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Being Dad. A how-to.

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.


Lopez: What does a father contribute to the raising of a confident son?

Stanton: The biggest thing is being the one to invite him into the fraternity of men. And mom needs to, as they used to say, “cut the apron strings” on her end. The invitation is key. No boy ever came into manhood by being shamed into it. Margaret Mead said that women make humanity, but only men can make other men. Our boys must be invited into it and if dad doesn’t do it, that inviting is harder for grandfather, uncle, coach, pastor, or any other man that comes along. The boy gains the lion’s share of his confidence from his dad. And if dad doesn’t do this, there will be a pretty sizable deficit in the boy’s life. Other men can fill it, but not like dad can. We can wish this were not the case, but it’s an immutable law of manhood.


Lopez: How does a father contribute to the raising of a secure daughter?

Stanton: A girl who is well fathered has no doubt she has what it takes, and therefore is not as inclined to fall for the manipulative advances and attention of immature, but flashy males. She has no interest in them because she knows what it’s like to be properly loved by a good man. He does this by giving of himself to her, by respecting her developing womanhood, and helping her learn to respect it herself. I have four daughters, and I love providing this to my girls, to help them learn and know how amazing they are, and by kidding with them that I don’t think there is any boy out there worthy of their affection. There is great security in these words from their dad and every girl needs it.


Lopez: Can you have a secure daughter or a confident son without him?

Stanton: You can, because there are plenty of examples of it. I think of both Bill Clinton and President Obama. Both were missing fathers and they aspired pretty high in life. But there is a great deal of back-story for each one. President Obama speaks poignantly about the pain he suffered from not having a father in his life. It is possible, but not as possible. It is a much steeper uphill battle, and I have never met a single mother who didn’t “amen” this fact.


Lopez: Can you be a good father without being married to your child’s mother?

Stanton: Again yes. There are examples of such dads. But they are rare. I was reading some census data the other day that stunned me. It said that 94 percent of fathers who lived in a home with their children also lived with the child’s mother. For men, if there is not a relationship with mom, there is far less of a relationship with the child. And you can’t do drive-by fathering. He can’t phone it in. The most meaningful kind of fathering happens in the warp and woof of daily, domestic life. And one of the greatest fatherhood efforts a man can undertake is to try to love his child’s mother well, and if possible, honor his marriage to her. This means the world to a child.


Lopez: So what is a single mother to do? Life doesn’t always work out ideally. How can we help and celebrate courage and generosity without encouraging single motherhood itself?

Stanton: This is a key question that I tackle in Secure Daughter, Confident Sons, because, unfortunately, more and more children are being raised by single moms. Grandfathers and uncles are the next best men on the scene, after fathers. Hopefully mom can get these men involved. The pastor and male leadership at church can be other good examples, as well as coaches and teachers, although mom needs to be careful about the safety and propriety of these non-family relationships. Data consistently show that one of the most dangerous persons to a child is mom’s boyfriend.

The best man-example resources at mom’s disposal are the hundreds of both good and bad men we encounter everyday through books, movies, television shows, and life experience. The man who helped you last night at the grocery store — talk to your sons and daughters about what made him a good man or one to be avoided. Media provide a parade of such examples marching through your living room. Use these examples to explain what a good man is and what a louse looks like. Both your boys and girls will eat mom’s thoughts on this topic.


Lopez: Does father know best?

Stanton: Yes. Always. Next question.

No, but a good dad admits when he is wrong and asks forgiveness. This is so important for both sons and daughters to see, this kind of strong humility.


Lopez: What is balancing grace and discipline for a dad?

Stanton: Dads are the ones who tend to see life in black and white. Kids need to learn that black and white exist. Neither the IRS agent nor the policeman writing you a ticket cares at all about your feelings on why you couldn’t pay your taxes or were driving too fast. Dads help kids understand the buck has to stop somewhere. But as Christians know, the story of the Prodigal Son is really the story of the Gracious Father. Kids need dad’s black-and-white view on the world, but they also need his grace.

And much of that comes down to picking your battles and knowing which situation deserves which and where your child is. Maybe teaching the lesson about right and wrong can happen next time. Or maybe your child needs this time to be the final straw. You need to be able to read your child with the help of his or her mother and make the right call. But not even the best dads get it right all the time.


Lopez: We talk a lot about women balancing work and family, but what about men? How do you do it successfully?

Stanton: Men absolutely need to do this. In writing about this in the book, I recall a funny scene from 30 Rock where Jack Donaghy thinks he’s dying from heart failure, but he’s merely stressed from his mother’s visit. Laying in the hospital bed, he tells Liz Lemon he has so many regrets, like “Why didn’t I spend more time at the office?” We know that the gold in our life will be the quality time we spent with our loved ones, primarily our own children. And children intuitively get that where adults spend their time, there their treasure is also.


Lopez: What has been your most important lesson as a father?

Stanton: To be honest, learning that my grace toward my children is more important than my instruction to them. I want to be a manly father to my children, but I want to do that in a gentle way. I spoke earlier about seeing good male role models on television and in movies. I grew in the age where I thought Andy Griffith and John Walton were amazing examples of good men and fathers. Not girly-men to be sure, but unapologetically manly and gentle. That is what I want to be to my children.


Lopez: What is the most important contribution your book makes?

Stanton: What I am most excited about in Secure Daughters, Confident Sons — and readers’ reviews thankfully confirm this — is the way I explore what authentic masculinity and femininity are for our boys and girls without resorting to tired stereotypes. I felt when I was formulating the book in my mind that if these two ways of being human matter — and I propose they do very much — we must talk about them meaningfully without resorting to the stereotypes that actually describe very few really good men and women. It is important, as well, that I show how gender certainly is not a social construct, because the most sophisticated science ever done is showing in grand scale how culturally universal these manly and womanly ways of doing many things really are. Androgyny is not naturally occurring anywhere in the world in any significant way. It is the social construct if ever there was one.


Lopez: Is this book a book for a middle class in crisis?

Stanton: Not to sound apocalyptic, but I think it is a book for humanity in crisis. Because to be human is to be gendered. And we are less sure at this point in time about what it means to be a good man or a good woman than at any point in human experience. We must correct this, and I try to make a small contribution to that in this book by helping both cultural leaders and parents grab a better, more balanced — and research-based — understanding of how we make the next generation of good men and women out of the boys and girls of today. That task is not optional.


Lopez: What’s Father’s Day for a man who is not a father?

Stanton: We are made to want to pass on our life into the future through the next generation, so I think it is really both a day of hope in the future or regret of the past, given the age and life circumstance of the man. I hope it is more of a day of hope. 


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