Fathers matter!

September 18, 2009

1. Secular research tells us that fathers matter

I wrote in an article on families in Case 12 (here), that research suggests that families matter, and that within families fathers have a special role. I’ve also written a number of previous posts about families, including how time spent with children matters (here), the negative impact of the reduction of time spent sharing meals (here), and the role of fathers more generally (here). As well, I've written posts on the shared responsibility we have with communities for other people's children (here) and in the church (here). The latter is critical for families where no father is present. Finally, I've written a number of more practical posts about fathers on my other blog 'Literacy, families and learning' (here).

To recap some of my previous arguments; research on families and demographic trends have demonstrated a number of significant changes in families and parental practices in recent decades. I summarised the trends last time under four headings:
  • Family structures are changing – e.g. there are less children in families, women are having children later in life, there are more sole parent households, there are more blended families, children stay at home longer (and many more return as adults) etc.
  • Employment structures are changing - and they have an impact on families, with more parents working in multiple jobs, more women back in the workforce, many workers working longer hours, more people working from home etc.
  • Fathers and mothers have changed roles and levels of engagement as parents - and while there is a trend towards some fathers spending more time caring for children, for others longer working hours have affected family life. As well, the increase in women doing paid work outside the home has led to more children in the critical first five years of life being placed in childcare with mixed impacts.
  • Research has highlighted the critical role that fathers have - for example, fathers have a significant impact on their children’s learning and behaviour. The influence on children’s education alone (the quality of which is also correlated with many other behavioural factors) is significant, as a UK centre on fatherhood has outlined.
Other research has suggested that the influence of fathers and family structures flows well beyond children’s learning (see for example Qu and Soriano, 2004). I concluded in my Case article that:
Research suggests, that fathers who show affection, give support and yet offer an authoritative parenting style, have a more significant impact on their children, when compared with fathers who adopt a more authoritarian and detached style. Other evidence indicates that who the father is, and what he does in life makes a difference.
In summary, what many research studies show is that fathers have a significant influence on child health and wellbeing, cognitive and emotional development and life outcomes.

2. The Bible tells us that fathers matters too

The importance of families is seen throughout the Bible. The concept of family is central to God’s plan for his creation and its restoration. The Bible teaches that relationships, like creation itself, were affected, disrupted and dislocated by sin in the Garden (the book of Genesis describes what happened). But God sustained his people in families and sought to restore them to their rightful place and adopt them into his own family (see for example Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 1:4-5). God continues to use families in spite of the curse that has been placed on family relationships as a result of sin, and the struggle that ensues between men and women (Gen 3). God’s plan to rescue his people ultimately involves family – his family!

As well, the critical role of fathers is clear within Scripture. The nation of Israel was one family, descended from Abraham. Within the nation that would rise up as a result of God’s promise to Abraham, there would be tribes defined on family lines and ultimately families within the family, all linked through fathers. Fathers are central to families in the Bible. Marriage in turn is seen as necessary to create a nuclear family – a man and woman, committed to each other in a covenant relationship - which seeks to have and raise godly children (Mal 2:14-15).

How the father fulfils his role as a father in families, is less clear and more open to varied styles of parenting. This of course is within the boundaries of God's expectations of godliness and faithfulness to him and the primary responsibility to make the gospel of Christ the centre of our parenting (see my post on 'Shepherding a Child's Heart' here). But there is no doubt that the godly father who exercises authority over his family is a central part of God's work of redemption within families. I've always found that one of the most practical places to look for guidance on how fathers lead their families is the advice God gave to Moses to pass on to the Israelites in the desert before they entered the Promised Land. Having exhorted them to fear God and obey his commandments, and to take care of how they lived (Deut 6:1-3), God gives instructions on how this is to be done within their families.

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house
and on your gates.” (Deut 6:4-9)

God expected the men of Israel to obey his commandments and to love him with all of their being – heart, soul and strength. He also expected them to teach God’s commands and expectations to their children in the ‘everydayness’ of life. To talk about God when they sat together at home, when they walked from place to place, when they were preparing for bed and rest, and when they rose in the morning. They were to speak of God’s ways, to wear the words of God’s law on their foreheads (no I’m not about to suggest we introduce this practice that is still followed by some Orthodox Jews), and write them on the doorposts and entrances to their houses, so that they would not forget them and so that they could teach them even more effectively to their children.
Here is a picture of a father with a right view of God, who trusts, obeys and serves his God and who seeks to teach his children to understand the wisdom of God and to follow him. This is also a picture of an involved father. If we were to translate this biblical picture into contemporary terms, we would see a father who seeks to obey and honour God, who sets a good example for his family, who models what it is to be a child of God. Such a father spends time with his children (indeed will 'waste' time with them), listens to them and shares godly wisdom at meal times, while resting, while together at home, while travelling. This is an engaged father, one who makes time for his family!
3. Practical implications

As Christian fathers there are some fairly obvious implications for us. As a framework for self-assessment, fathers might consider the following:

Godly Leadership
- Is my life demonstrating to my wife and my children that it is centred on Christ?
Engagement – Does my life give priority to interactions with my children and do we share joint activities? Is biblical teaching a part of this?
Accessibility – Am I available to talk with, listen to and simply be seen by my children?
Responsibility – Do I share family responsibility for childcare? [I'm not suggesting a specific model for shared parenting here but the evidence suggests that being involved with kids means time spent with them, and some of the above flows from this].

Other resources and links

Apologetics in Family Life (here)
Fatherhood Institute
Family Action Centre (Newcastle University)
'Literacy, families and learning' (here)

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