The Importance of Fathers
Fathers are important. Not only must they help bring children into the world, but how they interact with their children appears to have much to do with how those children feel about themselves, how they behave in the world, and how successful they are at life. I say “appears,” because fathers are only one influence in a child’s life. We are also formed by our genes, other family members, media, school, friends, religious communities, and more.
Nonetheless, studies do show benefits from having a father in the house, especially one who is supportive, nurturing, and fair. Mothers offer much that fathers do, but mothers and fathers parent differently. For example, fathers roughhouse with their offspring more than mothers do. According to Brett and Kate McKay, this is a good thing. Roughhousing makes children “resilient, smart, moral, and socially adept.”  If you had a father to play with, you are fortunate.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development researched the lives and characteristics of 268 men while they were students at Harvard, then followed them for years afterwards. Indeed, the study continues today.
Although the study has some obvious limitations, such the fact that it only looked at men of a certain class, the detailed observations made have yieldeitd much interesting information.
The Importance of Love
Perhaps the main take-away from the research is that close relationships in childhood are important to a man’s health and well-being throughout his life. For instance, the men who earned the most may not have had wealthy fathers, but they did feel loved. “The availability of warm relationships (of which parents are ideally but not necessarily a main source) was the overriding factor.” 
Though warmth and caring from any adult helps us be successful in life, a father’s love still makes a difference on its own. For instance, Valliant writes, “Men with warm paternal relationships enjoyed their vacations significantly more than the others, employed humor as a coping mechanism, and achieved a very significantly better adjustment to, and contentment with, life after retirement.”  They had less anxiety and were more optimistic. 
The Multiple Influences in Our Lives
Yet how much does love really matter? Our genes influence us, also, and we use more of the ones we get from our fathers than from our mothers.  So even if we never lived with our fathers, they helped form us. A colleague of mine who hardly ever saw her father as a child got to know him when she was an adult. Meeting him, she discovered how much she was like him. They shared mannerisms, food preferences, and even some beliefs and values.
Twin studies indicate that this shouldn’t surprise us. They reveal how much our genes determine who we are, and it’s a fair amount. But these studies have limitations. For instance, most of the twins studied were white and lived in the Midwest. Also, just because a child is raised in the same household as a sibling doesn’t mean the two share identical environmental influences. Finally, our genes can themselves be changed by our experiences, and few twin studies account for this. 
Nonetheless, they provide some insight into who we are and how we get that way.
Not that we are only our genes. Extroversion is predicted by our genes about 70% of the time, and agreeableness only 38%. Traits such as how liberal or conservative we are, how egalitarian or authoritarian, come from our genes about half the time. Clearly, we start out with certain predispositions. Then, life takes the raw material of our being and shapes it into a unique individual with a particular personality, set of beliefs, and way of living in the world. 
What Our Fathers Teach Us
Given this, we can’t know exactly how much our fathers form who we are, but they do make a difference. So do stepfathers, grandfathers, and male mentors.
So what do we learn from the men in our lives?
One classic answer is that from our fathers we learn our morals and values. Indeed, as Rob Palkovitz noted in his book about how fathering changes the men who engage in it, before the 1900s, it was considered a father’s job to instill values in his children, an emphasis that later shifted toward mothers. More recently, however, the religiously-based Promise Keepers started re-emphasizing the father’s role in the family’s “moral leadership.”  Also, Palkovitz found that the twenty-first century fathers he interviewed “tended to believe that transferring their faith, morals, and values to their children was among the most important aspect of fathering.” 
So what happens when that transfer doesn’t happen well? As we might expect, when our parents are distant or preoccupied, or when they themselves behave in socially deviant ways, that learning is compromised. 
Modeling and Our Values
Once when I visited my son in juvenile detention, we sat near a father and his boy. I overheard him tell his son a story about his day’s work. Apparently he salvaged goods from junk yards and sold them for a profit.
