George Herbert once said, “One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters.” It is true. I always say that the best education I received was at the dinner table with my Dad. And, through his example, I learned respect, to trust my instincts and that my word was my honor. My father helped to develop my confidence, strength, independence, and my work ethic. He taught me that I can do anything – regardless of any stereotypes that society placed on me because of my size, my age, or my gender.
Why has our society continuously overlooked a father’s impact on childhood development? Research shows that interactions a child has with their father are just as important as interactions they’ll have with their mother. This day in age, you’re likely aware of some of the common statistics regarding children who grow up in fatherless homes (63% of youth suicides, 85% of all children who show behavior disorders, 71% of pregnant teenagers and 80% of rapists come from fatherless homes), but the importance of a father to a child’s overall development rarely gets attention.
Mothers comfort us, care for us, and assure us. They are empathetic, accepting, and forgiving. They are the emotional backbone of a family unit. I really don’t need to tell you how important a mother is to a child because the importance of mothers has been researched for centuries and is ingrained in our legal and social norms. However, these norms have incorrectly placed a higher importance on mothers, so much that the majority is convinced that they are more important.
Society seems to have come a long way in welcoming women into roles other than “nurturing mother and caregiver”; yet, we have not made progress in accepting men into any role other than “breadwinner and provider”. Women make up more than 47% of the workforce compared to just over 14% in the late 1960s, yet people still chuckle when they hear the term “stay at home Dad.” If you can accept that a woman can work outside of the household and provide for a family, why can’t you accept that a father can be a nurturer and caregiver for their child? The tables have turned. In today’s society, women are independent and can do anything! Men are still seen as the financial providers and “babysitters”, or worse, merely a biological necessity portrayed as inept in the media when it comes to child care. Have you considered what this will do to our future? What will this do to our daughters and our sons?
A mother’s importance is obvious when you consider the physical changes she undergoes during pregnancy and childbirth. She also has the ability to breastfeed. Hormonal studies have shown that fathers also experience changes. According to a study by Biological Psychiatry, fathers show increased oxytocin levels during their child’s first few weeks of life and these levels increase further as fathers play with their child. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published research showing how fatherhood leads to declines in testosterone, and active fathers experience higher declines suggesting that fatherhood encourages nurturing.
Fathers have historically been known as the protector of a family, and they fill this role in many capacities. Not only does this include providing shelter, food, and protection from harm, they also exhibit responsible masculinity, standing up for their children and children’s mother, which teaches respect and sets standards of behavior, integrity and reliance for a developing child.
This protection extends to an important role when it comes to child maltreatment. In 2003, some 906,000 children were victims of child maltreatment; fathers were involved in 36.8% of the cases (half of those being biological fathers), and mothers were involved in 64% of the cases. Mothers are almost twice as likely to be directly involved in child maltreatment than fathers; they are more than half as likely to be involved as a biological father. And, the risk of child maltreatment doubles for a child being raised in a single-parent home. Fatherless homes have higher risks of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.
In addition to protector, a father strongly influences a child’s physical, cognitive, and psychological well-being. Fathers generally offer more physical play than mothers, which increases physical competency and confidence in young children. This is said to be why children with active fathers have a greater interest in education and extracurricular activities and have higher test scores and IQs. Children with fathers who are involved are 70% less likely to drop out of school. The physical play also builds stronger bonds between parent and child and establishes a higher level of trust in the relationship (Dad will not allow them to be harmed as a result of the play.) This trust then provides children with the needed confidence and social skills to dare and try new things.
Without a father, how does a boy learn to become a father? How does a daughter know what to look for in a man? Without seeing their parents interact in a loving, positive, and healthy way, how can a child learn about healthy relationships and commitments? How can they be assured that relationships can be loving, lasting, and meaningful, breaking the trend of divorce and single-family homes generation after generation?
Additional gains are realized for a child when fathers and mothers can maintain a healthy relationship in the presence of their child, whether they are together or not. A father can still teach a child to respect their mother even after separation, and a mother can still rely on the father to help with discipline. When the parents have a healthy relationship, they are better parents; they are more responsive, loving, and confident with their infants, they are more self-controlled with toddlers, and more approachable to teenagers. The answer is common sense really. One parent does not love their child more than another, and a child does not love one parent more than another. We, as a society, need to stop pushing fathers away!
According to a study by Arizona State University, mothers are awarded primary custody 68-88% of the time, and equal custody is awarded 2-6% of the time. The non custodial parent is then awarded ‘visitation’ with their child, which often translates into 16-20% of the time (e.g. every other weekend, 2-6 weeks in the summer), making actual parenting time a challenge. Recent child custody statistics from the US Census Bureau also indicate that close to 40% of non custodial fathers have no ‘visitation’ rights with their children. According to the PEW Research Center, only 22% of fathers see their children more than once per week.
Since our society has historically placed a higher importance on mothers, many fathers simply settle for accepting ‘visits’ and child support (51% of fathers do not fight for custody). Parental gender inequality and inaccurate statistics on deadbeat dads perpetuate this social fallacy. In many other cases, fathers are pushed away from their children’s lives by the mother or the family court system, and the cost of a custody battle is not one that every father can afford. Also, false accusations against fathers are a growing trend in custody cases (of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, for example), seemingly being used as a legal strategy. The Department of Human Services (DHS) reported that 67,885 allegations were made against fathers during custody battles in 2009, and 75% were found to be untrue.
A parent is not a ‘visitor’. A paycheck is not ‘child support’. Both parents need an equal opportunity to be a parent. Every child deserves to have equal time with each of their parents. We need to take the focus off of gender to re-embrace the once admirable titles of both ‘mother’ and ‘father’. This isn’t a man’s issue. This isn’t a parent’s issue. This is society’s issue! That includes you. Get rid of all of your preconceived notions and stereotypes. In any situation, look at two parents and assume they are equal unless unwilling or proven unfit. As equals, they should take part in all areas of their children’s lives: physical, financial, emotional, spiritual, medical, etc. Do not support the gender divide. And, as a parent, remember that your child was created by two people, equally.
Instead of spending time bad mouthing, money on court fees, and energy on selfishness and retaliation, spend that time, money, and energy on nurturing your child and making a better life for them.
Author: Debra Childs
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