(Distributed by The New York Times/Hearst News Service, June 2004)
From Founding Father to Finding Dad(dy)
by Allan Shedlin
WASHINGTON, DC – Ever since the birth of our nation, when we dubbed George Washington “the father of our country,” we have sought a national father figure. As the mourning momentum for President Reagan built to its unique crescendo, it felt much like we were collectively laying to rest the most recent national surrogate father.
Our sense of father yearning should come as no surprise given the frequent absence of men from the lives of children (and vice versa). Although swelling numbers of men are breaking ranks with their fathers and grandfathers by being more actively involved in raising their children, we are still far from the point of being able to expand the old adage to “It’s as American as motherhood, fatherhood, and apple pie.”
The immediate and long-term future of our country depends less on a collective national father figure than on the lifelong dad each father can become for his own child and himself. The 50 percent contribution a man makes to the creation of life too often ends at conception – this is neither in the best interest of the child nor of the father. Not only is the United States the world’s leader in fatherless families, but the scarcity of men employed in childcare and elementary schools compounds the absence of a male presence in the lives of children.
This absence seems increasingly senseless as more and more research documents the benefits to children and men alike when men are more involved in their children’s lives. There is an abundance of research that supports the important benefits to men, children, and families when men and children are present in each other’s lives. Children achieve greater success in life, greater self-esteem, higher educational achievement, and a more secure gender identity.
Conversely, research shows that men become more open to a wide range of behaviors, the more time they spend with children.
They develop an improved ability to relate, and they broaden their way of looking at issues, situations, and possibilities. Children generally have an overall sensitizing effect on men – one that provides a strong reminder of what is fundamentally important: the responsibilities and obligations of power; the importance of commitment and vulnerability; and the value of questioning, not merely finding answers.
Moreover, there are a variety of childlike qualities that serve adults well, such as curiosity, imagination, playfulness, the propensity to question, a willingness to make mistakes, a sense of wonder, enthusiasm, flexibility, and humor. Although it has recently become politically correct to talk about greater father involvement, we cannot legislate better parenting practices, require corporations to become genuinely “family-friendly,” force more men to work in elementary schools or childcare settings, or make fathers spend more time with their children.
I believe that as men become more exuberant participants in the lives of their children, the personal and social rewards of that participation will be so gratifying that it will encourage additional involvement. As dads move from timid to exuberant daddying, we will have a lot more to celebrate on our Nation’s 38th official Fathers’ Day (proclaimed by President Johnson in 1966, 62 years after President Wilson officially proclaimed Mothers’ Day).
I coined the term “daddying” in a 1994 magazine article to make a distinction between the one-time, biological act of fathering, which requires no more commitment than a little DNA, and the process of daddying which requires lifelong commitment to a child's physical, emotional, social, intellectual/creative, and moral/spiritual well being.
The term connotes action, connection, nurturing, emotional involvement, support, advocacy, protection, and informality. The role of father as it has been traditionally understood no longer corresponds to the rethinking and realignment of gender roles and our expanded definition of family. The traditional roles of breadwinner and disciplinarian are just too narrow and restrictive to deliver full benefits to children, fathers, and mothers.
Now that the Mother’s Day and Memorial Day advertising frenzy is behind us, an unrelenting marketing blitz has been launched to tell us what our fathers should wear and what they should smell like; what they should build and what tools they need to construct it; how to spend their leisure time and what equipment they must have; and what to eat and how to cook it.
There is meager attention paid to what it means to be a dad.
In the hundreds of “daddying interviews” I have conducted with children, fathers, and grandfathers throughout the United States and abroad, I have learned that the two qualities they most often desire from their fathers are for their dads to (really) be there and for their dads to take them as seriously as they take themselves.
I’ll bet that hasn’t changed much from George Washington’s day.