This particular day, he found something of great value, I don’t remember what. Placing it in the bottom of his cart, he covered it with scraps of metal and other battered objects. When he checked out, he purposely said nothing about the item, and the cashier didn’t notice it. As he told his father how he’d fooled the clerk, he laughed.
I don’t think the man ever said anything about stealing directly, but he sure taught his son it was okay. It’s no surprise that his son was locked up for theft.
But as it turned out, my son had also committed a theft. Yet his father and I didn’t tell such stories or model such behavior. Indeed, I like to think we encouraged values of honesty and integrity. How, then, did my son end up committing crimes?
Genetics may have played a part. We tend to be a family of independent thinkers who take risks and are suspicious of authority. Still, I like to think that most of my son’s illegal acting out occurred because, as a teenager, he was influenced more by his peer group than his family. Again, we become who we are because of the interaction of many factors.
What If Our Fathers Weren’t There For Us?
Yet what if our genes aren’t so great, or what if our fathers weren’t there for us? Can we recover from poor parenting, from the loss of our fathers, from abuse, and trauma? If we learned to cheat and lie, can we develop socially-acceptable behavior and learn to be rigorously honest?
Of course we can. Humans are incredibly resilient, and we can learn to be more so.  Our brains are malleable. Even into old age, our brains form new connections, meaning we never lose the ability to learn, grow, and heal. 
So if you want to repair wounds and build resilience, join a religious community, attend twelve-meetings, see a counselor, meditate, pray, sing, get married, hang out with friends. These will all help you feel better. We are not stuck with what we learned from our parents, nor what we learned from society or our peers. If we want to change, we can.
In the End, Healing Is Possible
Most of us do change as we get older. Maybe it’s because we worked at it, but maybe time really does heal some wounds. Not that everyone feels better when they get older. I have met with people in their seventies and eighties who still suffer from early traumas.
The Harvard study showed, however, that not only do childhood traumas fade in importance over the years, but that “the good things that happen in childhood endure.”  We learn to embrace gratitude, we re-frame our past, and we forgive old hurts.
Many of us have mixed feelings about our fathers. Perhaps they worked too much or were stern. Maybe they never gave us a chance, called us names, or were physically abusive. Maybe we didn’t have a father around at all. Whatever your relationship with your biological father, I hope you had some men in your life who cared about you, who taught you to care about the world, and who helped you grow into a person you can be proud of. If not, it’s not too late. Healing is always possible.
In faith and fondness,
- McKay, Brett and Kate McKay, “The Importance of Fathers (According to Science),” The Art of Manliness, June 19, 2015, https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/the-importance-of-fathers-according-to-science/, accessed 6/16/18.
- Valliant, George E., Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2012, 110.
- Ibid 134.
- Ibid 135.
- See University of North Carolina Health Care. “Genetically Speaking, Mammals Are More Like Their Fathers,” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 March, 2015, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150302123253.htm, accessed June 16, 2018.
- See Winerman, Lea, “A Second Look at Twin Studies,” Monitor, April 2004, Vol. 35, No. 4, p. 46, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr04/second.aspx, accessed 6/15/18.
- see Moran, Rich, “Study On Twins Suggests Our Political Beliefs May Be Hard-Wired,” Pew Research Center, December 9, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/09/study-on-twins-suggests-our-political-beliefs-may-be-hard-wired/, accessed 6/15/18.
- Palkovitz, Rob, Involved Fathering and Men’s Adult Development, New York: Psychology Press, 2002, 207.
- Ibid 271.
- Popenoe, David, “We Are What We See: The Family Conditions for Modeling Values for Children,” Parenting in America, http://parenthood.library.wisc.edu/Popenoe/Popenoe-Modeling.html, 1998, accessed 6/15/18.
- See, for example, https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx or https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience.
- See, for example, https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/01/15/neuroplasticity-brain-health.aspx or https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/malleable-mind/201204/our-malleable-minds.
- Valliant 357.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens