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Fatherhood (1)


The greatest challenge a man can face, by far, is that of raising his children well. Without exaggeration, it can be said that his success or failure at this constitutes his success or failure in life.


Up until a few years ago, anyone browsing through the "parenting" or "child care" section of a bookstore might have noticed something peculiar. Though dozens of books devoted themselves to the mother-child relationship in children's upbringing, hardly any emphasized the role of the father. Among childcare experts, a father's enormously important influence on children's lifelong strengths of character has been passed over and neglected.

This perspective is slowly changing. Over the past quarter-century, society has witnessed more and more young people emerging from childhood with serious problems deriving from weakness of character: immaturity and irresponsibility, alcohol and drug abuse, religious indifference, marital instability, divorce.

Professionals who deal with such troubled young people have long noted a common trait among them. Typically they have had a weak relationship of respect for their fathers. For one reason or another, their father did not exercise strong moral leadership during the formative years of childhood and young adolescence.

Increasingly, therefore, specialists have been studying the subtle but powerful ways by which fathers form their children's character, often unwittingly. They have also noted how broad social changes in Western life have seriously eroded this formative influence, leaving many children burdened in adulthood with weakness and uncertainty at the center of their lives.

It's clear, of course, that not all of today's families experience serious problems with their grown-up children. Even in our present social circumstances, many fathers continue to form their children's characters successfully. Such men enjoy seeing their children grow up to become competent, confident, responsible men and women who live by Christian principles.

Why do some succeed?

What are the differences here? Why do some fathers succeed while others fail in this critically important task? This article attempts to answer these questions, or at least to suggest some plausible explanations. It also considers some related issues that should interest any man who takes his fatherly responsibilities seriously: What are the natural dynamics by which fathers form their children's character and conscience? What social changes have eroded these dynamics, thus displacing the father's central role? What can a father do, once he's aware of the problem, to reassert the moral influence that his children badly need?

Before moving into a discussion of these items, I would like to clarify three matters at the outset.

First, everything that follows here is the result of many people's personal experience and study. For almost 20 years I have worked as a teacher and school administrator, and I have long been interested in how fathers affect – or fail to affect – their children's character. A great many parents and young people have opened to me their own experiences and insights in this area. So, too, have I drawn from the work of many specialists: psychologists, teachers, marriage counselors and clergy. The opinions and conclusions expressed here, therefore, derive from much study into the dynamics of modern family life.

Over the ears that I have spent in education, one impression has become increasingly clear. Fathers and mothers today, isolated as they are from other parents, need as much experienced advice as they can get. Parents throughout history have always needed such advice. In our own era, however, they have to work harder to get it.

The mother's role

Secondly, throughout this booklet I seldom refer directly to the role of mothers in children's character formation. This I have done because of space limitations and, more importantly, my wish to highlight the father's role as clearly and strongly as possible. Emphatically, I have not intended to minimize the mother's crucial role. Far from it.

It has been the mothers, in fact, who have borne the burdensome consequences of the fathers' diminished role in the children's upbringing. The social changes affecting today's families have meant an ever-greater responsibility thrust onto the mothers. The ways in which they have coped with this increased work and worry have been inspiring and valiant. Society owes such women every measure of appreciation and gratitude for the immense good they have done.

A challenge

Finally, I'd like to address a word directly to fathers:

Men generally enjoy personal challenges. Few things make us more alive than facing complex problems to solve, situations that call forth our personal strengths – ingenuity, imagination, teamwork, experienced judgment, persistence, will power. Every day at work, we solve problems through the exercise of these strengths, and thereby we support our families.

The greatest challenge a man can face, by far, is that of raising his children well. Without exaggeration, it can be said that his success or failure at this constitutes his success or failure in life.

Many men, unfortunately, do not succeed in this venture. In the task of child-raising, as in professional life, no one set out to be a failure. Failing in this all-important responsibility seems to come mostly through unwitting neglect. In my experience, many fathers today are unaware that there is a problem – that, without intending it at all, they are failing to exercise the moral leadership that their family needs. Why this is so, we will try to explain in the pages that follow.

