A recipe for fathering?

One of the great parables of Luke’s Gospel is the Prodigal Son – the story of a child who wishes his father dead to get his inheritance, squanders the money, falls on hard times and decides that even working for his father would be better than his sorry state. On his return the father throws all caution and prudence to the wind, and welcomes this wayward child back home.

A quick search of Amazon will reveal a list of more than 3,800 books on fathering. It seems that it is a boom industry for what is, after all, a relatively new field. On a recent current affairs program a prominent Australian businessman of mature years commented that in his world – the world he grew up in – men went out to work and women stayed home and raised families. This man is probably of the last generation of men excluded from the birth suite. We are encouraged now to take an active role in parenting – hence the huge number of ‘how to’ books on fathering. Most men will admit to a certain nervousness in this area – it doesn’t seem to come naturally to all … and in the process we are discovering that ‘mothering’ did not always come naturally to all women either!

The ‘how to’ manuals all assume a certain level of education in order to understand them. They are all identifying common issues which people seem to report as being ‘problems’ – how to communicate, how to engage, how to deal with the various personality and psycho-social stages, how to respond to the child who has ADHD, or other learning challenges, how to assist the child who is terrible at sport … The list goes on. It is as though there is a recipe or a repair schedule for fathering. Of course these are real issues and people need assistance in addressing them. However, in turning parenting or, in this case fathering, into a problem we run the risk of pathologising our children.

While the unreconstructed man from the current affairs program made light of the fact that women stayed home and men went to work, there may be a kernel of truth in his observation. Traditionally, women were at home or as the other old saying goes – it takes a village to raise a child. In other words, and most of the fathering books do say this, to be a father means being present to your children – this means spending time with them and quality time with them too. It means being present at the fun times and the difficult times; able to share the hugs and the disciplining. It means being part of the lives of your children – knowing their friends, going to school and sporting events. Above all, it means being willing to listen – to the profound and the inane.

Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam) and Harry Chapin both conveyed the challenges of fathering in their songs Father and Son and Cat’s in the Cradle – both highlighted the need for fathers to be present to their children and to be willing to listen to the hopes and fears of children. The confronting lesson in both songs is that these challenges cannot be put off – children grow so quickly that unless this time is made now the moment will be lost. As Harry Chapin’s song pointed out – our children will be educated by us – if we fail to spend quality time with them they will mirror what we have taught them.

Fathering is a really crucial task and one that is time sensitive; we live in a world which demands our attention and which throws many priorities at us – but all else is secondary to the role of being a father. That doesn’t mean never pursuing economic security or professional advancement; it does not mean not having one’s own leisure time … just that in becoming a parent, in becoming a father, everything else has to be seen through the lens of the need to be a father first and foremost.

Luke’s parable is a miniature handbook on parenting – on ‘fathering’ in particular. It covers all the main points that the modern handbooks deal with:

  • Fathers need to be present to their children and listen to them
  • Fathers need to accept the children’s need for freedom – even when it hurts to do so
  • Fathers need to be ready to pick up the pieces – not make it all ok or as though nothing has happened but to communicate that no matter what, the child is loved
  • Fathers need to stand up to the criticism that will come (even from other children) when they put this into practice.

Fathering is not a one-size fits all, easily acquired skill; it is not as simple as marking off a list of set tasks. It is as individual as the men and the children who are in this privileged and special relationship – but it does all centre on a loving relationship, and relationships mean being around and spending time together. As fathers, our responsibility to educate our children goes beyond the three Rs to how to be a better human being, how to contribute to the world … time and love are great first steps.

Food for thought:

  1. Do I make time for my children?
  2. When was the last time I went to a school event with my children?
  3. How often do I read with my children?
  4. Do I have fun with my children?
  5. Do I share my fears and anxieties with my children?
  6. How do I show my children that I love them, no matter what?