These are interesting days to be a dad. On the one hand, research overwhelmingly tells us that dads play an essential role in the lives of their sons and daughters. On the other hand, certain voices in culture not only question the necessity of a dad, but insist that dads are obsolete. This past Father's Day, CNN featured a debate on this question: Are some kids better off without a dad? (Can you imagine a similar debate about motherhood on Mother's Day?)
Deadbeat dads. Absent dads. Father wounds. Dumbed-down TV sitcom dads. The labels are not handsome. But increasingly, they seem to ring true. Too many dads have dropped the fatherhood ball.
Recognizing the lack of fatherhood skills in many dads today, several organizations from political to religious, have dedicated themselves to "building" great dads, among them Fatherhood.org and Fathers.com. These organizations recognize that high impact fathers must be "built" over time, equipped with the necessary tools to meaningfully raise their kids.
But if we really want to build great dads, perhaps we need to start the process earlier -- in fact, much earlier, when potential dads are still boys.
Much of what a father does or does not do is "built" into him as he grows into manhood. The values he embraces, the parenting he receives and the decisions he makes are the materials of future fatherhood. Denny Coates (Conversations with the Wise Uncle) reminds us that the thinking, reasoning, critical part of the brain develops in kids in their teen years. How they use their brain and what they put into their brain during those years will set the course for the rest of their lives, including parenting.
Sadly, the building process for boys is often counter-productive to equipping them for great manhood, let alone fatherhood:
• 70% of all D's and F's are given to boys
• Boys have fallen behind girls in virtually every area of education
• One in three boys is now considered a "heavy" porn user, with the average boy watching nearly two hours of porn every week.
• Boys spend 13 hours a week playing video games. As a result, boys brains are being digitally rewired in a totally new way to demand change, novelty, excitement, and constant stimulation...That means they are becoming totally out of synch in traditional school classes, which are analog, static, and interactively passive.
• According to Kathleen Parker, author of Save the Males, young men now in their twenties have never experienced a culture in which men were respected or expected to be gentlemen.
• One in three U.S. children live without a father.
The good news: We can reverse that storyline. In addition to giving men the tools they need to be great dads, we can start building great dads now by training our boys in the art of fatherhood.
Here are a few ways to get started:
Give boys a heroic vision for manhood. A vision built on honor, courage, commitment, sacrifice, love, compassion, forgiveness, wisdom and grace. This happens through mentoring, teaching, correction and rites of passage programs.
Give boys purpose. As we see a boy's emerging gifts and talents, affirm them in him. What he's good at is a powerful clue to his purpose for life. (See Michael Gurian: The Purpose of Boys)
Give boys masculine energy. In their report, Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education, Thirdway.org looks, in part, at the impact of boys being raised without dads. In addition to listing the often cited downsides for boys without a dad, the authors offer this unique perspective: If children aim to emulate adult roles of their same-sex parent, then girls may increasingly expect to fully support both themselves and their children, whereas, conversely, males may come to anticipate a less central or more transient role. (p. 47). In other words, girls being raised by mom see that raising children and working outside of the home are what women do. Boys raised by moms see no role for the male in the family and more often than not live down to that level. Dads are built by dads. So, the key to building great dads is to surround our boys with great dads -- their own dads and/or other men -- who can model responsibility, love, compassion, and fatherhood to these dads in the making.
Give boys the chance to interact with children. When age-appropriate, give boys the chance to mentor younger children, either by helping out in a church Sunday School class or nursery, or through connecting with local organizations that offer kids clubs.
Imagine a world where deadbeat dads are replaced by life-enhancing dads; where absent dads are replaced by fully-engaged dads and where fathers are no longer the source of deep wounds, but the source of strength, affirmation, love and hope.
The secret to that kind of a dad: Start building him early, when he's still a boy.