January 28, 2014

For Happier Children: Fathers are Needed.

Sometime around 1939 or so, my grandfather took my father on his first train ride up the California Coast to the enchanted town of Santa Barbara.

It was a wintery day and the waves, it seemed, barreled much too close to the beach-side tracksat least that’s what my father recalls from his five-year-old eyes.

These were the best of days, my father still says—spontaneous and effortless memories with his own father who was at times melancholy, and at other times carefree and adventurous.

“Come on son, just try and catch up to me,” my grandfather would call out as he ran towards the edge of the shore, letting one of his newly tailored suits get wet and sandy.

These day tripsto the sea came on like a storm: my father waited for them to come confused by their sudden appearances. He tried to keep up with the fast vulnerability of it all, and he tried to keep each moment in his mind.

You see, my grandfather grew up in an orphanage, without a father. Long years were spent wondering who he was without a male figure to look up to, to teach him right from wrong, to simply have someone to walk along seashores with, without having to say anything at all.

As a man, my grandfather never spoke about this, as this was somehow a history to be ashamed of. His mother brought him to a ‘home for boys’ after she had escaped her abusive husband.

A father’s influence in a child’s life is invaluable, irreplaceable and the love, nurturing and mere presence of fathers seems to matter now more than ever.

For my part, I have endured the silence of pain from generations of fatherless men, including both of my grandfathers.

Even feminist Gloria Steinem said, “Most American children suffer too much mother and too little father.”

The politically correct notion that “as long as a child is healthy and loved,” it does not really matter who they are raised and nurtured by. And if there is no father, “any loving guardian that seems integral and physically present in a child’s life will do well enough.”

And while it is true that we equally need the nurturing that only a mother can give, as both children and adults, we also need the grounding love that fathers can bestow.

Thankfully, I grew up in an era when men were allowed to be fathers without being chastised for being too manly. Unfortunately, many children today miss out on the invaluable experience of loving, fathers who don’t feel the need to apologize for being male, and all of the characteristics that come along with being so—some of them wonderful, some not so, but most necessary for some balance and maturity for the raising of healthy children.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said, “I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in 50 years what my father taught by example in one week.”

There are, of course, all sorts of fathers, some who have not earned the title. But for the most part, fathers fill a special place in our lives that cannot be matched in any other way.

My father had an acerbic wit, and as children, we often could not tell if he was serious, sarcastic or simply raising the roof. I will never forget the feeling when our father returned home from work each day. As children, we were excited by his arrival but also knew that rules applied when he walked through the door.

In a weird way, his strong male presence was exciting and anticipated by all of us, as he made his presence known with his loud footsteps and animated voice.

As children, we were not allowed to talk over my father. When he spoke, it meant he had something important to say and that we should listen up. And this did us good. Fathers can be like that; some show their love and strength largely through action, and when they do have something to say, it is often memorable, for fewer words are spoken with deliberate forethought.

There were no cell phones at the dinner table, no talking back and rolling of our eyes, and no televisions or computers in the background old-fashioned as it may sound, there was just my father, mother and four children eating and talking here and there, in a polite and calm manner.

As children, we may not realize the important roles they play in our lives because our father stay in the background more than our mothers, although they give a generation much of its strength, character and resilience.

Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Appreciation of fathers can take time to ferment, as they can be less vocal about how they feel about us. And as children we often mistake them for not being as loving as our mothers, with fewer “I Love You’s” , but with loving actions continually played within and without our rearing towards toward autonomy and adulthood.

In no way does this suggest that countless single mothers, aunts, grandmothers and other female caregivers have done amazing jobs raising boys into men, and with little help. Most women who raise boys alone do so not by choice, but because of economic disparity or because husbands, boyfriends or mere “sperm donors” have walked out on them with little or no support.

When children do have supportive fathers in their lives, they can experience a degree of pragmatism that that is necessary for boys and girls to grow up as healthy emotional beings. For instance, fathers often encourage us to try something new, whereas (some) mothers warn we might get hurt emotionally or physically. It is that perfect mix of caution and grit we need in order to become well balanced adults.