No cut-and-dried recipes

In our experience, this is what most men need in order to set effectively to work: a clear delineation of the problem at hand, and an understanding of other people's experience. When men see a problem as critically important, they bring forth all their powers of mind and will in order to turn things around, make them work, and solve the problem effectively.

You won't find any cut-and-dried recipe or detailed "quality-control specifications" for successful fatherhood in this article. There are no such things. Raising children who have strong character is, all things considered, an essentially mysterious process. And certainly no two families are exactly alike. Nevertheless, what we've done here is two things that should prove useful to you as a father. First, we've tried to clarify the components of the problem itself – what seems to be missing today, and therefore needed. Secondly, we've outlined what other men have tried and done successfully to raise their children well.

In our experience, this is what most men need in order to set effectively to work: a clear delineation of the problem at hand, and an understanding of other people's experience. When men see a problem as critically important, they bring forth all their powers of mind and will in order to turn things around, make them work, and solve the problem effectively.

We know many fathers who have done this – men who, with determined effort, have changed their ways and become much more effective fathers. Their experience forms part of our discussion here.

It's your children's long-term happiness that is at stake. What could be more important than this?


We use the term "character" frequently in these pages, and it's a concept essential to our subject. How can we define it?

One point of view has proved especially useful. Character is simply the integration, into one personality, of several fundamental strengths of mind and will. These are internalized, habitual, permanent habits and attitudes by which someone deals with life, in all its circumstances. They have sometimes been called the virtues: faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. If these terms sound familiar, that's because you may have heard them in your childhood. For centuries, they have described the ideal of Christian adulthood. Whether we call them virtues or simply strengths of character, they comprise the essence of what we admire most in people – strong character.

Though we don't usually use the terms, we do have a common-sense understanding of these virtues. We see them present or absent in people we know, including youngsters. Let's look at each of them briefly:

Faith: The active belief in God and in all that He has revealed about Himself, His Church, His justice and mercy, the meaning of life here on earth and afterwards in eternity.

Hope: The confidence that God will give us the means of salvation, and that His loving Providence watches over us throughout our lives; therefore, no problem is unendurable. (The Christian symbol for hope is the anchor – the link with God that holds us firm against the storms of life. A great many young people are desperate for this link today, and don't have it.)

How do young people acquire these strengths? Experience shows one thing clearly: They do not acquire them naturally or easily, and they certainly are not born with them. All of us, whether young or old, learn these virtues through years of practice in living them.

Charity: An overriding love for God, a love that shapes and directs all other loves, for spouse, children, friends, strangers, material goods. In practical terms, it is the pre-eminent Christian virtue: a compassionate understanding for others that imitates God's love for us all.

Prudence: Today we call this "sound judgment" – the ability to make the important distinctions in life: right from wrong, truth from falsehood, fact from opinion, reason from emotion, the eternal from the transitory. It is simply level-headedness, the ability to recognize bosh when we see it. A well-formed conscience is part of this virtue.

Justice: This we would call "sense of responsibility" – giving others what is due to them. It is the sense of duty implicit in recognizing the rights of others, including the rights of God. In one sense, this consciousness of responsibility is the most important mark of moral adulthood – maturity is responsibility.

Fortitude: Personal toughness – that is, a willingness and ability to either solve difficulties or endure them. It is the power to overcome or withstand hardship, disappointment, inconvenience, pain. Its opposite (very common today) is escapism. Fortitude is essential to real love. Love, after all, is not just a bundle of sentiments; it is the capacity and willingness to embrace hardship for the sake of someone's welfare.

Temperance: This is self-control, self-discipline – a rational control over the passions and appetites, a self-imposed restraint for the sake of some higher good. Its opposite (also common today) is self-indulgence, an habitual pursuit of pleasure and comfort as ends in themselves.

When all of these strengths are integrated and internalized in a person's approach to life, he or she is said to have strong character. All other admirable traits in people (industriousness and piety and considerateness, for example) derive directly or indirectly from these virtues.

(One witty philosopher summed it up another way: "Character is what you have left over if you go broke." It is the person himself minus his money and material possessions.)

