Common Wisdom: What Does Father Know Best?

Last winter a local newspaper carried the standard wedding supplement. Besides the usual mix of fashions, travel tips, and etiquette, there was an advice column on updating the wedding ceremony to adapt to modern times. Modern brides, said the author, should refuse to submit to being “given away” by their fathers, since this custom derives from the happily outmoded understanding of women as chattel. A modern father does not “own” his daughters; hence he cannot give them away.

Where to begin to argue away such a silly misunderstanding of ancient brides and modem ones, ancient fathers and modem ones? And should one bother sifting through this haystack of nonsense in search of a needle of truth? Ordinarily, I wouldn’t bother. But lately I have been thinking about fathers and what they do.

The father is the head of the family. The problem with single-parent households is not that they are understaffed, as though normality were ensured by numbers. Fatherless households lack a father, a head.

What does this mean; what does a head do?

Well, he is, even now, the breadwinner. Few wives bring home bigger incomes than their husbands. And most mothers of preschoolers still spend most of the day with their children, though many augment their husband’s paycheck with part-time or seasonal work.

So single women have something more than mere status or self-centered materialism in mind when they take into consideration the earning capacities of the men they date. Even lilies of the field may spare a thought for the provision of their children, and the Western world shouldn’t need an avalanche of articles on children in poverty to let us in on the secret that a family without a designated breadwinner is likely to perform under par.

But what more does a father do besides support his family financially?

Start with the stereotype and unpeel it for the truth it preserves. The mother has the role of the warm lap, the attorney for the defense (“I’ll talk to Dad about it”), the mushy one. The father is portrayed as the disciplinarian, the conservator of rigorous standards, the upholder of the merit system.

At first glance this division doesn’t seem to correspond very well with the realities of child-rearing. Most moms supervise preschoolers all day long, and even school-age children are under the jurisdiction of their mothers for most of their free time. Until their teen years, these children are largely under the eye—and under the thumb—of their mothers. They are held or dragged up to the standards of politeness, fair play, diligence, and (sigh) cleanliness, most of the time, by Mom. Dad isn’t on the spot often enough to be the primary disciplinarian, arid very few mothers would think of postponing punishment until he showed up.

Still, the father is the symbol of discipline. He is, so to speak, the pole that attracts the disciplining function to himself, as the mother attracts the tear-wiping function. My three-year-old Maria knocks over her baby brother or crayons the kitchen table. I scold her and administer an appropriate correction. She wails “Don’t tell Daddy! Please don’t tell Daddy,” as though he were the hanging judge. Where does this come from? By the time he comes home, my husband is as ready to forgive and forget the rages and moral lapses of the day as his wife is.

Of course, Maria, like most little girls, adores her father and doesn’t want to repel his good opinion. But this doesn’t stop her from whomping her little brother in Daddy’s presence (and when she does so, she doesn’t implore, “Oh, please don’t tell Mommy!”). Her big brother displays almost equal anxiety about his father’s opinion of him. I have seen the same thing played out in other families and remember it from my own childhood. Children really do see their fathers as the judging parent, and one who sizes them up in some way, who might even find them wanting, who brings something like the world’s standards, objective standards, to bear upon their performance and behavior.

Wherever else this comes from, it must come in part from the circumstances of the father’s literally being “in the world,” apart from the domestic unit of mother and children for much of the day. He brings home traces of the world’s standards the way he brings home office pens, metro stubs, newspapers, or the latest joke. The flip side of the father’s daily immersion in another world is that he is not quite as habituated to his children’s transgressions—or to their latest achievements. He may be disappointed at lapses a mother takes for granted or elated at advances that are old hat to her.

A mother’s interjected “he can’t do that yet” or “she’s too young to know that” or “he didn’t understand what would happen” is not mere leniency, mere excuse, but often an analysis based on intimate experience of the child’s limits. Her minutely detailed understanding of what makes Tommy or Jenny tick constitutes the arm of mercy in the family. Her husband’s less microscopic perception of his children, coming from a vantage point which heightens his appreciation of objective, external standards of behavior, aligns him more nearly with the standard of justice.

Naturally, fathers are part of the family, are “inside” the family. But they also bring more of the outside in than mothers normally can. Mothers see the minute-by-minute developments of their children. Fathers get to experience more surprise: “Wow, did your hear what Sally just said to me?”

“Oh, she’s been saying that for a while now. It started about a week ago…. ”

Fatherhood follows a father around 24 hours a day, on the road, at work, behind the lawn mower. But mothers (even, usually, mothers who work outside the home) are “professional” child raisers. They are supposed to be the researchers of diaper brands, children’s diets, developmental stages; the confidantes of pediatricians and kindergarten teachers; the keepers of the medicine chest and curators of the playroom.

How does this affect the father’s role? In interesting ways. A father’s approach tends to be either more ad hoc and unpremeditated than a mother’s—reflecting a spontaneous response to provocative stimuli—or more formal, “objective,” bearing the philosophy of this-is-the-rule-and-there-are-no-exceptions. Working mothers usually retain their status as the parent more intimately connected with the day-to-day nuts and bolts of childrearing, and they are more finely tuned to what’s going wrong in the world of their children. Someone has to play this maternal role, and the hunting and gathering of the chief hunter-gatherer would suffer if he were to do it. Does this mean that in two-career families one career comes first? To put it bluntly, yes—unless, of course, the children come last.

