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Think. Discuss. Act. Fatherhood

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The Importance Of Fathers

Borgman, D. (2000). The importance of fathers. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.


Young people at the turn of the twentieth century have been called “a fatherless generation.” Absent or too-busy dads have robbed children of an essential bond in growing up. Studies in the 1960s worried about social breakdown if the number of children without fathers passed 27%. By the close of the century, being fatherless had passed the 50% mark among some U.S. minorities (National Research Council Panel on High Risk Youth, Losing Generations, National Academy Press, 1995:5, quoted in Larson & Brentro’s Reclaiming Our Prodigal Sons and Daughters, National Educational Service, 2000: 30f).

“One study of convicted murderers in Texas found that 90% of them either did not play with their father as children, or played abnormally.” (David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society, New York: The Free Press, 1996:9, as quoted by Larson and Brentro, op. cit. 31)

Professor of sociology at Rutgers University, David Popenoe, explains the importance of fathers to their sons:

Teenage boys without fathers are notoriously prone to trouble. The pathway to adulthood for daughters is somewhat easier, but they still must learn from their fathers, as they cannot from their mothers, how to relate to men. They learn from their fathers about heterosexual trust, intimacy, and the difference between the sexes. They learn to appreciate their own femininity from the one male who is most special in their lives…Most importantly, through loving and being loved by their fathers, they learn that they are love-worthy. (ibid., p. 31)

According to the National Research Council’s Board on Children and Families, “fathers tend to stress challenge, initiative, risk-taking, and independence. Mothers, on the other hand, focus on the equally important qualities of emotional security and personal safety.” (ibid., p. 31)

Robert Bly sounds almost mystical as he explains the possibilities of good relationships between father and son.

‘When a father and son spend long hours together, we could say that a substance almost like food passes from the older body to the younger. The son’s body-not his mind-receives, and the father gives this food at a level far below consciousness. His cells receive some knowledge of what an adult masculine body is. The younger body learns at what frequency the masculine body vibrates. It begins to grasp the song that adult male cells sing. [Bly (1990:93), Larson (2000:32)]’

Scott Larson, who is quoting Bly here, has served as foster father for many convicted felons who received too little or nothing from their own fathers. As both biological and surrogate father and lecturer, he stresses the significance of indefinable necessities a son receives from hunting, fishing, and playing with his dad.

All the books written about boys these days emphasize the importance of fathers to their sons. Linda Nielsen’s fine text [Adolescence: A Contemporary View (1996), pp. 293-321] details the importance of a father’s relationship to both son and daughter (as well as of mother to both daughter and son).

Although social scientists have historically underestimated the father’s importance relative to the mother, this has been especially true in regard to the father-daughter relationship…More recent research shows that a father has an equally powerful influence in his daughter’s development, especially during the teenage years. [Nielsen (1996):304, citing Biller (1993), Caplan (1989), Coulter & Minninger (1993)]

Nielsen explains how fathers can help their daughters during adolescence, a time when girls usually “backslide in intellectual confidence, competitiveness, assertiveness, and self-reliance.” Fathers are important for their daughters’ cognitive, vocational, sexual, and social development.

Not only do fathers tend to spend less time with their children than in the past, because of television, the time they do spend is often not spent in active play, excursions, or serious discussion. Nielsen concludes; ‘Sadly, most of our fathers influence us mainly by virtue of their absence, scarcity, or under-involvement in our daily lives.’ (ibid., p. 302)

The story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 is a great parable of parenting and fatherhood. Rembrandt’s masterful painting of a scene from the story is called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Henri Nouwen has written a book (by the same title) reflecting upon the painting, the story-and the importance of fatherhood. Larson and Brendtro also, include these remarks about this great piece of art:

A son in tattered clothing kneels at the feet of a father who embraces him with both hands. Upon closer inspection of the painting, we can see that Rembrandt painted one hand as the hand of the father and the other hand as the hand of the mother.

The hand of the father is one of strength, supporting the son. The mother’s hand is one of gentleness, consoling and nurturing the boy. Raising children is a two-handed job that requires both strength and gentleness. (Op. cit., 33)

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What are the clearest memories you have of your father? What were his primary benefits to your life? What regrets do you have regarding your relationship with your father?
  2. Do you agree that the role of fathers has been underestimated in the past?
  3. Do you see the role of a father as important as this article makes it?
  4. What do you hope for the father of your children or your children’s children?
  5. What can society do to strengthen the position of fathers in the lives of all our children?
  6. What responses are called for in the case of children who have no father or father figure, or who have abusive or negligent fathers?
  7. How can we better support single parents who must combine both hand of strength and hand of gentleness?


  • The health of society-and its future-can best be gauged by the health of its families. Fathers have an important place in those families.
  • Though families can and often must get along without a father, it is important to support the role of fathers in all possible ways.
  • It is important to note the organizations specifically working to strengthen fathers, especially in minority families.
  • Boys not only need fathers or father figures, they need to be trained to become good fathers themselves.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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