How do young people acquire these strengths? Experience shows one thing clearly: They do not acquire them naturally or easily, and they certainly are not born with them. All of us, whether young or old, learn these virtues through years of practice in living them. We learn them by word of others and, even more crucially, by example. From earliest infancy, we acquire them by imitating people whose character we admire, principally our parents. Youngsters learn character mostly, and most deeply, from their mother and father.

If children do not learn these strengths from their parents, for whatever reason, they usually grow up without them. In one way or another, they are missing something important at the center of their lives. They retain the weakness of childhood; they remain self-centered, immature, irresponsible, self-indulgent, and without faith or confidence (in God or in themselves).

This leads us to the next consideration: How do the mother and father operate together, in different but overlapping ways, to inculcate these strengths of character?

Complementary roles

What follows here is only a simple sketch of a highly complex and fundamentally mysterious process. Over the last couple of decades, psychologists and other specialists have probed different aspects of the dynamic at work between parents and children. As we mentioned earlier, they have focused increasingly on the father's role, an area of study that has been much neglected in the past.

The results of this work have been interesting and thought-provoking. Let's outline the principal features here, looking at three stages in a youngster's life:

Infancy: A newborn child seems to have an initial reaction of fear toward his father. As he peeks over the shoulder of his mother (who constitutes his entire universe), he sees a large, deep-voiced stranger hanging about. Naturally, the infant is wary and uncertain how this intimidating figure fits into the warm relationship between himself and his mother. The mother, through her signs of affection for this stranger, signals the child that there is nothing to fear. On the contrary, this man is to be trusted, respected and loved.

For his part, the father underscores this trust by playing with the infant. It's a well-known fact that men have an almost irresistible urge to play vigorously with their small children; tickling them, bouncing them, whirling them in the air, making faces, anything to make the child smile and laugh. This seems to be an instinct to strengthen the bond between father and infant; it shows the child that Dad is both loving and powerful, a man of affection and competent strength.

In homes where each parent respects the other's authority, the children grow to respect the authority of each parent proportionally. That is, the children come to adopt the mother's attitude toward her husband and their father's attitude toward his wife.

Ages 2 to 11:Father and mother exercise different but complementary roles. In a well-balanced relationship, each parent carries out responsibilities for the family's general welfare. Though there is much overlapping, the responsibilities differ. In any event, the children see the parents respect each other's authority. What happens here is that the children develop an intuitive perception of each parent's general area of responsibility.

The mother's specialization is that of domestic order. It is she who organizes and exercises "quality control," as it were, over the home's operations. She is the principal force for attractiveness, stability, upkeep, order, harmony, peace. The appearance and efficiency of the home, its warmth and security, are what she provides as the acknowledged expert in these areas. The husband helps out considerably here, of course, and lends his authority to hers in making the children cooperate. (That is, obey. Children's cooperativeness later in life seems to derive from seeing obedience as collaboration.)

The father's expertise and responsibility, on the other hand, lead outside the home. It is he who deals mostly with the world outside the front gate, the world at large. He supports the home by manipulating nature, by applying his mind and physique to material reality: by farming, hunting, handicraft, or some sort of skilled service. He is the one who deals with strangers in serious, as opposed to lightly social, matters: negotiating, contracting, dealing with people in a friendly but businesslike way. If these relations turn hostile, he stands ready to defend his family, by physical force if necessary. In any event, his attention draws naturally and necessarily to the universe of people and things beyond the confines of the home.

As we've said, there is (especially in very recent times) considerable overlapping in these two broad areas, and there are many exceptions to these generalizations. Nevertheless, a general pattern of character-formation by each parent seems to be almost universally true of human families. Principally by example, the mother teaches order, attention to detail, steadfast emotional commitment, refinement, considerateness, patience. She is the force for stability and harmony. The father, also mainly by example, teaches long-range strategic planning, rational assessment of means and ends, courage, fair dealing with others, respect for lawful authority, and self-directed entrepreneurship. He is the force for purposeful activity, making one's way competently and confidently in the world.

How much of this dichotomy is learned behavior and how much of it derives from innate sex differences remains a controversial question, even among specialists. In any event, throughout Western history and in most of the world today, children seem to recognize (almost intuitively) that their mother and father have these different, complementary spheres of influence. And parents, too, have assumed them as a matter of natural course.

