their parents mostly at rest, especially their father, and most especially with television. (One young boy put it succinctly to me: "My Dad mostly watches TV and just goofs around the house.") Unfortunately, serious strengths of character do not normally shine forth in leisurely amusements. And they never shine at all in front of the glowing tube.

2. The home itself has become a place of play rather than work. Whereas formerly tool and work implements abounded in the home, and toys and playthings were scarce, today the situation is reversed. Tools are tucked away out of sight, while playthings are everywhere: television sets, radios, VCR's, stereos, video games, pool tables, dartboards, table-games, coloring books, sports equipment, and boxes of toys. (Typically, books are scarce.) These leisure devices, combined with soft furniture and efficient heating/air conditioning systems, make the modern home an exceedingly comfortable place. It has become an ideal ambiance within which the family's adults can relax and recreate their energies (which is where the word "recreation" derived its original meaning).

For the parents, this leisure is a welcome and necessary change of pace. But for the children – and this is our main point here – the surroundings of comfort and play are the only world they know. They have no spent energies to recreate. They have no strenuous tasks to relax from. Their entire universe of experience consists of comfort and amusement. Life is play.

A visitor from another century would be astonished, no doubt, at the consequent role-reversal in the modern family. In former times, the children would share in the adults' activities. Today, the parents are given over to the children's preoccupations, which is principally amusement. Our time-traveler would see the home centered around child-like interests and activities. Perhaps it would seem to him that the children have won some kind of social revolution: the kids somehow run the home.

To look at it another way: In former times, the father and mother frequently came down to the children's level. But they did this to pull the kids up to their own. In today's family, by contrast, the parents seem to come down to the children's level...and stay there.

3. Conversations with the father and other adults is minimal. If a father spent much time talking with his children about his life outside their experience – that is, his job and his personal history, his concerns and worries, his opinions and convictions – he could compensate considerably for his absence during most of the children's waking hours. The children would learn at least something about his character. Such father-children discussion was common until the invention of television.

But studies show that today this sort of learning happens far less often than most fathers imagine. Talk of any sort between fathers and children frequently totals less than 30 minutes a day. Really serious conversation, by which children learn about Dad's life and character, is extremely rare.

Some psychologists go so far as to say that outrageous behavior among many adolescents today is really a drastic attempt to capture, at long last, their father's serious attention. As we've noted before, professionals who work with troubled adolescents and young people have long noted a striking trait these young people have in common: They know very little about their fathers and they have little or no respect for them. During their most formative years, apparently, their fathers never played a serious role in their moral development.

Increasing isolation

If a father spent much time talking with his children about his life outside their experience – that is, his job and his personal history, his concerns and worries, his opinions and convictions – he could compensate considerably for his absence during most of the children's waking hours. The children would learn at least something about his character.

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.

Another consequence surfaces during the children's adolescence. As we've seen, adolescents have a natural tendency to challenge their parents' authority and values. Today few families have adult friends or close relatives who can mediate, as it were, the disputes between parents and teen-agers. The children lack some outside adults who can explain the reasons and reasonableness of the parents' position: "Your mother and father are right about this, though they're temporarily upset. Why not wait till things cool down and then approach them...?" And the parents, for their part, lack adults who can give experienced advice and clear up their uncertainties. One of the most common anxieties of parents today, when dealing with adolescent children, is that they are uncertain whether they're doing the right thing: Where to draw the line between firmness and leniency? Is a certain amount of discipline too much or too little?

A striking contrast

Note how this isolation contrasts with the adolescents' social circumstances. Every day in his school, teen-agers have intimate contact with dozens of energetic and more-or-less equally rebellious peers, whose solidarity in the teen-culture ethos gives support to aggressive defiance at home. Small wonder that so many parents in this position feel themselves outnumbered. Indeed, they are outnumbered.

We must note here, however, the one small group of outside adults who do have a significant effect on children. Male athletics coaches frequently serve as father figures for children, especially for boys. These men are, after all, the only adult males whom children witness up close in the act of working.

Boys see these men exercising strengths of character in the fulfillment of a responsible job: planning, discerning, overcoming obstacles and setbacks, dealing with disappointment, setting and meeting goals, competing honorably, working effectively with all sorts of difficult people and circumstances. The coach today fills the role that fathers formerly played in the "natural" family setting. He stands as a model of male accomplishment, and children are drawn to such leadership.

If the coach is also dedicated to the long-term welfare of his players (and the best coaches always are), he actively tries to form character in them, to build personal strengths of mind and will. For this concern, the children form a bond of deep affection and respect. Many adult men have lifelong gratitude and respect for the coaches who helped them so much in boyhood. Ironically, many children have more respect for their coach than they do for Dad at home.

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.

An artificial leisure class

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.

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.

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?

Eeagerness to work

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.

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.

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.

Young people's heroes

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.

A concept of God

For the very young children, the sight of their father showing deference to a Higher Power is important to their lifelong concept of God.

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.

Successful fathers today

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.

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.

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.

