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Archive for Saturday, July 16, 2005

Fathers play critical role in their children’s lives

July 16, 2005

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Q: Why don't behavioral scientists see the important need for a father to be an active component in a son's life and report their findings to us?

A: Behavioral scientists have only recently begun to understand how critical fathers are to the healthy development of both boys and girls. According to psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, the author of "Fatherneed" (Broadway Books, $13), dads are as important to children as moms, but in a different way. Here are other surprising findings that have emerged from careful research on the role of fathers:

¢ There is an undeniable linkage between fathers and babies beginning at birth.

¢ Infants as young as 6 weeks old can differentiate between a mother's and a father's voice.

¢ By 8 weeks, babies can distinguish between their mother's and their father's caretaking methods.

¢ Infants are born with a drive to find and connect to their fathers. As they begin to speak, their word for "father" often precedes their word for "mother." The reasons for this are unknown.

¢ Toddlers are especially obvious in their assertions of "fatherneed": They will seek out their father, ask for him when he's not present, be fascinated when he talks to them on the phone, and investigate every part of his body if allowed.

¢ Teenagers express fatherneed in yet more complex ways, competing with their father and confronting his values, beliefs and, of course, limits. For so many sons and daughters, it is only at the death of the father that they discover the intensity and longevity of their fatherneed, especially when it has gone begging.

While children of all ages - both male and female - have an innate need for contact with their fathers, let me emphasize again that boys suffer most from the absence or noninvolvement of fathers. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, boys without fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to go to jail, and nearly four times as likely to need treatment for emotional and behavioral problems as boys with fathers.

Repeatedly during my review of the latest research for this book, I came face-to-face with the same disturbing issue. Boys are in trouble today primarily because their parents, and especially their dads, are distracted, overworked, harassed, exhausted, uninterested, chemically dependent, divorced or simply unable to cope.

As indicated above, all other problems plaguing young males flow from (or are related to) these facts of life in the 21st century. Chief among our concerns is the absence of masculine role modeling and mentoring that dads should be providing.

Mothers, who also tend to be living on the ragged edge, are left to do a job for which they have had little training or experience. Having never been boys, women often have only a vague notion of how to go about rearing one. Boys are the big losers when families splinter.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that children living in two-parent families who had only a fair or poor relationship with their fathers were at 68 percent higher risk of smoking, drinking and drug usage than teens having a good or excellent relationship with dads.

By comparison, children growing up in a home headed by a single mother who had an excellent relationship with their mothers had a 62 percent lower risk of abusing substances than children living in a two-parent family with a fair or poor relationship with their father. The influence of a good father can hardly be overemphasized.

Dr. William Pollock, Harvard psychologist and author of "Real Boys" (Owl Books, $15), concludes that divorce is difficult for children of both sexes, but it is devastating for males. He says the basic problem is the lack of discipline and supervision in the father's absence and his unavailability to teach what it means to be a man. Pollock also believes fathers are crucial in helping boys to manage their emotions. As we have seen, without the guidance and direction of a father, a boy's frustration often leads to varieties of violence and other antisocial behavior.

- James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.

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