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The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, U.S. Children's Bureau Rosenberg, Jeffrey., Wilcox, W. Bradford.|
|Year Published: 2006|
4. Effective Fathering
Of course, fathers are not all the same, and being an effective father takes many different forms. It is important for any caseworker who is going to be working with fathers—in other words, every caseworker—to understand what effective fathering is. Understanding what makes for an effective father can help the caseworker work with a father around setting goals and objectives and assist both the caseworker and the father in understanding when progress has been made.
Helping men understand what an invaluable and irreplaceable role they play in the development and lives of their children can lead them to make a greater commitment and investment in their family. Indeed, Dr. Wade F. Horn, co-founder and former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, coined the phrase "the myth of the superfluous father."47 By this, he was referring to the fact that too many fathers become convinced that they are simply an extra set of hands to help around the house, rather than irreplaceable to their children. Men who see themselves as simply an "extra set of hands" are not in a position to help the family prevent future child maltreatment.
The following discussion explores what makes a father effective and offers the caseworker further insight into the importance of fathers. Despite a diversity of views on fathering, research suggests seven dimensions of effective fathering:
- Fostering a positive relationship with the children's mother
- Spending time with children
- Nurturing children
- Disciplining children appropriately
- Serving as a guide to the outside world
- Protecting and providing
- Serving as a positive role model.
Fathers may not excel in all seven of these dimensions, but fathers who do well in most of them will serve their children and families well. Some of the dimensions are generic indicators of good parenting; others apply specifically to men in their role as fathers.
4.1 Fostering a Positive Relationship with the Children's Mother
As discussed in Chapter 2, Fathers and Their Impact on Children's Well-being, one of the most important ways that men can be good fathers is by treating the mother of their children with affection, respect, and consideration. The virtues that a father displays in his relationship with the mother of his children set an important example for the children. Children who witness affectionate, respectful, and sacrificial behavior on the part of their father are more likely to treat their own, future spouses in a similar fashion. Just as child maltreatment and domestic abuse can be passed on from one generation to the next, so can respect, caring, and kindness. These children are also more likely to be happy and well-adjusted. By contrast, children who witness their father's anger toward or contempt for their mother are more at risk for depression, aggression, and poor health. The stress of parental conflict can have a negative effect even on the immune system, which can result in health problems for children.48 See Appendix F for more on healthy marriages.
The research on fatherhood suggests two implications for fathers. First, fathers need to accentuate the positive when interacting with their wives and to show affection for their wives on a daily basis. While for many men this comes naturally, for others it does not. Many men, especially those who grew up without a father, simply did not have role models for how men can and ought to relate to their spouse or partner in a positive fashion. Further, the way a man treats and interacts with the women in his life is frequently connected to how he views himself as a man. The second implication is that husbands need to be able to deal with conflict with their wives in a constructive manner. Conflict, in and of itself, is not a bad thing in a relationship. Indeed, conflict is often necessary to resolve issues, grievances, or injustices in a relationship. Couples who can raise issues with one another constructively, compromise, and forgive one another for the wrongs done generally have happier marriages and happier children than those who do not handle conflict well or who avoid addressing issues in their relationship.49
Men should try to avoid two pitfalls of relationships: criticism and stonewalling. Criticism entails attacking a partner's personality or character as opposed to addressing a specific concern about her behavior. Stonewalling means that one partner disengages from the relationship when conflict arises, either by failing to speak, being emotionally distant, or by physically leaving the scene. In conflict, women tend to resort more to criticizing and men are more prone to stonewalling. Both of these behaviors can be enormously destructive to a relationship.50 By contrast, fathers who can keep calm in the midst of conflict, who can speak non-defensively, validate their partner's concerns, and attempt to respond to legitimate issues raised by their partner are much more likely to have a strong and happy relationship with their wife and children.
4.2 Spending Time with Children
"Kids spell love T-I-M-E." - Dr. Ken Canfield, Founder and President, National Center for Fathering51
The time a father spends with his children is important for at least three reasons. First, spending time together enables a father to get to know and to be known by his child. A father can best discover his child's virtues and vices, hopes and fears, and aspirations and ideals by spending lots of time with his child. Second, a father who spends lots of time with his child tends to be better at caring. Time spent together makes a father more sensitive to his child's needs for love, attention, direction, and discipline.52 And third, as the quotation above illustrates, children often do see time as an indicator of a parent's love for them.
The research literature suggests a few important points about how fathers spend time with their children:
- Fathers should spend considerable time with their children playing and having fun. As discussed earlier, fathers' play has a unique role in the child's development, teaching, for example, how to explore the world and how to keep aggressive impulses in check.
