Our Evolving View of Fatherhood
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, describes the role of a father thus: “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”
As early as 1930, Freud noted that fathers fill a significant emotional and physical need of their children. But in the subsequent decades, our perceptions of fatherhood have changed to recognize that there are many more needs fathers can help fulfill. With more women entering the workforce, nuclear family living arrangements, flexible work options and a general shift in culturally defined gender roles, the definition of fatherhood has changed. In recent years, research has even proven that caring fathers play an important role in shaping children’s emotional and social development. So a closer look at the impact of fatherhood on children is warranted. Here are some patterns I see in my practice.
There is ‘The Involved Father’ on one end of the spectrum, and on the other extreme is what I call ‘The Weekend Dad’. Involved Fathers are men who take time to be physically with their children, talk and listen to them, be emotionally available for them, initiate fun activities with them and help them learn various life competencies. Closely related to this is the new-age term ‘Millennial Dad’ (not to be confused with the Millennial generation), who is as equally involved and hands-on as mothers have traditionally been, taking active interest in everything from children’s vaccinations to buying diapers and clothing. Weekend Dads tend to check-out during weekdays, prioritising work, and tune back in to their kids’ lives emotionally and physically for the two days’ break.
Apart from this, I’ve noticed two more interesting versions: ‘The Disciplinarian Dad’, who sets the rules, and ‘The Fun Playmate’, who engages in a lot of physical play, teaches his kids smart tricks and packs in lot of laughter. (It’s important to note that these are not all mutually exclusive categories of fatherhood.)
Last but not least, there’s the uninvolved father, who continues to provide financially, but may not emotionally invest himself in his children.
Aside from uninvolved, there is no right or wrong style(s) of fatherhood, though any combination with ‘Involved Dad’ is best, since research suggests that involved parenting from fathers positively shapes children’s identities. Dr Eirini Flouri, Deputy Director of the Centre for Research into Parenting and Children, University of Oxford, in her book Fathering and Child Outcomes notes that fathers’ involvement is strongly related to children’s educational attainment. Her team even found a correlation that suggests children with involved fathers, particularly boys, are less likely to get into trouble with the police.
This is perhaps related to the way fathers tend to play with and discipline their children, which often differs from mothers’ choices. Generally, fathers teach children about risk taking and learning to trust oneself through play—but they also teach children about the importance of equity, fair play and respect for the rules, notes Carol Gilligan, an educationist and ethicist. Mothers tend to focus more on feelings, empathy and care. A blend of both these perspectives are crucial in children’s growth and development.
Finally, fathers influence kids’ understanding of family and relationships. Fathers who are engaged with their children help to dispel gender stereotypes and create more equal relationships. Often, children raised in such homes learn to respect both genders. This can help them flourish in their adult relationships later in life.
My own family has a weekly ritual, where my husband cooks for us over the weekend or takes our daughter out for a ‘Breakfast Date’. This gesture gives me space and time to relax, leaving me refreshed, more engaged, and more appreciative of both my daughter and husband. I often hear women tell me how they feel so much more love and attraction for their spouse who chooses to co-parent. The relationship as a couple becomes more endearing and creates a feeling of working as a team. (Read more on co-parenting on The Swaddle.)
With fathers becoming more involved in parenting, the impact will echo through generations, creating more egalitarian societies with fewer prejudices around gender roles.