Countless studies have shown that having an engaged father greatly increases a child’s chances of having a good life.
But why? What is it that dads do that matters so much?
If we are familiar with the most crucial aspects then we can focus and make sure to be there for our kids in the best ways possible.
This week’s video explores the psychological science behind fatherhood and will help you hone in on how to be a great dad.
Watch more videos at Full Frontal Fatherhood.
There is so much talk in the media about the importance of fathers and so much research that has shown that if we are an engaged father, our children are far more likely to be happy, successful and have satisfying relationships.
It is really clear that we are important, but why are we important? What is it that we provide to a child that is so valuable? If we know the important part of being a good dad then we can do it all the better.
Before I get into it, I want to address the fact that oftentimes there is not a father or there are two moms or two dads. I could have titled this video “Why it’s so important to have two involved adults,” because really it does not have to be a man that inhabits this role, but there is a real value in it not just being a single parent and child. If this is the situation, there are things you can do to effectively bring a third person or second adult into the equation and I will talk about that a little later in the video.
Similarly, although I’m speaking to the typical mother and father roles, a truly healthy relationship allows both parents to move between the masculine and feminine, each inhabiting positions of power and vulnerability, authority and tenderness.
The Great Value of Mom
Mothers are wired to merge deeply with their babies. When the baby comes out, it experiences a sense of oneness with the mother. It has no conception of being separate from the mother and there is an amazing sense of their body and the mother’s body being connected. The mother is genetically predisposed to really make the baby her world, and that profound bonding is crucial to the babies development.
As the child grows, he or she is slowly learning a sense of self separate from the mother. They learn themselves in the reflection of how we respond to them. When the mom is staring into the baby’s eyes for hours and responding to the baby’s cues, she is literally helping wire her child’s brain and provide the building blocks for his or her personality. It is even encouraged that moms allow themselves to fall into that almost obsessive bubble of merging with the baby.
This primary care giver doesn’t have to be a woman, just someone who will take the time to fall into rapture with the baby and really attend to his or her needs. A baby’s brain needs this bonding in order to arrange itself properly and without it, people literally go varying levels of insane.
The Need for a Dad or Third
As magical as this connection is, there is a need for a balancing force and this is typically provided by the father. When the dad is present from the earliest moments, the baby learns that the world doesn’t just consist of Mom. There is something beyond the sense of oneness with the mother.
With this ‘realization’ comes a sense of freedom and choice. Without a dad or a third really involved individual, the child lives in a world where the mom is the only source of goodness and thus they learn that they need to meet Mom’s needs and be connected to Mom in order to get goodness. With the father, there is another place to go to get their needs met.
What Happens without a Dad
For so many of us, being in an intimate relationship is very challenging. For far too many, it is almost impossible. Many of us are scared of being really close to another person. Scared of losing ourselves in commitment. Or scared of being rejected and abanonded. The vast majority of this wounding comes from the lack of an engaged father combined with complications in the bonding and separation from the mother that occurs in the first months of life.
When you only have a single parent and child, or a disengaged father, the child learns that they need to keep the parent happy in order to keep their world happy. A child in a home with just one parent is greatly dependent upon that parent’s mood. When the parent is down, the world is down.
This isn’t some theoretical possibilty, it’s a widespread perdicament. As an example, children in these situations often grow up to become really good at meeting the needs of those around them, but ignoring their own needs. Because this is a very compromised situation, many people with this experience simply avoid committed relationships, but still go through life lonely and longing for something more.
The fact is that when two people, any two people, are stuck in a bubble together, they often become overly merged. They start to try to take care of each other’s needs and they lose their own sense of individuality. As a baby becomes its own person, their need is to develop their sense of individuality and separateness.
Having a third person in the mix who can really connect with the child, shows them another option and teaches the child that they do not have to keep mom happy in order to be happy. When mom is down, dad is there to provide another experience and vice a versa. This teaches them individuality and choice free from the pressure of having to take care of mom’s needs in order to get their own needs met.
Dad Frees the Child from Responsibility
Another key value of a father or a third is that the child gets to see the father and mother getting their needs met from each other. They are relieved to see that not only is there another source of goodness in their relationship with the father, but that the parents will get their needs met from one another, thus further preventing the child from feeling inappropriately responsible for the parents.
If you see a child that does not have an engaged third and thus it is just a parent and a child, it can be very hard for that child to trust that they do not have to take care of that parent. If the child grows up seeing their parents get taken care of by somebody else, it is liberating to their system, they trust that their parents are going to be okay and that they can take care of themselves. They learn that they can move in and out of connection with the mother, the father and themselves as they desire. Thus the child is free to develop and individuate in a very healthy way.
The Value of a King
As fairtales tell us, growing up in a world with a good king and queen allows us to feel safe. If we don’t mess it up, our children see us as kings and queens. They idealize us and believe we can protect them from all harm in the world. They trust that we are going to take care of them, that life is good and that they are free to play and grow up.
If we, as men, have mixed feelings about our position of authority and our position as a king within the family, it can be detrimental to the child. It used to be that men had a lot of authority in society. We were seen as kings. Fortunately, there has been a lot of valuable questioning of that patriarchical heirarchy. Unfortunately, it has left far too many men very hesitant about inhabiting their kingly aspects. But that is what our children need.
Obviously I am not talking about a dominating, authoritarian king, but just a king that feels comfortable in himself, comfortable in his own power and comfortable with his own sense of humility.
As the child grows, they will come to see that their parents have all types of weaknesses and flaws. A true king is comfortable with his fragility and imperfections, and is not trying to just be a narcissistic, tough king.
Once again, this does not have to be a man. It could be any third person who provides this ‘masculine’ authoritive role.
Joy in Challenge
It is often said within the field of psychology that we all have a desire to return to the womb, to return to that state of perfection. We see that in the fantasy of merging with the mother or merging with women. There is a hope that if we can get so close, all the complication will go away.
But the reality is that life is obviously tough and full of pain, loss and vulnerability. It is often through the identification with the father that he can teach the child that life has many difficulties and that we can face them with gusto. We show them that life is not
just about ease, comfort and being taken care of, it is also about having to hold ourselves, feel our own vulnerability, sit in our pain and find contentment within ourselves.
When It’s not Just Two Parents
There is a lot to be said about what to do when it is a single parent and the child. One of the most important things to do is for the parent to be aware if they are getting their emotional needs met from the child. Of course, being a parent is deeply emotionally satisfying, but if we do not have another person with whom we can truly connect and get intimacy, there is a way in which we turn our children into our little partners and that puts a lot of detrimental pressure on them.
It is important to really watch for this potential of using your kids in this way and make efforts to get deep adult connection. At the same time it’s valuable to bring a person regularly into your child’s life, so they have another adult with whom they can identify and with whom they can feel safe.
Obviously, it is a lot harder to do when there is not two parents in the family altogether, but it is possible for all of us to show that child that they do not need to take care of their parent.
To be clear, having two parents of the same sex rarely matters in these regards. One parent almost always inhabits the more queenly role and one the more kingly. Ideally parents of all orientations swap their roles and thus their children can experience their fathers being more feminine and their mothers more masculine.
Thank you for joining me for another episode of Full Frontal Fatherhood. I would love to hear your ideas about these thoughts. Please join the conversation below and I will see you next time for another episode of Full Frontal Fatherhood.