In homes where each parent respects the other's authority, the children grow to respect the authority of each parent proportionally. That is, the children come to adopt the mother's attitude toward her husband and their father's attitude toward his wife. A lack of respect, overt or implied, seems to undercut the children's respect significantly. A husband's neglect for his wife, a failure to support her authority, leads eventually toward the children's sass and disobedience at home.

Mutual support

In homes where the parents exercise mutual support, the children seem to acquire a well-balanced personality. Along the way, to be sure, the parents must give frequent correction of attitudes and behavior: admonition, discussion, spanking, rewards and punishments, and the like. But essentially what happens is that the children unconsciously imitate the strengths that they see exercised by their parents – strengths that the parents recognize, appreciate and respect in each other.

As children grow into adolescence, they look ever more sharply at their father's attitude and behavior. In a short time, they will enter the outside world, where their father is the acknowledged expert. Therefore his criteria, his values and outlook, his judgment of right and wrong become increasingly important.

It follows from this that, if the strengths are missing or if overt signs of respect are missing, then the children are left with little at home to imitate. This need to imitate becomes increasingly acute in early adolescence.

Adolescence: It's easy to forget today that the terms "adolescent" once meant "young adult." By age 16, almost all young people acquire physical maturity; they have almost all the mental and physical powers of adulthood. Indeed, in most cultures up until our century, people of this age were nearly prepared to leave home and strike out on their own. They were ready for independence.

The natural striving for independence we see in people aged 13 to 16, therefore, is entirely normal. What is pertinent to our discussion here, and often overlooked in our society, is how the father fits naturally into this dynamic.

As children enter adolescence, they want strongly (sometimes desperately) to learn how adults properly behave in the outside world. What is it like to be a self-reliant and strong man or woman? Where do adults draw the lines between right and wrong among themselves? What will my fellow adults think of me? How can I test my strengths and win acceptance among others? All these questions and related concerns swirl through the minds of teen-agers. The young people seldom articulate their problems in these words, of course, but they search eagerly for the right answers.

To get them, they look increasingly to their father. As children grow into adolescence, they look ever more sharply at their father's attitude and behavior. In a short time, they will enter the outside world, where their father is the acknowledged expert. Therefore his criteria, his values and outlook, his judgment of right and wrong become increasingly important.

Psychologists have noted that much of the posturing and verbal defiance of adolescents is really a testing and questioning of their father's standards. It's really an attempt to draw out into the open, explicitly and clearly, the implicit and unspoken convictions resting in Dad's experienced mind: "Where do we adults draw the lines, Dad? You're the expert and I need your guidance now!"

It needn't be traumatic

(By the way, contrary to widespread belief, adolescence need not be a tempestuous and traumatic experience for families. Parents who have exercised a steady, loving, and disciplined guidance among their children – especially in non-Western cultures – have very few serious problems with their adolescent children. Fathers who are conscious and confident of their authority fill these adolescent needs rather easily and undramatically: in fact, many fathers find that they draw even closer to their children as the youngsters approach adulthood. As we shall see below, it is extraneous forces at work in Western middle-class families that have come between fathers and their teen-age children, leading to all sorts of problems.)

Apparently, it is not simply patterns of correct conduct that teen-agers are looking for. What is happening here is much more important. Adolescents look to their father, more than ever before, to give final form to their conscience, the internalized objective standards of right and wrong, the standards adults try to live by in the sight of men and God. Psychology has substantiated that, though both parents must form conscience in small children, the formational role gradually shifts to the father as the children approach maturity. Dad is increasingly seen as the arbiter and model for objective, unsentimental standards of morality. The conscience must be followed in the outside world, and this is Dad's territory.

Daughter's model

There are other subtle forces at work here, too. Adolescent boys look to their father as model of competent adult male-ness. But, interestingly, daughters also look to their fathers – as a model for evaluating men. Unconsciously, adolescent girls and young women seem drawn toward suitors who resemble their fathers, or what they perceive their fathers to be. A remarkable number eventually marry men who compare favorably to their own fathers in personality, temperament, and character.

