Fatherhood – Reflections from a Friar

Stephen Lynch Features

Father’s Day honors our fathers, both living and deceased.  The father’s guidance plays an integral part in helping the child grow in maturity, especially in three areas: discipline, protection and sex role identity.

Discipline: Children are more comfortable with fathers who take an active role in discipline.  Discipline here is meant not merely punishment for bad behavior, but the much larger matter of guiding a child successfully throughout the various stages of life.  Dr. Haim Ginott, in his book Between Parent and Child, points out:  “Discipline should always be associated with giving your child a feeling of being loved and wanted. On the other hand, if a parent is afraid to show firmness, the child will persist in undesirable behavior patterns.”

Protection: According to Sigmund Freud, “There is not any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s threefold protection: protection against threats from the outer world; protection against fears from the inner world; and protection against over-protection by mother.”

Sex-role Identity: The father provides the model for his children’s concepts of what it means to be a man.   A boy learns to be manly, learns to be a gentleman, if he sees manliness and gentlemanliness represented in his father. When a boy models himself totally after his mother, there is danger of experiencing inner conflicts and role confusion.  And, while girls use their mothers as models of femininity, the father is very important in the girl’s life, too. Dr. Ginott suggests that the manner in which a girl will relate to men in later life depends to a marked degree upon her relationship with her father.

It is literally impossible for a father to engage in any activity in the presence of his children without silently telling those children:  “This is what a man is; this is what a man does, and this is how he does it. You may not remember all that your father said to you when you were growing up, but the message of his example, good or bad, will not easily be forgotten.

The old maxim is still true:  “More learning is caught than taught.”   A consistent overall attitude of love and consideration, despite one’s personal imperfections, provides the child with an anchor and bulwark against anxiety, confusion, instability and insecurity.

These days, men are more concerned about their fathering role as an important aspect of their own identity. Daddies these days are expected to wipe away tears and win promotions, to share small lives and earn big livings.  There has been a slow, but measurable shift away from seeing Dad as simply a paycheck-producing “assistant parent,” or an “absentee provider.”

Beneath all the rhetoric about change and tradition, a new ideal is emerging of the good man as the good father, of the good father as attentive, caring, and nurturing.  Being a good father and a good husband stretches a man perhaps more than anything else he will ever do in his life.

Child-guidance work shows clearly that children don’t love more and enjoy more the parent who stands apart and disciplines too little.  Getting away with meanness to a parent makes the child uneasy. Psychiatrists have found evidence from children’s make-believe stories and from their bad dreams that suggests children are more apt to be afraid of the parent who is in his/her shell.  Children sense that it isn’t right for the parent to be too submissive, or for the child to be able to get away with misconduct too easily and too often.  The Bible tells us that if you honor your father, when you pray, you will be heard.

The quality of time a parent gives a child is very important.  I still remember the time my father tied the lace of my ice skate, when I was very little and it was very cold.

The Book of Sirach offers this advice to children:  Kindness to a father…. like warmth upon frost, it will melt away your sins.”  Sir. 3. 15

Finally, as to the father’s role in relationship to mother, the wisdom of the ages assures us: The greatest thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.

—  Fr. Stephen, who served as a missionary in Japan for 20 years, lives and works at St. Francis Chapel in Providence, R.I.