Several commenters have noted the troubling image featured at the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (fatherhood.gov):
I’m going to partially defend the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (NRFC), as we (as a society) have asked them to do the impossible. We ask them to stress the importance of fathers, when we believe no such thing. Since around 1970 we have waged war on the very idea of fatherhood, as part of our war against The Patriarchy. Fathers are no longer accepted as the head of the family, and aside from fulfilling the role of walking wallet we no longer even have a clear accepted definition of what fathers do. Fathers are now deputy parents, who serve at the pleasure of the mother.
Moreover, it isn’t just feminists who have waged war on fathers. If anything, “traditional conservatives” are even more hostile to fathers than feminists are. Just like feminists, the My Lord Mary Lee crowd can’t stand the thought of fathers in charge.
But making this all the more difficult, we are in denial regarding our war against fathers. The official party line is some version of:
- Fathers are better now than they were in the past.
- Fathers are “absent” for some entirely mysterious reason.
When we ask the NRFC to teach the importance of fathers, something we as a society vehemently disagree with, we are creating a no win situation for them. They dare not speak the truth, and yet they need to be seen encouraging fatherhood or they won’t be able to justify their funding. So it isn’t surprising that the NRFC would lead with an image of fathers as comic relief. Who doesn’t love laughter? And the image of fathers as clowns is one sure to please both feminists and chivalrists.
If you scroll a bit further down the page, there are links to resources, including DadTalk, a blog on fathering:
The most recent DadTalk blog post demonstrates the difficulty of the task we have assigned the NRFC. The post is titled How Fathers Shape Their Children’s Development: Revisiting the Literature. First the post has to deal with the fact that we have done so much violence to the concept of fatherhood; before we can discuss what fathers do, we need to seriously struggle with the question of what the word father even means. This is something I’ve noted before, and for practical purposes in government statistics it often comes down to who the mother is currently having sex with. In the modern family, the word “father” refers to a series of men who come in and out of the child’s life as their mother makes her way through the modern sexual marketplace (emphasis mine):
First, when we revisit the literature about fathers’ involvement, we need to define: what do we mean when we talk about fathers? The definition of who is a “father” has grown and developed alongside the field of fatherhood programming. We could be referring to a biological father or a stepfather, custodial or non-custodial, with a legal relationship to the child or a social one (e.g., a mother’s partner). Each has his own way of shaping the development of a child depending on when he comes into that child’s life and the amount of time he spends with the child on a regular basis. What matters most for a father’s relationship with his children is not the specific type of family situation, but how the father chooses to involve himself in the life and well-being of his child.
Next the post gets into the tricky question of what the proper role of fathers should be. As deputy parent, this boils down to general parenting assistance for the primary parent (the mother). The blog cautions that “fatherhood practitioners” (I assume this means social workers) need to be “culturally sensitive” regarding the role of fathers:
Second, the literature informs the question: what is the role of the father in the family? The literature indicates that the image of an ideal dad and notions of a father’s role in the family are diverse, and to a large extent, shaped by cultural and demographic factors. This is especially important to keep in mind for fatherhood practitioners, who should strive for cultural sensitivity and competence. The way a dad sees himself or his position in the family may vary greatly from family to family, and the way you work with or relate to that dad should take his perspective into account.
With these two questions out of the way, the blog post finally gets to the question of what fathers should do, and what makes them special. This is, after all, the point of the post. It explains that today’s fathers are better than fathers in the past, because they know their place. Now in the role of mother’s helpers, fathers focus on generic child care and playing. This is where the post takes on an edgy counter cultural tone sure to delight the house despot crowd, because it asserts that fathers play differently than mothers, aunts, etc do:
Third, the literature continues to track the following question: in what ways are fathers involved in their families, and how is this changing? Fathers as a whole are more actively involved in the lives of their children now than they were 50 years ago. In 2016, fathers reported spending, on average, eight hours a week on child care—about three times more than in 1965. While dads previously may have been seen primarily as breadwinners, they are increasingly sharing parenting responsibilities with mothers. This increased involvement could look like any, and often all, of the following:
- Positive engagement: direct interaction with children, including caregiving and activities
- Accessibility: availability to children
- Responsibility: participation in decision-making and ensuring that children are cared for
While each family balances these dimensions differently, we know that the quality of father involvement and engagement is just as, if not more, important than quantity when we talk about positive impacts on child development. Fathers can increase the quality of their involvement through many different means, including showing affection, teaching and communicating effectively, providing emotional support, sharing interests, and sharing activities. Research shows that, on average, fathers tend to be more involved in play than mothers. Furthermore, they tend to play differently than mothers do—engaging in more physical and challenging games and encouraging independence and risk-taking.
It isn’t just the NRFC that struggles greatly with extolling the value of fathers fathering while agonizing over the question of who fathers are and what fathering is. See for example the National Health Statistics Report Fathers’ Involvement With Their Children: United States, 2006–2010. Like the NRFC, the report’s definition of father is a loose term where men often drift in and out of children’s lives as their mother cherishes her sexual freedom (emphasis mine):
Not all men are biological fathers and not all fathers have biological children. In addition to fathering a child, men may become fathers through adoption—which confers the same legal status, protections, and responsibilities to the man and the child as fathering a biological child. Men also may become de facto fathers when they marry or cohabit with women who have children from previous relationships, that is, they are raising stepchildren or their cohabiting partner’s children. In this report, men were defined as fathers if they had biological or adopted children or if step- or partner’s children were living in the household.
As for what fathers do, the list of activities fits closely with the NRFC’s definition. Note that all of the activities used to measure the impact of fathers would just as easily work if the report were measuring the impact of aunts and grandmothers:
This report focuses on activities that men did with their children, separately for coresidential and noncoresidential children, in the last 4 weeks. The activities by age group are presented below. For children under age 5, activities include:
- Eating meals with or feeding the children
- Bathing, diapering, or dressing the children, or helping the children bathe, dress, or use the toilet themselves
- Playing with the children
- Reading to the children
For children aged 5–18, activities include:
- Talking with the children about things that happened during their day
- Eating meals with the children
- Helping the children with homework or checking that the homework had been done
- Taking the children to or from activities
Men were asked how frequently they did each activity in the last 4 weeks.