In the West, we have an interesting and charming social custom that is part of our marriage ceremony. The father of the bride leads his daughter by the arm down the aisle and then hands her to her betrothed. This small but significant act symbolizes what every father does with all his children over the years of adolescence. He bridges between the home and the outside world, leading forth his strong children to make it on their own. Both parents, mother and father, have given their children lifelong strengths of character and conscience; and thus their job is done. This is, after all, what family life – throughout history and around the world – is really all about.

The "natural" family

The psychological dynamics outlined in the previous pages have had to be somewhat universal and abstract. Perhaps we can concretize them by looking at what might be termed a "natural" family setting. What we are leading up to is the dynamics (sometimes destructive dynamics) at work in Western families today. The features of modern family life may stand out more clearly if they're contrasted with family life as it was lived in the past, even the rather recent past.

What follows is a composite description of a typical family in the Western world (the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, much of Latin America) up until the early years of the 20th century. The description still holds true, we believe, for most of the non-Western world today -about 80% of the earth's population.

We use the term "natural" here in the same sense that it has in describing any universally recurring phenomenon. The features of the natural family recur so frequently, throughout history and throughout most of the world today, that is seems reasonable to ascribe their origin to human nature itself – that is, to the dynamics among father, mother and children outlined above. We seem to be dealing with psychological constants inherent in parent-child relationships.

What were the features of this natural family life? Let's describe them briefly:

  1. The home was essentially a small business, a place of work. Father and Mother worked together as senior partners in an ongoing business enterprise, whether in farming, craftsmanship, trade or some other livelihood. The house was filled with tools and work implements, and the children constantly saw their parents at work, each in different but complementary responsibilities.

  2. The children played a low-level but necessary part in this enterprise. Naturally the smallest children spent most of their time playing. The older children, however, did work that was needed around the house: chopping wood, drawing water, hauling materials, preparing meals from scratch every day, and the like. This work, being necessary, involved responsibility and therefore conveyed a sense of self-worth. (The long summer vacation that children enjoy today is a vestige of this era: the children's work at home was indispensable in the summer months.) Everyone in the family understood that the children's cooperation – that is, their obedience to their parents' direction – was essential, demanded, and expected.

  3. As children grew, they would take on increased levels of responsibility. By early adolescence, they would be working alongside their parents in a personal apprenticeship, sharing in the day-to-day tasks of making the family work. A serious preoccupation with play and amusement would be a distant memory, something for the youngest brothers and sisters. These adolescents were more like adults than children, and they thought of themselves this way.

  4. Because cash and materials were scarce, everyone in the family had to wait for things, and to earn them. Children thus acquired a sense of time and the relationship between effort and results. Living directly or indirectly off the land taught some truths about life: Some things have to be earned, some things can't be hurried, some things are inherently out of anyone's control. Relative poverty led to an appreciation of simple essentials: regular nourishment, warm shelter, good health, the confidence of being loved by family and friends. For everything else, the children leaned to make do, or simply to do without.

  5. Practically every family had other adults aside from the mother and father, associated with it: grandparents, unmarried aunts or uncles, hired help, close friends of the family. Thus children perceived a range of adult personalities and could thereby form a generalized concept of adulthood. Frequently the children could see these adults, by word and attitude, show respect for their parents; this reinforced the parents' authority and highlighted those traits worthy of emulation. Sometimes, in cases of conflict between parents and children, these other adults would support the parent's position: "Your father is right. You should listen to him." In a sense, the children were overpowered (and sometimes outnumbered) by adults who shared a common viewpoint of right and wrong. Adolescent rebellion could not get far against this wall of confident adult consensus.

  6. Conversation and reading were the principal ways in which young people learned about adult life and the world outside the family. At home, recreation centered around talk – that is, the life of the mind. Story-telling, games, family history, Bible reading, friendly arguments, discussion of issues and events – all this was the normal intake of children listening to their parents and the family's adult friends. A big threshold was crossed when older children were welcomed into this circle of discussion, having their opinions listened to and respected.

