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Published: Saturday, 6/16/2007

Good fathers raise healthy, well-adjusted children

BY RICHARD L. WEAVER II

ACTIVE, attentive, involved fathers produce healthier and better adjusted children.

On this Father's Day weekend, I acknowledge that my relationship with my father was dicey to say the least. It was more a situation of trying to avoid him when possible.

Unfortunately, the most significant memory I have of him was the day I was called out of a University of Michigan undergraduate class to identify his body in another classroom, where he died of a sudden heart attack, and then to notify my mother of his death.

Despite that memory, I think he was there for me, although I was under the impression that he resented my education, ability, and relationship with my mother.

I never thought I needed him, whereas I knew I needed my mother.

Whenever I had difficulty getting along with him, she came to my rescue and saved me from numerous confrontations. But it's different today than it was growing up in my family.

My father was simply a biological necessity. The difference has to do with what we know today about the importance of fathers.

Because of unwed motherhood and divorce, 39 percent of U.S. children today live apart from their fathers.

The lack of male presence in certain inner-city neighborhoods with high proportions of unwed mothers is unprecedented, and this pattern is likely to be passed from one generation to the next.

In one study of fathers behind on their support payments, one half grew up in father-absent homes.

Researchers Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, who have collected the most extensive and thorough data on this topic, conclude that children reared in single-parent families may suffer depression and emotional distress, behavioral and learning difficulties in school, and drug and alcohol abuse.

In adulthood, children reared in single-parent families are more likely to have lower educational and economic achievements, an increased likelihood of forming single-parent families themselves, and difficulties forming lasting relationships with partners.

It is abundantly clear from the research that families without fathers suffer disadvantages. Father involvement makes a major difference.

My oldest son reports, "Even when it might have looked like a project I was attempting was doomed to failure, my father never gave me any indication that I might fail. I received full and complete support. That might be why today I have the confidence to attempt what may seem to be unachievable."

Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore supports his statement. Children who perceive their fathers as supportive have a greater feeling of competence as well as greater social acceptance.

Being a dad today is more complicated than it used to be. No longer, for example, do dads simply "bring home the bacon" while moms raise the children. Although dads are likely to be the major breadwinner, more is expected.

Regardless of whether moms work outside the home, dads often have to change diapers, dress children, cook meals, clean house, volunteer at school, and accompany kids to music, dance, and sports events.

Fatherhood involves more than simply avoiding negative consequences that are likely to result from single-parent households. Research results that support active, attentive, and involved fathers are overwhelming to say the least.

The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that when fathers are involved in their children's education, kids are more likely to get A's, enjoy school, and participate in extracurricular activities.

Kyle Pruett, noted child psychiatrist, says that kids with engaged fathers demonstrate a greater ability to take initiative and evidence self-control. When these boys grow up, they are more likely to be good dads themselves.

There is conclusive evidence that high levels of attention and interaction with fathers produce children who are more confident and less anxious when placed in unfamiliar settings, better able to deal with frustration, better able to cope with changing circumstances and breaks from their routine, and better able to gain a sense of independence and an identity outside the mother-child relationship.

What can fathers do to be more nurturing and involved? Learn the fatherhood craft by keeping up with the language of child rearing. Talk with other dads informally, in support groups, or in parenting classes. Search the Internet for information about good fathering. Women don't need to be the only "experts."

Strengthen your relationship with your wife.

Someone once said that the greatest thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother. Here's what my oldest daughter said when asked to write about her memories of me:

"I do think the most significant thing you have contributed to my life is your love for Mom. This instilled in me a high standard for marriage and a sense of security."

Whether divorced, estranged, or otherwise disengaged, never bad-mouth your wife in front of the children.

Make fatherhood a priority by planning your work around your family. While work time may be negotiable, father-child time should not be. Start involvement with your children from the beginning. After feeding times, bathe, burp, comfort, and take babies for walks.

Continue by having regular one-on-one time with each child. Take kids to work. Stay connected when you have to be away. Teach them by using available opportunities to share your talents.

Schedule daddy-daughter or daddy-son dates when you eat a favorite meal, attend a special event, or do an activity the child enjoys.

Before bedtime, review the day or preview tomorrow.

Show affection often. Even when older kids feel squeamish, they enjoy a hug or encouraging words from their dad. With older kids, this can be done in private so they don't get embarrassed in front of friends.

Connect with your children at all levels and with every aspect of their lives. Visit their school, meet their teachers, go to after-school activities, and meet their friends.

Such experiences will increase your interest in them and lead to more interesting conversations.

Whether it's intellectual development, sex-role development, or psychological development, most kids do better when their relationship with their father is close and warm, whether or not dads live with them.

Fathers undergird the very order and structure of the family.

And that order and structure assist in producing healthier and better adjusted children.

Richard L. Weaver II is a retired professor of speech communication at Bowling Green State University.



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