Give Your Children a Head Start


The children's classic "The Hobbit" was written by a Catholic father for his children. From that first book J.R.R. Tolkien went on to write the most popular book of the twentieth century, "The Lord of the Rings".

Tolkien was a deeply devout Catholic and he knew the power of stories. He enjoyed his children and loved to spend time with them. He knew how important it was for a father to spend time reading to his children.

A new survey from Oxford University hammers home this point with statistics. For forty years researchers followed the progress of 17,000 children. The children were born in 1958. They were from a whole range of social backgrounds. The researchers found that the children whose fathers read with them, played with them and organised family outings were more likely to have successful marriages, obtain more A-level success and achieve higher qualifications. The kids who had involved fathers were more likely to stay out of trouble, less likely to have mental health problems and more likely to avoid drugs and pre-marital pregnancy. These results were noticeable right across the social classes.

Dr Ann Buchanan, the director of the Oxford University Research Centre for Parenting and Children said story reading at an early age helped create a special bond between father and child. She said,' A lot of fathers are not very confident about what to do with a small child and reading is a fun activity and helps develop a good relationship.' She continued, 'It doesn't necessarily have to be actually reading - just looking at pictures in a book, having a laugh and saying "look at that funny elephant" is productive.'

Another researcher, Dr Eirini Flouri from the National Child Development Study, explained how there are four key areas for fathers to be involved. 'An involved father reads to his child, takes outings with his child, is interested in his child's education and takes a role equal to the mother's in managing his child.'

The research proves the point. Kids need Dads. It is not good enough to simply bring home the paycheck at the end of the week. It's not good enough to push the children away or walk out to our own hobbies and friends. Children need attention. Children need to be listened to. Children need a father's active love and care.

The vital necessity of fathers for a child's success is even more troubling since family breakdown is growing in epidemic proportions. The number of children being brought up by one parent has risen from eight percent to 22 percent over the last thirty years. In the majority of cases it is the father who has walked out. Too many men regard childcare as the woman's work. They are happy to father children, but not happy to be the fathers of children.

The reason children with active Dads succeed is because the father helps the child to cope with the outside world. The mother is home based. She helps a child know how to love and relate to others in the home. Traditionally the father has been the one to go out from the home and make his way in the wider world. As such he is the one who helps the child to cope with the adventure of life and take those first dangerous steps away from the security of home. Reading adventure stories with a child in the early days helps the child visualise the outside world. When he or she reads with the father they realise that it is the father who helps them think about the outside world in a positive and challenging way.

A father needs to be involved in reading with his child, planning family outings and be involved in the child's education, but as Catholics we would add that a father needs to be involved in the spiritual development of the children as well. When a father prays with his child and goes to mass with his child, the child draws the conclusions that his faith is worthwhile. Why? Because his dad's actions showed him to be a man of faith, and his dad's opinion matters.

This is a most important point. A child's most profound lessons are not those he learns outright. The things that are never spoken are more powerful than the things that are taught explicitly. Our assumptions about God, the world, our families, our church and ourselves are deeply rooted and far more powerful in the training of our children than all the things that are on the surface. That is why what we do is a far more powerful teacher than what we say. When a father gets involved with his children it is worth ten times more than extravagant gifts, promises or re-assurances of his love.

This week we celebrate the feast of St Joseph. From what we know of life in New Testament times we can confidently say that St Joseph would have been the ideal father for Jesus. Joseph was active in these four vital areas. He must have read to his child because we know that it was the Jewish fathers and men who trained the boys to read and trained them to take part in the readings in the synagogue. Joseph would have trained Jesus to follow on in the family carpenter business, and we see him organising a family outing to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve, and we know that he took just as much care for the boy as Mary did. St Joseph is an excellent patron saint for fathers, and we can always ask for his help and prayers when being a father becomes difficult. With his help and our hard work our children will grow up to be the happy successful people we want them to be.


Rev. Dwight Longenecker. "Give Your Children a Head Start." The Universe.

Founded in 1860, The Universe is the most popular Catholic newspaper in the UK and Ireland.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author.


Rev. Dwight Longenecker ( studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of eight books on apologetics, conversion stories and Benedictine spirituality including: Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers, More Christianity, Challenging Catholics: A Catholic Evangelical Dialogue, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, and The Path to Rome. Dwight Longenecker writes for The London Times, The Catholic Herald and The Universe in England and Our Sunday Visitor and The National Catholic Register in the USA. In 2006 Dwight and his family moved back to his native USA. He lives with his wife Alison and four children in Greenville, South Carolina where he has recently been ordained to serve as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School.

Copyright © 2003 Dwight Longenecker

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