Friday, May 31, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Responsible Fatherhood

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The U.S. federal government is teaching fatherhood. Stop and think how many ways that could go wrong.

Now, the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (NRFC) is not a brand new initiative by any stretch. It claims to exist in order to “provide, facilitate, and disseminate current research, proven and innovative strategies that will encourage and strengthen fathers and families, and providers of services.” This looks like it is mostly done through social media, websites and virtual training courses, as well as access to help lines and so on.

Tom: You’ve spent most of your life working with teens, Immanuel Can. How important is it to high-schoolers to have a father present and engaged in their lives?

The Standard Comeback

Immanuel Can: Well, to answer that we could refer to the statistics. It’s no secret that fatherlessness corresponds very highly with things like criminality, promiscuity, substance abuse, school failure, violence against women, pregnancy, gang association, and a host of other very serious social pathologies. But that’s what the statistics show, not what the emotional arguments say. So here’s the standard comeback: “How dare you suggest that single mothers are not wonderful! Mine / my friend’s / the one I imagine / is loving, sacrificial, hard-working, and has given up everything. How dare you insult her!”

Tom: Yes, I’ve heard those lines too. They are as valid as most rhetorical responses to actual data, which is to say the only people who pretend to be convinced by them are men terrified of sleeping on the couch. But as you suggest, those single mothers for whom everything works out just peachy are more imaginary than anything else.

IC: Well, here’s the question I want to ask: if being a single mother is such a heroic thing, what makes it heroic? Is it because it’s easy? Single mothers and their advocates never tire of telling us how hard is; and they insist that mothers are heroic for making it work at all. But if it’s hard, why is it hard? What makes it hard? The answer is quite simple: being a single mother is very, very likely to turn out badly. Fathers are just not dispensable. Everything possible should be done to ensure that single motherhood does not happen in any avoidable case. (There are unavoidable ones, of course.)

For those who prefer anecdotes, I offer the following: my best friend lost his father to a heart attack when my friend was in his early teens. His mother was the consummate single mother — not only heroically struggling to raise four of her own children, but doing much more than her share of helping take care of me as well. Yet the great sorrow of her life, the thing she would have done anything to change, was the loss of her beloved husband. And she would tell you it was very, very hard, and would be the first to say that single motherhood is no road that any sane person should willingly choose. For what an anecdote is worth, there it is.

What Does “Responsible” Really Mean?

Tom: Well, even the U.S. government seems to have figured out what your friend’s mom discovered, and they’re the ones crunching the numbers and coming to the conclusion that there is a staggering social and economic cost to fatherlessness. Republican legislators want to help fathers stay in the home because they run for office on “family values”, and that’s the kind of action their base wants. The Democrats’ base may not care if Dad stays home, but they want to make very, VERY sure he pays his child support and gives Mom the occasional night off so she doesn’t run away and dump the kids into the system. That’s probably why the NRFC was re-funded under the Obama administration: encouraging fathers to be more responsible is something everybody agrees on.

IC: Yes, Tom, but “responsible” for what? That’s the question.

Tom: That depends on who you ask. As I say, with a few notable exceptions, Progressives view fathers as cash cows. They are to be made to pay their “fair share” of the costs of raising their children or jailed when non-compliant. Limited access to their children is to be conditioned on their good behavior and on keeping the mother happy.

That’s obviously an unsatisfactory answer. Financial security alone cannot replace what a father brings to a child’s life. I think the Christian might answer that the human father’s job is to accurately model the fatherhood of God for his children in order to make choosing that relationship in later life desirable rather than repulsive.

Tempting Delusions

I should add that in scripture, God is never said to be the “father” of all men as Creator, but rather exclusively the “father” of those who believe. That means fatherhood is predicated on relationship. A series of live-in boyfriends certainly cannot model that relationship in any way, shape or form. In fact, it is a rare stepdad who is able to pull it off with a child who isn’t his own, though it does happen. It requires both an unusual commitment on the part of the stepfather and the cooperation of the child, which is by no means guaranteed.

IC: Right. And I hate to say it, but we must not forget the strong incentive a split-parent or stepparent has to tell himself or herself the story, “This isn’t really hurting my kids.” That’s a very, very tempting delusion for a failed parent to cultivate, because the alternative — “I’ve made selfish decisions that are continually harming my children” — is a very unpleasant thought for a parent to have to carry around in his or her head every day.

Tom: It certainly is. And where a living relationship with Christ and regular reading of his word tend to encourage a father in such a situation to face the ugly truth and act in his children’s best interests, the U.S. government offers access to “current research, proven and innovative strategies.” Because they come at it from a secular worldview, clinicians and counselors generally focus on boosting the father’s self-esteem by assuring him he’s really a “good person”. They will definitely not tell you to make sacrifices or put off entering into new relationships that may be counterproductive for your children.

The Good Father

IC: Let’s talk about the “good father”. What is a “good” father responsible for?

Tom: Oh, let’s do bullet points. It’s just easier:
I’ve probably missed a few.

All these responsibilities can be inferred from God the Father’s role with respect to his own Son, or from his role with respect to his children, or else they are directly commanded. Moreover, other than financial responsibility, most are not the sort of things the federal government is likely to promote in the interest of helping fathers and families. Even the government’s consensus understanding of the meaning of paternal love would be quite different from the way the word is used in the Bible.

IC: I would add reception. It goes with discipline: “He scourges every son whom he receives.” I’d add that because I believe one essential fatherly function is to convince his children they are worthy, approved and welcome. There are probably more. I really like your list though.

An Immediate Objection

One immediate objection occurs to me, and I’m pretty sure we’ll get it. Someone will ask, “Are you saying a mother can’t do all that? Why isn’t she just as good as a father?”

Tom: Well, mothers can do all kinds of good things and they are very much a necessary part of successful child-rearing, especially in the early years. But they cannot simply replace dads. For one, mothers can rarely enforce anything effectively. Mothers can guilt you or pester you into behaving the way they want, but they cannot intimidate you into it. Once a child gets to a certain size, Mom’s bluff is called. In that sense, a father’s role is more like God’s. One of the ways God relates to his children is this: he can enforce his will as required. If you are wavering about whether to fall into line over a particular sin or not, make no mistake, it is because God is allowing you to make that decision. When he puts his foot down, there is no question who’s in charge. It is no surprise that children raised by single moms often believe they have “options” open to them that nobody else does, if I may put it that way. Everything’s a negotiation. That’s what they’re used to.

Additionally, there is role modeling. A mother can certainly model appropriate female behavior for her daughter, but she has no hope of effectively modeling male behavior for her son. She hasn’t got a clue. The same is true for a man trying to raise a daughter, but those examples are way fewer and further between, and most men would concede they’d like some help in the role modeling department.

You will note I’m not arguing that a man is “as good as a woman” at everything. In his own area, a man is almost always better. In a woman’s domain, a man is almost always worse. If it turns out he’s better, he’s probably got issues.

Let’s continue this next week, IC. I think there’s probably more to talk about.

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