Understanding “Fatherneed”

Behavioral scientists have only recently begun to understand how critical fathers are to the healthy development of both boys and girls. According to psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, the author of Fatherneed, dads are as important to children as moms, but in a very different way. Here are other surprising findings that have emerged from careful research on the role of fathers:

• There is an undeniable linkage between fathers and babies beginning at birth.

• Infants as young as six weeks old can differentiate between amother's and a father's voice.

•By eight weeks, babies can distinguish between their mother's and their father's caretaking methods.

•Infants are born with a drive to find and connect to their fathers. As they begin to speak, their word for "father" often precedes their word for "mother." The reasons for this are unknown.

•Toddlers are especially obvious in their assertions of fatherneed: they will seek out their father, ask for him when he's not present, be fascinated when he talks to them on the phone, and investigate every part of his body if allowed.

• "Teenagers express fatherneed in yet more complex ways, competing with their father and confronting his values, beliefs, and, of course, limits. For so many sons and daughters, it is only at the death of the father that they discover the intensity and longevity of their fatherneed, especially when it has gone begging."

While children of all ages—both male and female—have an innate need for contact with their fathers, let me emphasize again that boys suffer most from the absence or noninvolvement of fathers. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, boys without fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to go to jail, and nearly four times as likely to need treatment for emotional and behavioral problems as boys with fathers.

Repeatedly during my review of the latest research for this book, I came face-to-face with the same disturbing issue. Boys are in trouble today primarily because their parents, and especially their dads, are distracted, overworked, harassed, exhausted, disinterested, chemically dependent, divorced, or simply unable to cope. As indicated above, all other problems plaguing young males flow from (or are related to) these facts of life in the twenty-first century. Chief among our concerns is the absence of masculine role modeling and mentoring that dads should be providing. Mothers, who also tend to be living on the ragged edge, are left to do a job for which they have had little training or experience. Having never been boys, women often have only a vague notion of how to go about rearing one. Boys are the big losers when families splinter.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that children living in two-parent families who had only a fair or poor relationship with their fathers were at 68 percent higher risk of smoking, drinking, and drug usage than teens having a good or excellent relationship with dads. By comparison, children growing up in a home headed by a single mother who had an excellent relationship with their mothers had a 62 percent lower risk of abusing substances than children living in a two-parent family with a fair or poor relationship with their father. The influence of a good father can hardly be overemphasized.

Dr. William Pollock, Harvard psychologist and author of Real Boys, concludes that divorce is difficult for children of both sexes but it is devastating for males. He says the basic problem is the lack of discipline and supervision in the father's absence and his unavailability to teach what it means to be a man. Pollock also believes fathers are crucial in helping boys to manage their emotions. As we have seen, without the guidance and direction of a father, a boy's frustration often leads to varieties of violence and other antisocial behavior.

Numerous researchers agree that losing a dad (or never having had one) is catastrophic for males. Thirty years ago it was believed that poverty and discrimination were primarily responsible for juvenile crime and other behavioral problems. Now we know that family disruption is the real culprit. Despite all the red flags that warn us of the dangers, cavalier attitudes abound with regard to premarital pregnancy, divorce, infidelity, and cohabitation.

Don Elium, author of Raising a Son, says that with troubled boys, the common theme is distant, uninvolved fathers and, in turn, mothers who have taken on more responsibility to fill the gap.

Sociologist Peter Karl believes that because boys spend up to 80 percent of their time with women, they don't know how to act as men when they grow up. When that happens, the relationship between the sexes is directly affected. Men become helpless and more and more like big kids.

These statistics and trends can't be appreciated fully until we see how they are translated into the lives of individuals. I was talking recently to such a person—a fifty-eight-year-old man who described the unhappy memory of his father. His dad had been a minister who was consumed by work and other interests. This father never came to sporting events or any other activities in which his son was a participant. He neither disciplined nor affirmed him. By the time the boy was a senior in high school, he was the starting guard on a winning big-school football team. When his team qualified for the state championship, this boy was desperate to have his dad see him play. He begged, "Would you please be there on Friday night? It is very important to me." The father promised to come.

On the night of the big game, the boy was on the field warming up when he happened to see his father enter the stadium with two other men wearing business suits. They stood talking among themselves for a moment or two and then left. The man who told me this story had tears streaming down his cheeks as he relived that difficult moment of so long ago. It had been forty years since that night, and yet the rejection and disappointment he felt as a teenager were as vivid as ever. A year after our conversation, this man's father died at eighty-three years of age. My friend stood alone before his dad's casket at the funeral home and said sorrowfully, "Dad, we could have shared so much love together—but I never really knew you."

Going back to the night of the football game, I wonder what that father considered more important than being there for his son. Was his "to do" list really more urgent than meeting the needs of the boy who bore his name? For whatever reasons, that man allowed the years to slide by without fulfilling his responsibilities at home. Although he is gone, his legacy is like that of countless fathers who were too busy, too selfish, and too distracted to care for the little boys who reached for them. Now their record is in the books. If only they could go back and do it differently. If only ... ! Ifonly ... !

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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