  1. Successful fathers have a sense of supportive partnership with their wife. They are neither domineering nor neglectful. They sincerely appreciate their wife's sacrifices, hard work, long hours, and loving attention to detail. What's even more to the point, they show this appreciation in front of their children. Consciously or otherwise, such a father draws the children's attention to their mother's outstanding qualities. He directs his children to share his gratitude and respect for Mom.

    (Many fathers overlook an important fact of life: Men frequently receive signs of appreciation in their job circumstance – evaluations, raises, promotions, congratulations. But if wives who work full-time at home do not receive such appreciation from their husbands, then they don't receive them at all. Children, of course, are innately ungrateful. If the father does not lead the children in this area, then the mother must sustain a heavy emotional burden, facing nothing but negative feedback. The children's respect for their parents must begin with the parents' respect for each other.)

  2. Successful fathers think long-term about their children's future character as grown-up men and women. They think of inner strengths, not career choices. They ask the same character-centered questions that parents have always pondered (the same questions we saw earlier), and then ask themselves: "What do my wife and I have to do now to raise our children toward responsible adulthood?" In other words, they see themselves raising adults, not children.

  3. As a consequence of this vision, they frequently talk with their wife about the children's character strengths and weaknesses. Such men are conscious that their wife is probably more sensitive and insightful in these areas, and they respect her judgment. Though they may have disagreements with their wife on tactical matters, they are determined to come to some agreement; they realize how important it is for the children to see the parents united, especially in matters of discipline. Furthermore, though the parents may argue in front of the children, both are careful even to have a heated quarrel. There's much to be said for the children's seeing parental disagreements resolved amicably through compromise. But quarrels are a threat to family unity.

  4. These fathers frequently discuss things with their children. Conversation is the most common leisure activity at home. Fathers talk about their own childhood and family life, their job responsibilities, their courtship of Mom, their worries and concerns, their past mistakes and hilarious blunders, their relations with people whom they admire, their opinions and convictions, and so on through the range of their mind. They talk about grandparents, forebears and family honor. This does not mean that they bore their children or impose their viewpoints; sometimes the children (especially in early adolescence) don't want to talk at all. But they're patient and wait for an opening. As a result of this conversation, the children come to know their father's mind inside out. Over time, they come to respect his experience and judgment.

  5. And, of course, such fathers listen to their children as well. They listen to what is unspoken and implied. They come to understand the changes taking place in the children's minds, and they steer the children's judgment about people and affairs. They respect the children's privacy. They praise them for their growth in character, showing their earnest expectations that the children will grow up to become great, honorable men and women – regardless of what they do for a living.

  6. Successful fathers see discipline, not as punishment or mere behavior-control, but rather a means of building the children's self-control. They see that "No" is also a loving word.

    Successful fathers keep television-watching to a minimum. They realize that TV steals time from the family's life together. It squelches conversation. Whenever something worthwhile is on, the family (or most of it) watches together. Otherwise the screen remains dark and the children constructively occupied: talking, playing games, reading, studying, making the most of the few years they will spend together as a family. Since curtailment of TV's "baby-sitting" function means more work for Mom, then Dad pitches in to help. Under his leadership here, the home is more active, and consequently healthier.

  7. Successful fathers see discipline, not as punishment or mere behavior-control, but rather a means of building the children's self-control. They see that "No" is also a loving word. Without its loving application, the children can grow up with no sense of controlling their impulses; in today's drug culture, this weakness could be seriously dangerous. From their long-range vision, such fathers realize that the children need practice and encouragement in overcoming their feelings now, so that later they will exercise mastery over themselves.

    For this reason, such fathers do not hesitate to use reasonable physical punishment when necessary. We refer here to the minor and temporary pain that serves to underscore a serious lesson – in particular, the children's defiance of parental authority. Fathers realize that the children's long-term happiness is more important than the passing discomfort of a hard-earned lesson. In a short time, the tears dry up and the pain goes away; what remains is the line defining right from wrong – and this is what counts. When discipline is administered with love, it builds the children's respect and devotion for their parents. This respect, as we've noted, is the basis for everything else.

  8. Related to this, successful fathers are confident of their authority. They know that fatherhood is not an elective office. Their authority as father does not come from the consent of the governed. It comes with the job; it comes from the responsibility given by God and taken on freely by the man himself. Consequently, successful fathers are not afraid of being temporarily unpopular. Their love for their children and their commitment to the children's long-term best interests – these are strong enough to override the kids' bruised feelings and their occasional reluctance to do the right thing.

    In short, such fathers do not permit what they do not approve of. Though they may have inner doubts about the rightness of a given decision, they have no doubt whatever of their right to make a decision and to make it stick.

  9. Most successful fathers seem to have a number of close friends. The home is open to guests: neighbors, relatives, colleagues from work, friends from childhood. Such men also go out of their way to befriend adults who deal closely with their children: clergy, teachers, coaches, parents of the kids' friends. Close friendship brings out the best in us, and it's healthy for the children to see this. The kids see Mom and Dad show the courtesy and respect that underlies all true friendship. Moreover, the children learn whom their parents respect, and why, and how they show this.

