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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Fathers need children

“The most important thing that a father can do for his children is love their mother.” I heard that sentence decades ago when fathers were the main bread winners and many mothers stayed at home rather than working in paid employment. The statement is true and a beautiful endorsement of married love as the complex commitment and rich relationship within which children are best raised.

But I have a problem with it too. It seems to remove any need for the father to engage meaningfully with his children. It accepts too easily the notion of an absent father. The point of this brief reflection is that children need their fathers but it is also true that fathers need their children. Let’s take a look at the current situation which is in significant change.

The impact of the pandemic

The number of full-time stay-at-home dads in the UK has leapt by a third since before the pandemic, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. The data shows that one in nine full-time stay-at-home parents are fathers, up from one in 14 in 2019. The time spent by mothers in direct care for their children has dropped by 3% and the time spent by fathers has increased by 18% over the period from 2014 to 2022. This trend towards the closing of the gender gap in childcare is encouraging and looks likely to continue especially if working from home becomes an embedded feature of employment in the UK.

Involved fathers

Researchers now speak of involved fathers. That can include stepfathers, uncles and grandfathers as well as the biological fathers of the children in the family. As long as they are consistently engaged in a caring role, they share something of the impact of a father. As blended families continue to grow, such commitments to a family life by a range of adult males are needed more than ever. In that sense we can reverse the sentence quoted at the start and say that the best thing a man can do for a mother is to love and care for her children.

The need for fatherhood

Recent UN studies[1] have outlined how important a father is to the healthy growth of children and young people. Children with warm responsive fathers are themselves more emotionally balanced and less prone to unhealthy outbursts. They have a higher level of wellbeing and are less likely to be depressed or suffer from anxiety. Positive engagement between a father and a sixteen-year-old leads to less psychological distress in adulthood. Socially, children with a warm and caring father figure relate better to other children. Studies found that young people were less likely to act out their tensions if they had a caring male figure in their life and were generally better at self-regulation. Intellectually children with positively involved fathers had a better cognitive function and did better at school. It is a significant listing of the benefits of having a close father relationship and one that might motivate men to engage with more confidence in care for their children.

The benefits of fatherhood

Fathers themselves benefit from engaging with care for their children. They end up happier and healthier. Fathers reported that child care was a source of wellbeing, life satisfaction and deep meaning for them. Fathers engaged with their children are healthier, less likely to adopt addictive behaviour than non-involved fathers. Additionally, fathers involved in child care are drawn more easily into engagement with the local neighbourhood and become part of the local community.

Pope Francis

In his apostolic letter “Patris Corde”[2] on the 150th anniversary of St. Joseph as the patron of the universal Church, Pope Francis comments that:

“Fathers are not born but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking on the responsibility to care for the child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another in some way, he becomes a father to that person.”

In that broad sense involved fathers can be teachers, uncles, grandfathers, older brothers and family friends. In caring for young lives, they can bring the benefits of fatherhood to young people listed above. Pope Francis holds up St Joseph as a model father in scripture even though he was not the biological father of Jesus. The church is full of such models of spiritual fatherhood from St Augustine to the present day and for me, as a Salesian priest, St John Bosco is a shining example of spiritual fatherhood.

Don Bosco as a spiritual father

We call Don Bosco “The Father and Teacher of Youth” for the abandoned youth of Turin in the mid-19th century. Along with “Friend of Youth” it is one of his most popular titles. He developed a clear pattern of spiritual fatherhood that he called the preventive system which has four main focal points. I will end by briefly naming these with a comment. Perhaps they will help to reframe the way as mature adult males we care for young people.

Home - Care begins with people being at home, able to talk and to be themselves. It must be a place of physical and psychological safety. A father must be at home with young people, being part of their world and not distant or threatening. A father must be able to forgive and forget, insist on clear boundaries with relentless and reasonable loving kindness. His authority is based on truth, love and common sense.

School - A father should be able to introduce young people to life in the wider world bit by bit so that they can grow and learn through making mistakes with the support of a solid father figure. Fathers should resist the temptation to demonstrate their superior knowledge and allow young people to learn for themselves by taking on responsibility and the consequences of their choices. “Mansplaining”[3] is not good fatherhood.

Playground - Fathers need to play with their children, find out what they are interested in and join in. As the young person grows older, fathers will need to wait for invitations to share their children’s lives and make invitations to the young to share their own hobbies and enthusiasms. These occasions with adult and child focusing on a common interest create the nurturing, understated quiet that is characteristic of male relationships.

Church - Connecting young people to a religious pattern of living has been shown to enhance mental health, social concern and increase generosity as well as empathy in young people. A father who can pray simply, sometimes silently, and bless their young people will be helping them hugely in their search for meaning and can bring them into a personal relationship with God. Allowing young people to see a father praying can be a real protection from the superficial values of the culture in the western world.

To be a father figure is a wonderful thing, whether as a teacher, a family member or a family friend. But it is also a hard path. Young people will be inconsistent, let you down and at times, break your heart, just as the father of the prodigal son suffered when his son left with half his fortune. It is a Christian vocation and as such it must involve the cross before it leads to new and deeper life. It is an act of faith in the Easter mystery. May our men be strong and forgiving, patient and optimistic about the goodness of young people, and a consistent support for many families under pressure.

[1] [2] Patris Corde is translated as “With a Father’s love” [3] To explain something in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.

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