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Functional Families and Healthy Kids: Fathers are the Key
Although currently dropping, recent divorce and separation rates in the United States of America have been alarming. This means many children will grow under the care of a single parent or in dysfunctional families.
How does this affect the family unit? Do we even care about the family unit and its effects on children anymore?
“As a child brought up by a single mother, I always felt ashamed. Like I am not the same as other boys I played with. I don’t know why, but I always felt incomplete.” Demir, my friend from college, shared last summer as we spoke about our families.
I almost felt guilty for assuming that everyone had the ‘dad experience’ when growing up as I had.
I define the ‘dad experience’ as the cultivated relationship that children develop with their fathers as they grow up in a two-parent household. Many couples report that the baby develops an instant bond with the mother but it takes some effort to do so with the father. The exact reasons for this phenomenon are better explained by scientists but in my opinion, the father’s presence remains critical in the baby’s development and later life.
Everyone understands the importance of mothers to their children- they are the support system for the baby as it comes of age. However, few people understand the role of fathers and the privilege of having both in the family unit. The cognitive, emotional, and social development of a child is affected by the environment in which they grow and the roles of both parents are dominant.
Boys will imitate and model themselves after their fathers (Image source: https://www.liveabout.com/complex-father-son-relationship-quotes-2832485)
Studies show that children from stable family backgrounds are better in many ways. By being ‘better’ I mean their performance in many life activities such as relationships, education, and the workplace. Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, recently completed the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study and concluded that children from ‘fragile’ or dysfunctional families are less likely to progress in education and graduate than those from stable families. The stability of families surpasses the presence of two parents but the presence of both parents is a major predictor of stability.
For us to understand the role of fathers, I feel it is crucial to first understand the dynamics different gender children engage with their fathers. (Forgive me for narrowing down to gender binaries but am sure you understand this is for simplicity.)
Boys will always imitate and model themselves after their fathers. As probably the first man they come across, they are likely to subconsciously internalize the qualities of a good man from them. A gentle, supportive, and protective dad will likely raise a son of their calibre. Similarly, abusive dads may create feelings of resentment and break their sons in their childhood.
Girls, on the other hand, will learn about the characters of a good man from their father. As teenagers and young adults, they are likely to attract a man who has their father’s characteristics. This is because they are familiar with how a man treats a girl based on their family behaviors and traditions. We are definitely not grooming girls only for husband choice but we have to acknowledge the importance of such relationships later in life.
We can agree that we still live in a patriarchal society and the men in our lives influence how we develop and see the world around us.
It is possible to talk about relationships all day. However, let us revert to the first few years of life and see how father-child relationships affect the emotional and social development of children. I am sure you have heard common stereotypes of emotionally dysfunctional girls as having ‘dad issues.’ This is, admittedly, a misogynist statement but its origin is in science.
Why do some children develop persisting emotional issues early in life?
Obviously, emotional development depends on many aspects and one of them is the parental environment. For a baby to feel secure, they need a consistent, protective, and predictable environment. Such an environment can be created when the father is consistently involved with their child. Other than merely providing for their physiological needs, an emotional connection is paramount. The baby comes to prefer people who provide tranquillity and peace through a process of emotional attachment.
A child will feel secure in a predictable, caring, consistent environment (Image source: https://boba.com/blogs/boba-reads/the-importance-of-dads)
On the contrary, a baby exposed to chaotic childhood is likely to develop trust issues and emotional disturbances which may last a lifetime. What happens when one is scared? Adrenaline is triggered and the ‘fight or flight’ response follows. This is a biological reaction in everyone, including babies.
Absent parents or parents who are chaotic may threaten the safety of the child. The conditioned reaction to adults will then be a ‘fight or flight’ response which means they will keep fighting or fleeing for a long time in life unless this conditioning is reversed.
What does all this mean?
For starters, fathers need to be present in their children’s lives. Stabile, two-parent families are preferable but when not possible, consistency also counts. The differences between spouses should not interfere with parent-child relationship.
Secondly, even for present fathers, it is not enough to be a provider. You need to step up and become more involved. Hold and play with your baby or toddler, engage in creative activity with your pre-teen, talk, and connect with your teenager. You are the backbone to their emotional, cognitive, and social development.
Fathers are key figures in determining children’s cognitive development (Image source: https://www.iheart.com/content/2020-01-28-video-surfaces-of-kobe-bryants-fatherdaughter-date-day-before-his-death/)
I consider myself a liberal but I am aware of the risks liberalism can bring to the family unit. With divorce no longer being a big deal in the community, most couples will rush to separate at the slightest chance.
Dysfunctional families continue to affect our children. What are we doing about it? Should our children grow up emotionally broken and socially dysfunctional? For you, the mother, create a stable environment for your child.
Even more important for you the father, connect with your child. Show love and be present for them.
While any man may father a child, it takes compassion, attention, time, and connection to make a great dad- the key to any functional family and successful children.