One anecdote is the memory of my father when he encouraged me to take the training wheels off my bicycle. He also convinced me to take a risk and apply for a dream job I never thought I could get—and for most of the dreams I did not foresee, his answer of “You’ll ace it next time, kid” was just what I needed to hear.

We might also turn to our fathers for the extra emotional support we need in a non-emotional fashion, assuring us things will work themselves out in the end with hard work, determination and elbow grease.

“My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard,” said Harmon Killebrew, an American baseball player.

“Mother would come out and say, “You’re tearing up grass.” “We’re not raising grass,” Dad would reply. “We’re raising boys.”

For some historical perspective, as with all statistics—the good, the bad and the ugly can be found quite easily to prove just about any point.

For example, here is a list of fatherless men who grew up infamous in the worst sense of the word: Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Charles Manson, John Wilkes Booth, Jack the Ripper, Billy the Kid and Lee Harvey Oswald.

On the other hand, the following is a list of fatherless men who grew up to be prolific leaders and thinkers: Thomas Jefferson, Marl Twain, Aristotle, General Robert E Lee, William Jefferson Clinton, President Barack Obama, George Washington and Leonardo Da Vinci.

Admittedly as a child, I feared my father when he got angry. Although he was inspiring, funny, smart and larger than life, when he got mad there was usually a reason. These moments taught me a great deal.

Comedian and father Bill Cosby said, “Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell, the name will carry.”

On a more serious note, Cosby would be the first to admit that growing up without a father is no laughing matter. A recent poll shows that more than 70 percent of the U.S population thinks the most significant social problem in this country is that so many children grow up without fathers.

“A house without a father is a challenge,” writes Cosby in his book Fatherless Children.

“A neighborhood without fathers is a catastrophe, and that’s just about what we have today. Why is the problem so grave? A mother can usually teach a daughter how to be a woman. But as much as mothers love their sons, they have difficulty showing a son how to be a man. We can’t speak honestly of black culture in America unless and until we honestly address the issue of the estrangement of fathers and their children.”

Statistics for both boys and girls prove this theory to be more fact than conjecture. For example, an adolescent white female growing up in an advantaged background is five times more likely to become a teen mother if she grows up without a father in the home.

The picture is even more grim for boys who grow up without fathers present in the home. Psychiatrists say that some fatherless boys are motivated by “displaced anger.”

According to The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Center for Health statistics, fatherless children are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, suicide, poor educational performance, teen pregnancy and criminality.

In a study conducted by ‘The Consortium for the Study of School Needs of Children from One Parent Families’, children with fathers at home tend to do better in school, are less prone to depression and more successful in relationships. Children from one-parent families achieve less and get into trouble more than children from two-parent families.

Some grim statistics: nearly 80 percent of all rapists are reported to have grown up in fatherless homes. For both boys and girls, 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes, as well as 75 percent of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers from homes without fathers.

Sigmund Freud wrote, “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”

Now that we are all sobered about these figures, the good news is that fathers are beginning to get a better rap on a lot of fronts. Public opinion is starting rid a culture that suggests fathers are unimportant and valueless, which will prove valuable to the next generation of families.

The politically incorrect notion that men don’t matter in childrens’ lives is being opposed out loud and without much argument from either the pop-psyche culture or from those who claim that fathers matter little in the lives of children.

Similarly, the idea that men can only be “good fathers” if they act like women is also looked on as preposterous.

The view that a strong male influence can be easily replaced is losing its ground with more women and men who realize the importance of fathers as parents, role models and teachers for their children and for the betterment of communities and society as a whole.

The worst thing that can happen is that more parents-to-be will benefit from what the human animal has instinctively known to be true from the beginning of time: that fathers matter.

And the best thing that can happen is happier children.

Imagine that.

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Editor: les elephants

Photos: elephant journal archives

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