    As the children grow toward adolescence, the parents have a network of experienced and supportive adults to rely upon for advice and encouragement. This support goes a long way to firming up the parents' judgment and confidence.

  10. Successful fathers frequently have a deep and active religious faith. The children see them pray and take serious interest in doctrinal-moral formation.

    This religious outlook seems to directly affect the way these fathers discipline their children. They are neither tyrannical nor permissive, for both of these extremes are basically self-centered. Their love for God and their family, along with their commitment to living by a well-formed conscience, makes them treat their children the way God treats all of us – with firmness, understanding, and affection.

    Such men are aware how their family's welfare depends upon God's loving care. The children's future lives are entirely in His hands. These men know that a lifelong habit of prayer is the greatest thing they can teach their children, and the kids' virtue of hope will provide an anchor for their young lives against any storms that lie ahead.

    To look at it another way, these fathers know that every generation of children has to be missionized. Otherwise, they can easily lose their faith. The religious faith that has been a family patrimony for over a thousand years can completely disappear, can be snuffed out entirely, in just one generation. Today this is happening all around us. To any Christian father, the task of passing on this faith intact to his children is his pre-eminent responsibility. Nothing else comes close to it in importance.

  11. Successful fathers teach their children to be "poor in spirit." Such men know that excessive wealth can corrupt people, adults as well as children. It's one of the central lessons of history as well as our Christian faith. As the Scriptures say in many places, riches blind us to earthly and eternal realities. God did not create us to be mere "consumers. "

    How do fathers teach this spirit of poverty? In many ways. They work alongside their children at home, teaching the relationship between effort and results, along with the satisfaction of personal accomplishment. They are sparing in allowances. They make the children wait for things, and if possible, earn them. They give generously of time and money to the needy, and they encourage (but don't force) the children to do the same. They don't fill the home with expensive gadgets and amusements. They budget and save for the future, and thus teach the children an important lesson: Money is an instrument, a resource for the service of our loved ones and those in need. And that's all it is.

    In a larger sense, both parents deliberately teach the children that real happiness doesn't come from pleasant amusements. It comes from other, more spiritual sources, confidence in God, a clear conscience, family solidarity, generosity to others, warm and respectful friendship, the satisfaction of a job well done. These are the real riches in life...even if you're broke.

  12. Finally, the most successful fathers always put their family's welfare ahead of their jobs. They know that their children can be seriously hurt through fatherly neglect, and no job advantages – no raises or promotions or projects completed – can compensate for this loss.

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.

Questions for reflection

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.

  1. Given the many forces acting on the formation of my children's character, how often do I think seriously about what strengths of character they see in me – in the way I habitually live faith, hope, charity, sound judgment, a sense of responsibility, personal toughness, and self-discipline? If they don't see these strengths in me, where will they see them? If I'm not a leader to them, then who is?
  2. Where, in their daily lives, do the kids see attractive examples of the opposites of these virtues: religious indifference and materialism, despair and self-doubt, selfishness, sloppy thinking, (especially about moral values), immaturity and irresponsibility, softness, self-indulgence?

  3. If the young children already show signs of these character weaknesses, what will they be like in their teens and early 20's? How could these weaknesses affect the stability and happiness of their marriage? Are they headed for trouble?

  4. How much do the children know about my work? Do they understand how I have to exercise strength of character in earning a living – in approaching and overcoming problems, in handling obstacles and setbacks, in dealing with tight deadlines and difficult people, in improvising and doing without? Do they grasp how and why I derive personal satisfaction from my work? (Or, on the other hand, do they think enjoyment comes mainly from leisure and amusements?)

  5. Whom do the children respect and admire, and why? Whom did I respect and admire when I was their age? Do the children know whom I esteem now, and why?

  6. In what circumstances do the children see me show respect for others – in religious practice, in public courtesy and good manners, in our conversation about people at home? What could happen to the kids later if they grow up without a habitual respect for the rights of others, starting with God?

  7. Do the children show enough respect and appreciation for their mother? Under what circumstances do they see me display my gratitude, appreciation, and deep respect for her?

  8. Are the kids fully aware that their mother is the #1 person in my life? What do I say and do to draw their attention to their mother's outstanding character and admirable qualities? Do I show my daughters that their mother is, in my estimation, a model for the kind of woman they should grow to become? Are my sons aware that their mother is a model for what they should seek in their future wife?

  9. Is there a sense of "family honor" and "family name" among our children? How much do the children know about our family's history? Do the kids know much about the lives of their grandparents – their struggles and quiet courage, their adherence to our religious and cultural values (passed on now to yet another generation), their worthiness of respect, affection, and gratitude?

  10. How many hours of television do the children watch each week? How much of the "television culture" can be seen in their interests and conversation? What sort of television personalities do they admire?

  11. What could the children be learning if their TV time went into other activities: reading, music lessons, puzzles, working with their hands, visiting the elderly, dealing with different types of people.

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 FathersThe 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

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