  7. Because future occupational positions were more-or-less fixed (and in any event the personal responsibility of the grown children themselves), parents did not think overmuch about the children's eventual careers. Rather, they thought in terms of their children's future character. Their efforts in the children's upbringing derived directly from a set of questions: Will the children grow to be self-reliant, competent, responsible adults as soon as possible, before they're out of their teens? Will they be honest, level-headed, and honorable – bringing esteem to our family? Will they live according to our moral principles, and then pass these on to our grandchildren? Will our daughters and sons marry spouses who share our principles? Will their marriages be stable, permanent, and happy? Will our children remain chaste and modest? Will every aspect of their courtship and marriage remain worthy of our approval – and God's? Can we count on the children to honor and respect us in our old age?

  8. Finally, families were united in prayer and religious conviction. Children saw both parents live as responsible to God, trusting in his merciful care. Since so much of life was perilous and essentially out of control – through sickness, accident, drought, famine, war – the whole family was conscious of their dependence on God. Prayer was important, necessary, habitual. It added spiritual strength to a people who were strong already.

So much for this sketch of family life as our ancestors knew it for centuries. Note the dominant feature of this life as it affected the children's development: From earliest childhood, children were constantly schooled in personal strength of character. The children saw their parents as strong people. Every day, they witnessed their parents and other adults live the virtues: faith, hope, charity, sound judgment, responsibility, toughness and self-control. As the children grew older, they increasingly saw their father as a model of worldly competence, confidence and moral leadership.

The rise of industrialism and complex urban life in this past century altered this family structure considerably, of course. Fathers had to work away from home in blue-collar or clerical jobs. Mothers had to take on increased responsibility for the children's upbringing. New forms of communication – radio, film, mass education – gave young people alternative models of adult life, sometimes with values opposed to those of the parents.

Habits remained intact

Up to the period immediately following World War II (if we have to draw a line somewhere), the conscious task of parents in forming their children's character was seriously and effectively carried out.

Nevertheless, the formative habits of centuries remained reasonably intact in Western societies up until, say, the middle of the 20th century. Up to the period immediately following World War II (if we have to draw a line somewhere), the conscious task of parents in forming their children's character was seriously and effectively carried out. Despite industrialization, the father was still unquestionably a figure of strength and adult-level competence; he had no strong rivals for his children's respect. Children still learned adult values from conversation and from reading. The home was a place of social and intellectual activity; people talked, read, played, worked, and prayed together. Limited financial resources meant that family members budgeted carefully, waited, earned, improvised, or learned to do without. The children respected adult authority and looked forward to exercising it themselves. Most importantly, parents still asked the same questions about their children's future character – and they acted to bring this character about.

We shouldn't romanticize about this recent bygone era. Even then, modern families had significant problems. But by any reasonable standards, it seems safe to say that parental influence was much stronger and family life more stable than today. The divorce statistics alone would bear this out.

All things considered, it is encouraging that fathers and mothers in our modern era were able to raise their children well. Many parents are able to do this today. But the fact is that they have to work harder and more deliberately at the task than ever before. In today's society, such parents are a shrinking minority.

Let's turn to present circumstances and see why this is so.

As we mentioned at the outset of this study, a multitude of powerful changes in family life over the past several decades have seriously affected the formative, character building relationship between parents and children. The traditional role of the father has been especially hard hit.

See Fatherhood (2) to continue



Stenson, James. "Fatherhood (1)." Scepter Booklets, 1993.

The full text of this article is reprinted here in two installments with kind permission from the publishers. Anybody interested in acquiring bulk copies of the booklet should contact Scepter Press, 481 Main Street, Suite 203, New Rochelle, N.Y. 10801, U.S.A. Tel. (914) 636-3377.

The Author

stensonstenson1 James Stenson is the author of Anchor: God's Promises of Hope to Parents, Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership, Upbringing: A Discussion Handbook For Parents of Young Children and Lifeline: The Religious Upbringing of Your Children among others. Mr. Stenson is also the author of numerous articles and booklets including the very popular "Preparing for Peer Pressure, A Guide for Parents of Young Children" and "Successful FathersThe Subtle but Powerful Ways Fathers Mold Their Children's Characters". An educator, author, and public speaker, Stenson was the co-founder of The Heights School in suburban Washington, D.C. and founder and first headmaster of Northridge Preparatory School in suburban Chicago.

Copyright © 1993 Scepter Books
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