The mother is accustomed to explaining the child to the father—mediating between them—from the beginning. She is the one who tells him that their child’s life has begun, in the womb; she feels that life flailing and squirming about and guides her husband’s hand so that he may feel it too; she warns him when their baby is ready to emerge to be introduced to his less familiar parent.

I hope most fathers aren’t thinking, at this point, that I am relegating them to a subsidiary role in the family and comparing their childrearing techniques unfavorably with those of their spouses. For the father’s role is critical precisely when and where it differs from the mother’s. When a mother and a father’s childrearing styles diverge—not their philosophies, but the undeliberated ways in which they react to situations—it is very hard for each not to feel that the other is wrong. One knows how one would answer a question or manage a tantrum or allay a fear or refuse a demand, and one itches to take over and do it “right.” But though there are wrong ways to handle the events of childrearing, there is not a single right way, and the good a mother achieves by handling things her way cannot be compounded or confirmed by her husband’s duplication of her efforts. His efforts must complement hers, which they can only do if they are different, emerging out of his own masculine love for his children, his own understanding of the requirements for living.

A mother worries that a child will fall out of a tree or into a pool or down a stair; her husband makes reassuring noises—”I’m watching him”—from 15 yards away. The child profits from the mother’s anxious care and the father’s easy risk-taking. The first assures him that he is loved and looked after, and teaches him about caution; the second bolsters his confidence in his ability to meet life’s challenges.

A mother watches her son trying to master the mechanics of ball-hitting, throwing and catching, day-in and day-out, from toddlerhood to Little League. She tells him he will get better and better, praises each success, dismisses failures. A father participates more intermittently and more professionally, half an eye on his son’s progress, half on the distance still to go. Again, the child gains from the combination of perspectives; he draws enough uncritical support from Mom to persist through early awkwardness and is spurred to higher ambitions by his father’s reminder of the standard against which he is ultimately measuring himself.

A child chatters, interrogates, exclaims to her mother all day long, and she responds in some fashion, attentively or absentmindedly as the case requires, her thoughts bouncing back and forth between her own duties and those of her child. On some level, she is paying attention, she is “there.” A father comes home from work and is usually prepared to offer his children a more compartmentalized approach to communication: If he is involved in a newspaper, a home improvement project, a conversation, or a reverie, it may take two, three, maybe four tries before the child’s question or observation sinks in. A father is more likely to take a compartmentalized approach to activities as well: “After I finish this, we can do something else.” A mother is more likely to interrupt what she is doing, switch activities in midstream. There is a kind of interplay between her “childcare” and “housekeeping” duties that discourages the enforcement of strict boundaries of work-time and play-time.

As I write, I have suffered interruptions from a 10-month-old tugging at my skirt demanding to be fed and cuddled, two older siblings alternately requesting drinks or clamoring for paper and pens to write like me, a day and a half’s worth of mealtimes, errands, diaper-changing, laundry, bedtimes, questions as to where to house and what to feed the turtle rescued from the road.

A child learns about specialization, concentration, focused attention on a single activity, persistence, in part from the example of a father’s modus operandi. The mother, on the other hand, is partly constrained by household life and partly, I think, encouraged by her natural bent to complement these lessons with examples of flexibility and a willingness to interrupt ambitious pursuits.

Everything a mother and a father do for or with their children shows similar differences of techniques and approach and conveys different and equally powerful messages. But what is it about the fatherly approach that makes him the natural head of the family?

Think of the head of a ship—the prow, pushing against the weight of the water, directing the ship and its cargo toward a determined end, and bearing the brunt of the collision between the ship and the outside environment.

Or think of the mother as a center pulling the members of the family towards her. The children are both attracted, and, as they grow older, drawn away. The father is part of the circle, but gives the family group impetus by towing it in a certain direction. Sometimes, returning to his family in the evening, a father feels that they remind him of what life is all about. Sometimes, listening to her husband expand on his plans and aspirations, a mother feels he reminds her of the place they are all trying to reach.

A father is the head of the family because he is the doorway to the world outside the family. Both parents, of course, teach children what it is to be grown-up. But the father, who must seek much of his satisfaction as a creator and producer outside the family, on behalf of the family, acts out for his children what it is to be an individual productive unit in the marketplace and an individual citizen in society. Whether or not the mother has a full-time job during the years her young children are learning about life, she is responsible for, designed for, the teaching of a different lesson. This has nothing to do with her value in the marketplace, but everything to do with the unique value of her role in the home. The job description for the father reads differently from that of a mother, and no one can really fill both jobs successfully. Someone must be the auxiliary hunter-gatherer, whose time, ego and identity are not bound up in hunting and gathering but in making a home and holding its members in some kind of healthy suspension.

The father is the head of the household not because, a la Robert Young, he always knows best, or because it is his business to bellow orders and bluster. He is the family’s scout and pathfinder, the one who goes ahead and brings back news of the frontier, spies out the safest and surest routes to the family’s destination, lets them know when they may dig deep roots and when it may be time to pull up stakes.

A husband and a wife argue, debate, consult, console, influence one another. They watch over one another, keep an eye on one another, but one of them also trains an eye on the world outdoors, and the other focuses on conditions within.


Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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