If you believe the sitcoms of the 1950s and ’60s, all children at that time were raised in a family with a mom and a dad. The reality didn’t match the TV shows, but the dad of “Father Knows Best” was still seen by many as a cultural ideal. The dad’s role was primarily as a provider who would drop in now and then to do yard work, fix a car, go to kids’ sports activities or mete out discipline or wisdom. He certainly didn’t make dinner or do the laundry. He most certainly didn’t have primary responsibility for caring for his children.
Over the last 50 years, fatherhood in America has changed considerably. More dads are home during the day, part- or full-time. Almost two million men are stay-at-home dads (SAHDs). One-fifth of single parents today are men who are shouldering the responsibilities traditionally played by both a mom and a dad.
Although the percentage of kids living with both parents (in heterosexual couples) has declined markedly over the last decade, half to two-thirds of families with kids do include both a mom and a dad. A 2013 survey counted 24.7 million fathers who were part of married-couple families with children younger than 18. Those dads, too, are more involved in the daily care of their children than their own fathers were. They are as likely to change a diaper as a spark plug.
Fathers today are moving well beyond the ’50s model of the less-involved parent. They now have the responsibility and opportunity to teach children of both genders a new definition of manhood. The active involvement by a man who loves them gives his children a real-life model for how to be a man of the 21st century and what to expect of one.
Single moms, grandparents and two-mommy families can and do raise children well. But there are some things that only a dad or a father figure who is regularly involved for many years can do:
- Model that men of quality treat women with equality.
Children learn what they live. When a father assumes that the women in his life are intelligent and capable, the children learn to do the same. When a man’s attitude toward women is as respectful as it is toward men he respects, both sons and daughters learn that women are not the lesser of the two genders. When a man criticizes other men (whether on the street or on a screen) who make catcalls, intimidate, mistreat or underestimate women, he models that real men stand up when women are threatened or minimized.
- Demonstrate how a man should love a woman he loves.
When a man treats his kids’ mother with affection and respect, sons learn how a man should treat a woman he loves. Daughters learn to expect that a man who loves them will treat them lovingly. When their father is their mother’s biggest fan, sons and daughters get daily lessons in how a real man behaves in a good relationship.
- Teach healthy, respectful male sexuality.
Cultural values and the law are clear that rape is a heinous crime. In surveys, most of the population agrees that fidelity in a relationship is not only good but necessary for relationships to survive and thrive. But video games, the porn industry, and movies often portray, even celebrate, the opposite.There continues to be confusion about what does and does not constitute consensual sex. Rape is still the subject of jokes. Girls are still cautioned that what they wear could invite it. There are pop songs that normalize or excuse it. In fact, only three percent of rapists ever serve even a day in jail.
The culture seems equally confused about the value of fidelity. Stories of celebrities who cheat show up in tabloids almost weekly. Not so long ago, Gary Hart’s affair sank his candidacy for president. Now Donald Trump, the GOP candidate for the highest office in the land, is known to have cheated on his first wife.
The antidote to such confusing and frightening ideas about male sexuality is a father who makes it clear to his children that a man should never force a woman to have sex; that a woman has a right to say “no” and that a real man honors a “no” as a “no”, not as a “maybe.”
Through his behavior and words, a dad can teach his sons and daughters the value of fidelity in lasting relationships; that mutual trust is something to treasure.
- Teach that there are many different equally acceptable ways to be male or female.
Toy manufacturers still insist that girls’ things be pink and fluffy and boys’ things be blue and tough. But little boys are just as likely as girls to enjoy dolls instead of, or in addition to, football; a little girl is just as likely to love athletics instead of, or in addition to, Barbie fashions. A father who is clear that there is a wide, wide range in how to be male or female; who accepts and supports the emerging personality and interests of his kids, helps them be comfortable in who they are.
- Model how to be a modern, involved male parent.
Twenty-first century fathers are more than providers who feel entitled to put their feet up at the end of the day. Whether single or in two-parent families, modern family life requires that dads be responsive to the daily needs of their children, regardless of whether their own fathers or grandfathers would have seen such activities as manly. By modeling that a man’s worth depends on healthy sexual values and active participation in raising the children he fathered, today’s father is helping set in motion a new definition of manhood for generations to come.