It’s been 50 years since manhood experienced a massive cultural shift. Support for feminism seemed almost to require it, and in its wake manhood was moved from the pedestal to the mud.
As scholar William Doherty explained, masculinity became stereotyped as “egotism, propensity for aggression, emotional distancing, and overcompetitiveness,” and the main forms of male nurturing — protecting and providing — viewed as unnecessary.
The resulting cultural message, in Kay Hymowitz’s words, is that husbands and fathers “are now optional,” and “the qualities of character once needed to play their roles — fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity — are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.”
But the truth is that husbands and fathers, with their male forms of nurturing, are not optional. They influence children in ways that are distinct, in critically important ways, from the type of influence provided by mothers. And decades of research, along with a generation of fatherless children, have shown us why.
The question is this: Do dads know how much they matter? Do they have any idea how significant their fathering is?
Do fathers know how much their sacrifice to provide financial resources means in the lives of their children? Hard work has tremendous implications for the quality of home, neighborhood, school, nutrition and health care that children experience while growing up.
Although women increasingly contribute essential resources to family life, married fathers are still the primary earners in the majority of married families. In nearly 70 percent of married families, men take the lead in providing essential resources. And it is families without fathers that are most likely to suffer the challenging consequences of poverty.
Do fathers know they are the most effective source of protection a child can have? A father's way of checking on a child's comings and goings, who the child is spending time with and what he or she is doing sends a strong signal that that child matters and is protected.
In Brad Wilcox’s words, “Fathers, by dint of their size, strength, or aggressive public presence, appear to be more successful in keeping predators and bad peer influences away from their sons and daughters.” Simply by being present in their lives, fathers play a critical role in protecting their children.
Do dads know they have a unique capacity to encourage children in taking risks — leading them to appropriately push themselves beyond what they believe they’re capable of?
“Men seem to have a tendency to excite, surprise, and momentarily destabilize children," as Daniel Paquette explained. "They also tend to encourage children to take risks, while at the same time ensuring safety and security, thus permitting children to learn to be braver in unfamiliar situations, as well as to stand up for themselves.” A father's natural focus on fostering independence is key to a child’s ability to take initiative and develop skills.
Do fathers know that even their way of “tickling and tossing” their infants, wrestling on the floor, chasing and playing ball has a profound effect on a child’s ability to handle his emotions and respond to the feelings of others?
Even a father's verbal play — teasing and joking more like a peer — helps develop identity and independence. In several studies, children whose fathers played physically with them had the highest popularity ratings of their peers, especially when fathers allowed them to direct some of the play.
Do fathers know their natural focus on fixing problems rather than just addressing hurt feelings is a useful, even irreplaceable, aspect of nurturing, especially as children grow older? That measured, problem-solving approach is a critical strategic form of nurturing, especially in emotionally charged situations. It also explains why men become more involved in bedtime talks, confidences and emotional well-being as their children grow and need help with practical concerns, such as finances and educational and career decisions.
Do dads know their fatherhood has an irreplaceable effect on the sexual development of their daughters and sons? It has long been known that an absent father is the single greatest risk factor in teen pregnancy for girls.
As Brad Wilcox wrote in The Atlantic, “Girls raised in homes with their fathers are more likely to receive the attention, affection, and modeling that they need from their own fathers to rebuff teenage boys and young men who do not have their best interests at heart.” At the same time, boys who grow up with their fathers “are more likely to acquire the sense of self-worth and self-control” so critical to appropriate sexual behavior.
My own dad left a beloved life of sheepherding and returned to college to give his nine daughters and two sons a life he knew we needed. As he began decades of what must have felt like cooped-up monotony compared with the freedom of roaming the mountains, we knew we were the great work of his life.
In a way only he could do, he challenged us to do more while strengthening us in his sense that we could do it. In his closeness and care, we felt strength. In his teaching and challenging, we developed confidence that we could do whatever was put before us. When we each left Dad’s care to embark on our own work as mothers and fathers, academicians, nurses, professional musicians and engineers, we carried with us the confidence and capacity he had worked so hard to imbue us with.
Dads truly matter. As fathers commit their lives to their children, they build something in their children no other can do in the same way. And it makes all the difference.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.