Glenn T. Stanton is the director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and a research fellow at the Institute of Marriage and Family. He’s author of the new book Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity. To mark Father’s Day, he talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is fatherhood in 2012?
Glenn T. Stanton: Same as it ever was. At its most basic, fatherhood is the act and attitude of being a male parent. A father is not a male mother. Fathers are categorically different kinds of parents than mothers, and this is good for children. While mothers protect their children from the world, fathers prepare their children for the world. While mothers seek to keep their children safe and calm, fathers are more likely to challenge their kids to take appropriate risks — climb one more limb up the tree, jump off the next higher step — as well as get them riled and worked up through physical roughhousing. Who is it that throws babies in the air? Mom, not so much. And all these things dads do create remarkable levels of healthy confidence in children because they provide developmentally appropriate challenges that moms are not as likely to initiate. Fathers serve their children well by being the male parents they are.
Lopez: Can any man be a father?
Stanton: Well, we have come to a place today where we wouldn’t even say that procreation is a criterion. People try to convince me that women can be good fathers. But of course this is purely wishful thinking born out of ideology disconnected from experience. Single mothers know better because they know what it is their fatherless children are missing. But the real difference between a man who has spawned a child and a father is quite simple. Time is the real difference between these two men and their connections to their child. Time is the least expensive part of fathering, for a man with only a dollar in his pocket can spend meaningful time with his child. But time costs us a great deal, forcing us to deny ourselves for the sake of our children, and our children know this.
The greatest times I remember spending with my father were sitting under a tree on Saturday afternoons drinking Slurpees after cutting the yard. And we would just sit and talk. No other times with my dad rival those. My dad never would put these moments in his top-ten hall-of-fame fathering moments. But as an eleven-year-old boy, I had a different appraisal of those times. They were greater than gold.
Lopez: How do you become a good father, especially if you didn’t have a model?
Stanton: Well first of all, no one becomes a good father if he doesn’t show up to the job site on a pretty regular basis. Boots on the ground. You become a good father mostly by putting in lots of time. Most of successful fathering is, to appropriate Woody Allen’s phrase, “just showing up.” But showing up in different ways than Woody did.
Next, think about what it is your son or daughter wants and likes to do. And then get involved in that. Play Apples to Apples just one more time if that is what they want. Read Hop on Pop for that 165th time. One of the things that all kids love, and my kids can’t get enough of it, is hearing stories from my youth. I play a game with them where I give them three stories about my childhood, and they have to guess which one is the true story. Fatherhood is not rocket science, nor does it require a respectable wallet. Good fathering consists of time, creativity, and patience. And a good dose of self-denial.
Lopez: How do you teach your son to be a man?
Stanton: Well, a big challenge in this, as I write in my book, is understanding what the destination marked “good man” looks like. We tend to idealize manhood in thinking that every good man looks like this or that. But we must understand that there are a zillion different ways to be a good man. And we should teach our boys (as well as girls, for they will be looking for a good man one day) what the primary qualities are that make up a good man. I talk about these in the book in great detail. We think of good men as conquerors, fighters, and explorers and this is true. Bill Gates is certainly not the stereotypical man’s man, but he is very masculine in the larger sense in that he did open vast new worlds and tamed important frontiers, didn’t he? Mr. Rogers didn’t give a thought to what other men thought of him. Like Sinatra, Fred did it his way. Pretty masculine, but not stereotypically so.
And then think of these different kinds of ways of being a man in light of the son that you have been blessed with. What are his temperaments, his passions, his interests? Feed and awaken those in him in manly ways. Your son wants to dance ballet? Don’t freak. Introduce him to the example of Mikhail Baryshnikov. He wants to learn to cook? Emeril Lagasse. If your son wants to be a cage fighter, find an example who has his ego in check and works hard at his craft.
There are plenty of great male role models in nearly every pursuit. Find them and put them before your boys and girls.