A guest blog post.
Aside from being sperm donors, fathers have other important roles to play in the family.
A father fosters a sense of identity in the child. While a child gets his or her sense of identity from the mother, by the time the child reaches age 2 to 4, the child needs to be weaned away from the mother. It is the father’s role to make the child individuate, or realize that he/she has an identity different from that of the mother.
A disruption in this fundamental stage has serious consequences. Detachment from the mother is traumatic to a child; the child will be distrustful of the world and have a weak sense of identity, which may lead to self-hatred. Unsuccessful attachment to the father, on the other hand, will make things even worse: the child over-attaches to the mother and regards the father a stranger.
A father models manhood. This becomes particularly important to his children at age 4 to 6, the stage at which the child will have an initial sense that there is a guy in the house whose ways is a lot different from mom’s. By noticing the distinct gender differences between mom and dad (physical aspects, roles, temperament, etc.), a child learns he is a boy like dad and not a girl like mom, and vice-versa. As a Facebook post says, the father will be “his daughter’s first boyfriend and his son’s first superhero.” He is the first man and the first idea of maleness they will both have. The failure of the father at this stage results in insecure sexuality or gender.
A father also has an important role in introducing his child to the outside world. Through public introduction, a father declares his daughter’s femaleness as something good. The father’s affirmation is particularly necessary for his daughter’s sense of belonging in the world of girls by the time she is 7 to 11 years old. The father’s approval gives the daughter a solid sense of acceptance that she’s a female. Similarly, a father declares his son’s maleness as something good. At age 11 to 14, his son, on the other hand, will seek the blessing or affirmation of his male identity, and only the father (or a loving father figure) can give such a sense. Failure to have this affirmation also results in gender insecurity for both sexes.
A father gives his child a sense of affirmation as a human being in general. At age 14 to 19, the child (male or female) will need the father’s blessing for being a distinct human being. Failure in this stage may lead to existential anxiety and low self-esteem.
A father is a model of leadership or headship in the family. A father is a calm, reassuring presence, but he also enforces the rules. This way, he helps instill discipline at home, the recognition of authority and roles, and a sense of responsibility. Indirectly, he teaches the virtue of filial fear, and how it is the beginning of wisdom. (Filial fear is the fear of hurting someone you love; it is the opposite of servile fear, which is the fear of offending someone because of reprisal or punishment.)
A father is an example of how it is to be a good husband to the child’s mother. A father models the male side of loving; he shows how to love a woman right. In some way, when it is the children’s turn to love, they are most likely to fall in love with a version of their own father (or mother).
A mother and a father are the child’s first glimpse of God. While the mother models the feminine side of God, the father models God the Father, or the masculine side of God. This is a tough call, but both parents are expected to be examples of God’s brand of love — committed, forgiving, and unconditional — even though they know they will always fall short.
Inevitably, for good or ill, a child sees the world wearing mom’s and dad’s glasses (unless, of course, the child is eventually made aware of it and removes the glasses on purpose).
An absentee father, therefore, spells a big problem at home. A number of studies have shown that the absence of a father figure — or the absence of a loving father figure — may be the major culprit behind a lot of problems, from juvenile delinquency, to propensity to commit crime/aggression, rebelliousness, emotional problems, social relationship problems, depression, drug addiction, and sexual dysfunctions.
In particular, non-performing fathers may unknowingly cause “father hunger” in their children. Households with absentee fathers — be they physically or emotionally absent — coupled with a social environment with no adequate replacement figures, may cause a sense of emptiness or incompletion in a child. This sense of emptiness is said to drive a compulsive need to repair the perceived ‘damage.’ If this need is not addressed in a healthy way (by connecting to a father figure*), it leads to a sense of self-loathing that leads to all sorts of compensatory behaviors. (Refer to the long list of ills mentioned above.)
In a world of pervasive fatherlessness, so many souls long to be ‘fathered.’ Sadly, most fathers might not even be aware of this. Someone’s got to tell them that they are no mere home accessories.
*In the absence of a biological father, the following may serve as replacement fathers: elder brothers, uncles, grandfathers, male teachers, priests, or any older male friend/confidante.
More on the importance of fatherhood here: