By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT
Probably the most damaging aspect of father stereotypes that depict them as bumbling or unnecessary is that it reinforces itself. Fathers do have a tremendous impact on their children. But these stereotypes, societal expectations, often make fathers feel like what they are doing is not as important as what the mother does. If fathers think what they do is not as important as mothers, then they won’t try as hard, make as much of an effort, or be present as much as they can for their children. This, of course, leads them to being distant and unfamiliar with the caretaking responsibilities of their children, reinforcing these terrible stereotypes. A crucial way of getting fathers more involved is to help them understand how important they are as a parent to their children and to provide them with concrete steps they can do to improve as a parent.
Research indicates three components make it more likely for men to be involved as fathers. Men are more likely to become involved as fathers…
- If they believe the paternal role is important.
- If they feel being a father is a major part of their identity.
- If they feel confident and competent as a parent.
As you can probably clearly see, knowledge, information, and education make a significant contribution to whether or not fathers possess or develop those characteristics. In fact, there have been studies that found once fathers begin to learn they really do have a tremendous impact on the health and happiness of their children, they become more involved as fathers – probably because they feel what they are doing makes a difference.
We all want to feel important. For men, that feeling has often been easier to achieve in the workplace than in the home. For mothers, traditionally, the opposite has been true. Ironically, for fathers to be more involved at home, they need to spend less time where they have historically felt important and enter into a new arena. But mothers also then need to step back and share the parental roles with their partner, giving up some of what has historically been their comfort zone. For some parents this shift is much easier than others and there are many variables that affect this shift, such as the parents own relationship, their childhood, relationship with their own parents, earnings from working, etc.
Knowing fathers do have a positive impact on their children is especially important when they go through challenging periods. For instance, one of the challenges fathers of infants may face is a lack of immediate connection to their baby. Many fathers feel they should have an incredible bond from the minute their infant comes home from the hospital, but often this powerful bond takes time. Fathers who are aware of the lack of connection can lose confidence, can feel useless and unnecessary and focus on work more because at least that way they are supporting their family. Unfortunately, that only deepens the lack of connection. However, if fathers knew this lack of immediate connection was only a phase, if they knew how important they were to their baby’s life, if they learned ways to shorten this phase, they would be more likely to stay involved during this phase.
Briefly, let’s review some of the literature on the positive impact of involved fathers:
- The more paternal warmth – being warm/close with your child – children experience, the better they do academically and the more socially competent they are.
- Adolescents who are more satisfied with the level of paternal support they receive are less likely to become depressed
- A son’s self-esteem is best predicted by sustained father physical contact (and mother’s companionship) – the more contact, the higher their self-esteem.
- A daughter’s self-esteem is best predicted by father affection (and maternal general support) – the more affection, the higher their self-esteem.
- The more children feel accepted by their father, the less likely they are to have conduct problems in school.
- Children who experienced substantial paternal (and maternal) love, are much less likely to use drugs.
Fathers, and mothers, need a better understanding of the power of parental involvement – especially father involvement. A better understanding for fathers could help them more easily overcome those moments when they feel that what they do doesn’t matter instead of getting caught up in society’s stereotypes of fathers.
The fact is, what we as fathers do does matter and our children need us to break through these negative stereotypes, these difficult periods, to know we are always there for them – not just during the fun times. This will be an investment in not just who they are now, but who they are to become.