"My father didn't do anything unusual. He only did what dads are supposed to do - be there."
Just like I enjoy reminding my family this time of the year that we better start planning because Christmas will be here before we know it, I was also reminding some people last week that Father’s Day was coming which was observed just yesterday – a day which is celebrated in many countries throughout the world. While some of us may or may not be fathers ourselves, we all were fathered by someone who along with our mothers, enabled us to be born into this world. Despite all the changes in culture and technology, the fact that we were born from both a mother and father remains an immutable truth for every one of us.
My father was a big influence in my life but more in the way Max Lucado described his father - in that my father was always “just there.” Ours was a traditional patriarchal family and most of my memories of my dad were his leaving and coming home from work each day and how the tone in our house would change when my father’s car pulled into our driveway. Interactions with Dad were few and far between but when they happened, they generally left strong impressions. Dad was clearly in charge for whatever reason, and sometimes if I had done something wrong during the day, I would hear the dire words from my mother to “just wait until your father gets home.”
As I talk to many people my age, it is clear to me that my experience was very similar to most others born around the time I was. Fathers in earlier generations were men who worked long hours away from home to provide for their families and often had little time or energy to engage with their children, as is more the norm or expectation today. While dads were not as engaged with children in earlier generations, the fact that they were just there was still very impactful.
When I was growing up it seemed like all the kids around me had both a mother and father. Divorce was still a social taboo and the one kid in my third-grade class whose father died in Vietnam was known more as “the kid without a father” than by his real name. No one made fun of the boy for not having a father, but it was more as if we didn’t know how to act around someone without a dad at home because it was just so different to what seemed normal for everyone else.
Social research has shown that simply having a father at home as a child is growing up correlates with better performance of children in school, lower rates of delinquency, and avoidance of the more severe issues which can complicate adolescence including depression, drug use, and teen pregnancy. Boys and girls who have a positive relationship with a father growing up will typically delay initial sexual activity to later ages and are more likely to graduate high school. The opposite is true for all these things for children who grow up in homes without a dad.
At some point between the years I was growing up and the time I had children myself, the expectations for fathers must have changed drastically. Fathers today change diapers which is in stark contrast to the memories I have of my mother and her sister joking that “a man could never change a diaper.” When my boys played Little League baseball, I remember half the fathers on the field with their sons at practice. But when I played baseball myself as a child, there was only one old man at our practices and games who none of us knew other than being “Coach.” Moms would just drop us off at the baseball field for practice and pick us up later, and there generally weren’t too many parents at our games.
The COVID Pandemic took fathering to an even higher level of performance for modern families. Fathers were home with their children for more than a year this meant helping with schoolwork, meals, and daily activities which may have been unknown to dads before that. Many dads I talked to during the pandemic gained a whole new appreciation and respect for what moms go through on a daily basis.
While the past few years have been a challenging and stressful time for fathers and families, the fact remains that children are still better off long-term when dads are present. This is not in any way to diminish the critically important role and influence of moms on children growing up, but it remains an unfortunate phenomenon that in families where children are raised by a single parent, that parent is most often the mom and the one missing is the dad.
One of the most important things I learned personally in raising children, was how much my children learned more from the things I did than the things I intentionally tried to teach them. I remember vividly when I discovered my son Andrew at age three standing at the bathroom sink with toothpaste rubbed completely all over his face. He was rubbing the toothpaste off with the back of his toothbrush and when I asked what in the world he was doing, he said proudly “I’m shaving like Daddy!”
When my younger son Kevin was around the same age, he watched me intently creating a “garage sale” sign by spray painting a large piece of cardboard I had propped up against the wall of our garage to spray paint the letters. A few days later Kevin asked: “Can I play garage sale?” and I said “Sure!” only to discover later a large letter “G” spray painted in bright green directly on the decorative brick wall exterior of our house. I was horrified but knew instantly I couldn’t blame my son for doing what he thought he saw his dad doing a few days before.
The lesson that “children learn what they see lived” was never more apparent to me than when my own children were little. I see the same thing so much more clearly now with my grandchildren. It’s this same dynamic which results in children being far more likely to smoke cigarettes if their parents smoke. Sons are far more likely to repeat violent behaviors later in life if they have grown up witnessing violent behaviors in their fathers. Fathers who are incarcerated raise the risk of their sons becoming incarcerated as adults by more than six hundred percent.
Beyond learning by lived examples from parents, children are also deeply impacted by the things we tell them about themselves. While I do remember good things my father said about me, the things which seem to have cut more deeply into my memory are the things my father said in criticism or anger. I hear this sort of thing from so many of my counseling clients about how much they were impacted by something a parent said as they were growing up. It’s why I strongly believe the quote which says: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
Realizing then all the impact that parents and particularly fathers can have on later life development, and success or failure, it seems only fitting that we would have a special day each year to honor our fathers just like we have a Mother’s Day to honor our mothers. Unfortunately though, not everyone in life has a father or may never have had a father growing up. That doesn’t mean there may not have been a “father figure” in their lives though, and when there was, that person may have been every bit as influential as a real father.
If there is a father or someone you thought of as a father in your life, that person has likely demonstrated three critical components of fatherhood which are: service, love, and presence. Fathers serve by doing things selflessly - like working to provide financial support, or as my daughter was famous for saying, that “Dads fix stuff.” Fathers love us selflessly and forever no matter what we ever may do or fail to do. They don’t love us for what we achieve, they love us for who we are.
Service and love are the foundations of presence which as we’ve seen is probably the most important thing a father can do – be there for you. When your father is there for you, there is a bond or connection and that comes through engagement. It’s not simply sharing space together while we’re on our phones or streaming some television.
Take a moment to think about if there has been a father figure in your life – someone who has loved you and served you and has always been there for you. Consider how your life has been impacted by those things and how it may have turned out without that love and presence in your life. If you have been blessed by someone being a real dad to you, then I hope you can honor them on this Father’s Day.
Have a great week!