Friday, March 07, 2008

On Fatherhood

Last year, I dove into the deep end in the pool of fatherhood. If you want to learn to swim they say... Luckily, I haven't grasped how enormous of a responsibility I have - otherwise I'd live trembling in fear. For those of you who don't know, I married in September and instantly became a first time father of an 7 year old step son.

A man has one primary responsibility above all others in his fatherly duties - instill the love of God in his children. (Not that a mother doesn't also have this responsibility - yet I think it does fall somewhat more squarely on the shoulders of the father).

Our culture's idea of parenthood is depressing. Our idea of fatherhood can even bring one to despair. Fathers have more to learn from their children than children from their fathers - we think. We must scoff at the primitive cultures in which fathers and grandfathers are actually the ones teaching! What a strange idea.

We whine about education and even build political platforms on it. Those who scream the loudest have the least educated children. They merely want to coerce organizations to spend more money on education - God forbid they should actually spend their own precious time in educating their children themselves! When the average Joe graduates with a bachelors degree, he scarcely has the education that we might have reasonably expected from an 8th grader in former days.

I'm far more concerned with religious education than with academics of course. I know my son is getting a religious education - I have no doubt of that. He goes to public school because I can't afford anything else. He's learned all about various religions (nothing Christian of course) and their holidays. Approximately half of his math assignments made extensive use of Jewish religious symbolism during December (They had to think of something since we can't have anything related to Christmas on it).

What baffles me most is when parents say (almost as if they were proud of it) "my child is spoiled" or "I'm going to spoil my child". I wonder if they know what that word means. They use it as if it were a good thing or even an acceptable thing. We call it "spoiling" for a reason. Because you end up ruining the person's life by doing it!

We, as a culture, have lost all reverence for the incredible responsibility of raising children. We think children are burdens - they suck up resources which are rightfully ours. How foolish of us - no resource is rightfully ours but all are trusted to us in order to do God's will.

The young people these days have absolutely no intention of having children - even in marriage and it's largely because the generation before us viewed us as burdens. There was a time, I think, when people rejoiced not only as a ceremonial response to the birth of their child - but rather lived a life consistent with that rejoicing.

We have lost the concept of children as our legacy. The culture of the ancient Mediterraneans in this respect may have been less than purely selfless. They viewed children as the way to immortalize one's self. In our original creation story indeed, procreation came about because we were going to die and needed heirs to keep our lineage alive.

How have we gone from that, to complete indifference to our progeny? We don't care if we have children or not. The Mediterranean idea above might be called self-serving but what then shall we call our attitude? There is a certain necessary selfishness built into us. Jesus didn't deny this in His message. He didn't say don't be selfish by storing up treasures, He said be smart about your selfishness - store them in Heaven!

Self interest is a necessary survival skill - but what about this business of being so self centered that even our own long term interests are compromised? Isn't that a peculiar behavior? We've pushed selfishness to its limits - we've become so selfish, that we don't even care about ourselves - only our immediate pleasure. We don't care about humanity, we care for this individual human's immediate wants. The reasonably selfish thing to do would be to have children to extend your own legacy - meanwhile serving God's purpose and fulfilling His commandment - 'be fruitful and multiply'.

We also see an acceptably reasonable level of selfishness when a father is proud of his son. I don't think this sort of pride is the wrong type (although it can certainly be carried to an extreme rather easily). C.S. Lewis spoke of this issue - but I can't remember what he said! Nowadays, we should be so lucky to fall into the trap of being too proud of our children or proud to the point in which pride reflects more of one's self than of the child. At least then we'd show some humanity! At least then we could say we were raising children. Hell at least then we could say that we bothered to have children in the first place! We don't have any children to be proud of!

Fathers let the children grow up by themselves these days. First the moms take care of them, then school does. Then TV, video games and finally their friends. Still, they retain some reverence for God because we take them to Church and have a loosely churchish moral code in the home... but what happens when they hit 18 and enroll at a secular seminary (any University)? Guess what, a few liberal professors later and they're questioning the faith. One minor crisis in their life - even a prayer unanswered can suddenly make Christianity look more like a burden than a real help. Are you surprised? How will their children be raised? How about their grand children? This is the story not merely of America but of Western civilization in the last few decades.

So we vaguely recognize there's a problem in our culture with the detachment of fathers. What do we do? We make it worse! So many of our children's movies have the hero (the child) the bad guy and then the pseudo bad guy (usually the father). The father is either a bumbling idiot throughout the movie merely for comic relief or he is the emotionally detached - too busy with work to deal with kids - father. In the end, he'll come around on hearing a few words of wisdom from his child. Do you see that? Remember what I said in the beginning? We think that fathers have more to learn from their children than children from their fathers.

This is no solution to the problem - only a recognition (even in the secular world) that it exists. I think this manner of recognizing it though, is making it worse (or at least not helping). Now children think its their job to teach fathers (or merely laugh at them). Fathers start to think they need to wait patiently to hear 'wisdom from the mouth of babes' (or merely entertain them). I see this happen constantly. Now the answer isn't merely to go out and play baseball with your son. That's our culture's answer. You see how well that is working. You think playing catch with your son is the extent of your fatherly duties? You need to invest your life in your children if you want dividends.

There was a time when men passed on wisdom to their sons from generation to generation. There was a time when sons wanted to please their fathers and gain their approval (actually, they still do but the fathers don't want to be pleased!) The sons react by acting out - gaining independence. They become their own men - on their own and on their own terms. The problem is, they haven't learned any wisdom from their fathers - how will they pass it on to their sons? They are all but doomed to repeat their fathers' errors - they will stand aside and watch life happen. Actually they should be so lucky - in fact they don't even watch life happen. They are too busy looking for temporal pleasure while life passes them by.

The mothers, of course, know something is wrong. But their fathers didn't model correctly for them and so they don't quite know what it is. We assume hyper-dysfunctional families are normal and acceptable simply because they are so common. That's fine. We'll get divorced and try a second time - a third if need be.

So what is to be done? Culturally, nothing - just wait for judgment. Individually - we need to look to more advanced cultures than ours (I speak of cultures which we would otherwise call primitive). The aborigines are a good place to start I think. See how the fathers pass on wisdom to their children. If the mantra of real estate is "location, location, location" then the mantra of fatherhood might be "wisdom, wisdom, wisdom" and of course, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.

If you thought you were preparing your children for battle, wouldn't you train with them each day to ensure their survival? How about if you were preparing them for spiritual battle? What would you do?

I am lucky to have a great father. Many people I meet weren't so lucky. God, grant us more fathers to lead the next generation into loving You!


Michael Zappe said...

Wow, very nice post! Having recently dived into fatherhood myself, I appreciate everything you're saying here. I try to pray every night that I'm able to impart at least the beginning of wisdom to my son. I also have the distinct advantage, and therefore additional demand, that I get to start with the tabula rasa. Thank you for reminding people of the order that God made things to be, that even the pagans knew, but former Christendom is forgetting.

Gretchen said...

I love your passion about fatherhood. When I married my husband he immediately took on the duty of raising my 8-year-old son. God bless you, your wife, and your son.

TheDen said...


That's truly an excellent post. As a fellow father, I don't think anything I do for the rest of my life can compare to being a father.

I truly believe that a person's view of God is directly affected by their relationship with their father.

So, knowing this, it's a frightening responsibility to be the best father I can be to my daughter so that her view of God is not distorted.