- Fathers should maintain the active, physical, and playful style of fathering as their children age. In other words, when it comes to father-child fun, active pursuits like tossing the football, playing basketball, hiking, or going to the library are more valuable than spending time in passive activities such as watching television— for their relationship and for their child's emotional well-being, social development, and physical fitness.
- Fathers should engage in productive activities with their children such as household chores, washing dishes after dinner, or cleaning up the backyard. Research consistently shows that such shared activities promote a sense of responsibility and significance in children that is, in turn, linked to greater self-esteem, academic and occupational achievement, psychological well-being, and civic engagement later in life.
- Fathers should spend time fostering their children's intellectual growth. Some studies suggest that fathers' involvement in educational activities—from reading to their children to meeting with their child's teacher—is more important for their children's academic success than their mother's involvement.53
4.3 Nurturing Children
Nurturing by a father serves several important purposes:
- Helps fathers build close relationships with their children.
- Fosters psychological well-being and self-worth in their children.
- Provides children with a healthy model of masculinity.
- Helps protect girls from prematurely seeking the romantic and sexual attention of men.
With infants, fathers should be responsive to their babies' cries, hold and hug them often, and participate in their basic care (e.g., feeding, changing diapers). Throughout the rest of early childhood, fathers should praise their children when they behave well or accomplish something, hug and kiss their children often, and comfort them when they are sad or scared. Fathers should continue to praise adolescents, especially when they achieve significant accomplishments.
Fathers' nurturing may be less openly expressive than mothers'. In fact, one unique way that fathers nurture their children—especially toddlers and teenagers—is by remaining calm when the child is upset or acting out. Studies suggest that fathers who respond calmly when their children misbehave, get upset, or otherwise lose control have children who are more popular, boys who are less aggressive, and girls who are less negative with their friends.54 Fathers exercise a critical role in providing their children with a mental map of how to respond to difficult situations. This is why they have to learn the art of self-control as they interact with their children.
4.4 Disciplining Children Appropriately
The role that fathers play as disciplinarians cannot be underestimated. The way this role is understood and implemented within the individual family can have an enormous impact on how the family responds to efforts to prevent further child maltreatment.
One advantage of having two parents rather than one is that two parents can share the load of parenting. Discipline often is difficult and frustrating; hence, fathers can make raising children easier for all in the family by taking up a substantial share of child discipline. Fathers seem to be uniquely successful in disciplining boys, perhaps in part because boys are often more likely to respond to discipline by a man.55
How should fathers discipline their children? First of all, a father must maintain control of his emotions, his body language, and his hands when he disciplines his children. Fathers who scream at their children, who pound tables, or who strike their children are destined to fail as disciplinarians, both because they are modeling bad behavior and because they lose their children's respect when they let their emotions take hold of them.56 Unfortunately, many fathers resort to these tactics out of frustration when they feel they cannot control their children, because they cannot control their anger, or because they simply do not know another way.
Since the way a father disciplines can be so important to preventing further child maltreatment in a family, Chapter 6, Fathers and Case Planning, presents a more detailed discussion on how to work with fathers on proper discipline.
4.5 Serving as a Guide to the Outside World
Another important function that fathers serve in the lives of their children is as guides to the world outside the home. When children are in preschool, fathers can best prepare their children for the outside world by engaging in vigorous, physical play and encouraging small steps in the direction of autonomy. For instance, fathers can push preschoolers to learn to dress themselves, to shake hands with house guests, and, more generally, to deal with the frustrations of daily life. As children begin school, fathers can tell their children of their own experiences in school and encourage them to study hard, teach them about money management, or teach them a sport that will help their children learn about teamwork.
Fathers of adolescents should incorporate discussions of their core beliefs and life experiences into ordinary conversations with their teens and have meals with their children on a regular basis. Fathers should also include their children in some of their work or community activities so as to give their teenaged children a taste of their lives outside the home.57 They also should talk to their children about peer pressure and the dangers of alcohol, drugs, early sexual activity, and violence. And fathers should take the lead in giving their adolescents a little more freedom as they grow older, so long as this freedom is coupled with the occasional word of encouragement and advice, along with consequences for abuses of that freedom. In sum, fathers need to be preparing their children for the challenges and opportunities of adulthood by gradually giving them more opportunities to act independently and to make good use of their independence.
