From Founding Father to Finding Daddy
by Allan Shedlin
Dad, Grampsy, Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
Every election is, by definition, unprecedented by virtue of its unique historical context. Likewise, each election seems of particular importance. But somehow, the upcoming election seems unprecedented and important in the extreme because it’s occurring at a time when the world itself seems to be coming apart at the seams. When uncertainty in so many quarters is taking a cumulative toll on each of us in ways we dare not fully reckon with, and when there is a lurking sense of dread about when the other shoe may drop – even for those already feeling barefoot.
During such a time, a desire for a “father figure” to get us through may surface in much the same way it has since the birth of our nation when we dubbed George Washington “the father of our country” (despite having no biological children of his own). Those were times before our consciousness had awakened us to the insidious impact of gender-restrictive labeling.
Our sense of father yearning should come as no surprise given the still too 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 upon 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. The scarcity of men employed in childcare and elementary schools compounds the absence of a male presence in the lives of too many children.
This absence seems short-sighted as more and more evidence supports the important benefits to men, children, and families when men and children are positively involved in each other’s lives. Indeed, research documents that every measure of a child's well-being increases when that is the case.
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 all this is becoming increasingly well-known and it has recently become politically correct to talk about greater father involvement, we can’t actually 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.
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 shot of DNA, and the process of daddying, which requires a 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.
As the immediate Democratic and Republican “un-conventions” are about to take place in their virtual formats, one of the things we might want to consider as we vote for President is what kind of father each candidate has been. I think that’s important because, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela (also designated the father of his country), “The true character of a society [and I would add “of a father”] is revealed in how it [he] treats its [his] children.”
In the hundreds of “daddying interviews” I've conducted with children from three countries, I have learned the two qualities they most often desire from their fathers are for their dads to really be there and to take them as seriously as they take themselves.
I’ll bet that hasn’t changed much from George Washington’s day.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, a “bonus” son, five grandchildren, and three “bonus” grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, and now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.