The Heart of Fathering
Writer: Steve Dennis
The Heart of Fathering
By Steve Dennis
(LDS Life, June 2008)
The idea for a special day to honor fathers began in Spokane, Washington in 1909 as Sonora Smart Dodd was listening to a Mother's Day sermon. Having been raised by her father, after her mother died, Sonora wanted to acknowledge his selfless sacrifice and courage. Sonora's father was born in June, so she chose to hold the first Father's Day celebration in 1910. The observance of Father's Day grew and in1972, President Richard Nixon established a permanent national observance of Father's Day to be held on the third Sunday of June.
Nearly a century later, fatherhood has become both something to celebrate and a significant social concern. Today more than perhaps at any other time in history there are many absent fathers. Nearly one third of children in United States are born to an unwed mother where often there is little commitment or involvement on the part of the father. Research has shown that fatherless children are more likely to drop out of high school, run away from home, abuse alcohol and other drugs, become pregnant as teens, and engage in delinquency and crime. Furthermore, the rates of poverty are significantly higher for single-parent families-- most of which are headed by mothers.
While there are more absent fathers than ever before, there are also many nurturing and involved fathers. The rise in dual earner families and the loosening of gender roles have made fathering a hands-on activity that requires more than economic support and distant parenting. Protecting, feeding, playing, reading, comforting, bathing, clothing, correcting, empathizing, teaching, loving and supporting may all be part of family life for the involved dad. In fact, some may wonder if gender roles have become so blurred or similar that the distinct contributions of mothers and fathers have been diminished. In some settings, even the terms "mother" and "father" have fallen into disfavor because they are said to perpetuate gender discrimination. "Parent" is often the preferred term. Still, The Family: A Proclamation to the World makes it clear that "gender is an essential characteristic of individual, premortal, mortal, and eternal identify and purpose." It further states, "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. And these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obliged to help one another as equal partners."
While some of the gender differences between males and females are certainly cultural constructions others are divine and part of God's great plan. Children benefit from the complementary roles of mothers and fathers. Each makes unique contributions. Research indicates fathers contribute significantly to a child's school achievement, identity formation, self-esteem, and development of appropriate limits and boundaries. Of course, for a variety of reasons, a father or mother may not be present. In such circumstances, we simply do our best to surround our children with positive and caring role models and trust in the Lord.
Being a father is both a joyful and solemn responsibility that extends into eternity. It requires sacrifice and service. It results in heartache and happiness. But with an open heart and practice we can improve. Here are seven ways to be a better dad.
- Nurture the relationship with your wife. It will have payoffs for your children. The apostle Paul wrote, "husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church" (Ephesians 5:25). Research indicates that fathers who feel good about the relationship with their wife are more involved with their children. During times of martial stress, fathers tend to withdraw from their children.
- Protect your children. Children need protection from physical hazards and natural disasters, and more. Moral dangers abound on the Internet, television and throughout our society. Parents must be vigilant. Start by keeping your computer and television out of private spaces such as bedrooms. Like Captain Moroni, we must protect ours homes from the enemies of the family. His preparation included, "heaps of earth" "high timbers", and "watch towers". In an electronic age, our preparations and watchfulness will be different, but must be every bit as diligent.
- Provide for your children. This includes economic sustenance, but also much more. Provide emotional support. Provide opportunities for growth and learning. Provide occasions of excitement and energy, but also times of peace and solace. Give liberally of your time. Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said, "The vital transfer of spiritual power and responsibility to the rising generation seldom occurs when fathers are too busy for such blessings..." (Ensign, 1985,8).
- Be intentional in the creation of family routines and traditions. Routines and traditions develop unity, create expectations, and convey values. The stability and predictability they provide help children internalize values, develop self-confidence, and behave appropriately. Family Home Evening, scripture study, daily prayer, bedtime routines, reading together, playing together, vacations, dinnertime discussions, family councils, family walks or bike rides, gardening and on and on can all become regular routines or treasured traditions.
- Preside with love and compassion. As the spiritual leader in the home, call your family together for prayer, initiate family scripture reading, personal interviews, or family councils. Be anxiously engaged in the governance of your home and family, but never domineering. Preside in council and full partnership with your wife and create ample opportunities for choice among all family members. Providing children with choices helps them develop personal responsibility and commitment. Coercion or forceful approaches may result in compliance, but rarely cultivate the change of heart necessary for children internalize behavior and develop a love of truth and respect for parents.
- Participate actively in the breadth and depth of parenting. Play with your children, but do more. Learn about the development of children in general and your child in particular. Brigham Young advised parents to "study their [children's] dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly" (JD 19:221). Prepare yourself and take part in the full range of parenting responsibilities. Elder M. Russell Ballard counseled, "On a day-to-day basis, fathers can and should help with the essential nurturing and bonding associated with feeding, playing, storytelling, loving, and all the rest of the activities that make up family life." (BYU Devotional, 19 August 2003)
- Teach and discipline with encouragement and tenderness. Fathering is more than entertaining or having fun with our children. Elder Dallin H. Oaks warned, "I believe many of us are overnourished on the entertainment junk food and undernourished on the bread of life." (Ensign, May 2001, 82). Fathers must actively teach children life skills, gospel principles, and secular knowledge. Enos recorded of his father that, "he was a just man-for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." He obviously respected the words of his father for he further wrote "I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart." (See Enos 1:1-3). Likewise, Lehi set high expectations and encouraged his sons even when they murmured against him. To Lamam he said, "O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!" And to Lemuel he encouraged, "be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!" (See 1 Nephi 2: 9-10). Though our efforts may not be immediate, teaching with tenderness and love is never in vain.
Fathers, view your awesome responsibility with a long term lens. In a very real sense we are not only parenting our children, but we are setting the foundation for generations to come. Each of our lives have been shaped by individuals long deceased. So too are we establishing the patterns of living that will influence our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come. President Gordon B. Hinckley reminded us, "All that you have of body and mind will be transmitted through you to the generations yet to come, and it is so important, so everlastingly important, my brothers and sisters, that you do not become a weak link in that chain of your generations." (Regional conference, Oahu, Hawaii, 23 January 2000.) May the hearts of the fathers be turned to their children so in time the hearts of the children may be turned to God.
Steve Dennis is a member of the faculty in the Department of Home and Family at Brigham Young University - Idaho