4.6 Protecting and Providing
Certainly the role of father as protector and provider has changed over the years. Historically, fathers were viewed as chief financial provider for and protector of their children. As the traditional roles of mother and father, and likewise man and wife, have changed over the years, the distinctions have blurred, especially when it comes to who is the breadwinner. One study, however, found that men view marriage "as a partnership of equals, albeit one in which the man is the partner ultimately responsible for the provision of income and the family's protection."58 The ability to provide and protect is still, today, very much tied up with the average man's sense of self and sense of manhood. Research consistently shows that fathers who are employed full-time express more happiness with family life and have better relationships with their children, compared to fathers who are underemployed or unemployed.59
For many men, feelings of inadequacy in the role of protector and provider can translate into frustration and anger, which may not be managed appropriately. Men who are under- or unemployed may feel powerless within the family. Child maltreatment can at times be a way of "getting even" with a partner whom the man sees as more powerful within the relationship. Furthermore, fathers who feel inadequate in their role as provider and protector may feel inadequate to step in and to help to prevent further maltreatment. This is why it is particularly important to explore this role in the case planning process.
Fathers also are still expected to provide protection in addition to providing for their family financially. From child-proofing a home when the child is very young to making sure their children are not threatened by other children or adults, fathers play an important role in making sure their children are safe. This is particularly important in communities that experience high rates of violence and crime. In fact, research clearly suggests that fathers in disadvantaged communities play a critical role in monitoring and controlling their own children, and even others' children, and that such communities suffer when there are few fathers able to play this protective role.60
Fathers also can protect their children by monitoring their social environment. Research indicates that children benefit when their parents know their friends and the parents of their friends.61 Fathers can use this "intergenerational closure," as social scientists call it, to keep track of their children's whereabouts and activities and to collaborate with other parents in making sure that their children are behaving in ways they approve. Fathers also should pay close attention to the type of peers with whom their children are spending time. If they determine that their children's peers are engaged in unethical, dangerous, or unlawful activities, they need to minimize their children's contact with these other children.
4.7 Being a Role Model
While the direct relationship a father has with his child is of paramount value, fathers also exercise a strong influence on their children through the type of life they live in and outside the home. In the wake of child maltreatment, it is very important that the father examine what sort of role model he is presenting to his children. Of course, if he is the perpetrator of the maltreatment, the answer is that he is providing a very poor role model. Yet it is not solely the question of the maltreatment—how else is the father communicating to the child what kind of life he leads?
If the father is not the perpetrator, it is still very important for him to look at what kind of role model he is portraying. The victim of the maltreatment and all other children in the home will be confused and fearful about his own place in the family following one or more instances of maltreatment. Children will look to the adults in the household for emotional sustenance, including how to respond and behave moving forward. It is at such times of familial stress that the role model provided by the father is of the utmost importance.
Being a role model is not a simple or easy task. In the way that fathers treat other people, spend their time and money, and handle the joys and stresses of life, they provide a template of living for their children that often proves critical in guiding the behavior of their children, for better or worse. As discussed earlier, a father's treatment of the opposite sex, his ability to control his own emotions, and his approach to work all play a formative role in shaping his sons' and daughters' approach to romantic relationships and marriage, interpersonal relationships, and school and work.62
There are three points that can guide a father as he explores what kind of role model he is and wants to be:
- Fathers should promote the mission of their families. It may sound odd to talk about a mission statement for a family but all healthy families have them, whether they are articulated or not. For instance, families that believe their children should be brought up with a sound spiritual foundation have, as part of their mission, raising children of faith. And families that believe that children must learn the benefits of hard work raise children who recognize and can embrace the virtues of working hard and applying one's self to a goal.
- Fathers should abide by the spirit and (where appropriate) the letter of the rules that govern family life. For example, a father who asks his teenager to obey his curfew should also make an effort to be home at a decent hour.
- Fathers should acknowledge their mistakes to their children. When appropriate, they should be willing to seek forgiveness from their children. A father who loses his temper while disciplining a child should apologize to the child. Many men view apologizing to their child as a sign of weakness that will cause the child to lose respect for the father. The opposite is true. Apologizing shows a man capable of acknowledging and facing up to a mistake, fixing the mistake to the extent possible, and committing to moving forward—hardly a sign of weakness, much more so a sign of strength.63
A father's influence as a role model for his children is affected by the amount of time they spend together. Whether they live in the same home on a full-time basis or not, fathers should make a concerted effort to model behaviors and attitudes that they want to see their children display when they grow up.
The above discussion of the seven dimensions of effective fathering offers some insight for CPS caseworkers into how to strengthen a father's role in the lives of his children. The next three chapters are designed to help caseworkers put this information into the context of the child protection process from investigation to case planning through service provision and case closure.
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