Fathers are entering a new era in which they matter just as much as mothers when it comes to shaping their children’s personalities. (Yes, they’ve probably been in this era for some time but it’s hard to remember with shows like Mad Men on TV.)
What’s different now is all the attention being paid to absent fathers and how detrimental that loss is for children. One out of three American children grow up without a biological father in their lives, which can cause lasting problems into adulthood. A review study published last month in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review indicates that parental rejection, from either mother or father, raises the risk that a child will feel more anxious and insecure, as well as more hostile and aggressive toward others, making it more difficult for them to form secure and trusting relationships with their intimate partners.
President Obama, whose own father was absent from his upbringing, has been holding Father’s Day events all week to emphasize the need for men -- especially those in low-income minority groups, who are more likely to opt out of childraising -- to step up and be engaged dads. Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Levy attended once such event at the White House on Wednesday and spoke to me about his experience as well as what advice he gives to fathers in his role directing workshops as part of The Fatherhood Project at his hospital.
The administration is looking to raise $135 million to $270 million for fatherhood programs across the country to help, for example, men living in housing projects or in drug rehabilitation programs learn parenting skills. Levy plans to start working with prison inmates in the next few months to teach some of the techniques he outlines in his hospital workshops.
“When prisoners who have kids are asked in research surveys what they want most when they get out, their overwhelming response is to be a better father,” said Levy.
I asked him to name the single most important thing fathers could offer their kids -- besides an open wallet and the keys to the car -- and he told me that emotional engagement wins, hands down. “It’s the idea that fathers need to engage with kids on their own level, to really relate to them in a way that they feel you get them, understand them,” said Levy. “It’s not about making them breakfast every Sunday.”
Research suggests that kids who have fathers who connect on an emotional level do better socially and academically and are less likely to break the law when they get older.
And, no question, it takes two to parent: “Mothers tend to provide more of a reliable, steady, predictable environment for kids,” said Levy, which is important for self-control and a sense of security, “while fathers tend to encourage kids to try new experiences, be more spontaneous, and more risk-taking,” which fosters creativity and problem-solving skills.
Regardless of parental dynamics, both mothers and fathers can take the soft, sensitive approach when dealing with their child’s troubles. While misbehavior has to be dealt with disciplinary actions, Levy said, parents also need to take the time to understand what’s happening when a child is acting out. “What was going on that made him aggressive with another child?” Levy said parents should ask. “If your child confides in you, that’s a very positive sign.”
With two teens and a pre-teen in my house, my husband and I are at the stage where we often wonder how much to intervene. Should we call a parent if a friend wouldn’t let our son in on a basketball game? Should we e-mail a school administrator if he said hurtful things to our daughter?
Our kids nearly always tell us not to intervene, and Levy told me we should follow their lead as long as there’s no danger involved to either our child or another child. “Parents need to talk things over with their children,” Levy advised, “and make sure they know what their kids are feeling before they decide whether or not to intervene.”