Some thoughts about fathers on Fathers Day

Another Fathers Day comes around.  Thank God for good fathers and there are so many of them.  Unfortunately, I was not so blessed, but I have had wonderful father surrogates such as my doctoral advisor Niels Nielsen, my main seminary mentor Ralph Powell and my dear friend Roger Fredrikson (all now in their 90s and going strong!).  These men leaned into my life in ways beyond the call of duty and much of any good I have achieved is due to them (and they deserve none of the blame for anything bad I have achieved).

One thing I notice during the week leading up to Fathers Day each year is how ambivalent people are about it.  While some media pundits have celebrated the good dads among us, others seem always to enjoy reminding us of how many fathers have abandoned their children or abused them.

One example is a recent Associated Press article published in our local newspaper with the headline (assigned by the local newspaper) “Roles of dads in America change.”  The article reports on a Pew Research Center report that says 27 percent of fathers with children 18 or younger live away from at least one of their children.  The number is more than double the share of fathers who lived apart from their children in 1960.

The article begins with a shocking statistic: “Nearly half of American dads who will be under 45 years old on Father’s Day on Sunday said they have at least one child who was born out of wedlock.”

The article contains a little good news but immediately qualifies it.  Fathers who live with their children are spending more time with them (especially educated fathers).  But the qualification is that it is still only about half the amount of time mothers spend with their children.  (The article doesn’t say whether or to what extent this takes into account hours worked by fathers compared with hours worked outside the home by mothers.)

I think much of the bad news is regional.  I was recently in a major city noted for its progressive culture and saw many dads with their children in parts where I jogged for exercise.  In fact, I saw more dads with their children, just “hanging out,” than mothers.  Of course, that doesn’t prove anything, but it indicates to me (because this was not a common sight years ago) that dads are becoming more involved in their children’s lives.  Thank God for that!

I often feel hurt by society’s treatment of dads.  These articles and news stories that seem to abound around Father’s Day create an impression that all fathers are defective.  It is natural for readers of such articles and viewers of the entertainment media’s portrayals of fathers, to “globalize” and project such faults and flaws onto all dads.  (Look at the television shows with fathers; almost universally they are portrayed as seriously flawed in some way.  It was not always so.  Think back to “My three sons” and “The Cosby show.”  Now think of “Two and a half men” and “Modern family.”  I think the latter is a hilarious comedy, but all but the two gay men are portrayed as deeply flawed fathers.)

True, our society is experiencing a “father crisis.”  President Obama has acknowledged this and rightly called on fathers to honor their obligations to their children.  But not all fathers are or ever have been so negligent.  When my daughters were growing up I delighted in spending time with them and often was the one taking them to the doctor and playing games with them and getting up in the night to care for them when they were sick or had nightmares.  It was the greatest joy I ever had in life and I miss them terribly.  (Although I do get to see them sometimes; they live far away.)

We are allowed to see very few good fathers depicted on television or in movies.  Even the ones who go out and rescue their children when they are kidnapped (etc.) are often portrayed as profoundly violent and as having been estranged from their kids until they rescue them.  (I’m thinking for example of the movie “Taken.”)

Fact it.  It’s a major trope of contemporary American entertainment media and news–bad fathers.  It’s so over done as to create the impression that all fathers are bad–with a few exceptions such as perhaps one’s own.

I could cite numerous examples.  Here’s just one.  A couple years ago on the Saturday before Mother’s Day I happened to catch a few minutes of one of the morning “news” (really variety) shows on a major network.  A female “host” was informed by one of her male colleagues that he read a news story saying that a mother is worth such-and-such thousand dollars a year (well over one hundred thousand) because of all the work she does for her kids and husband.  Another male host queried “I wonder how much a dad is worth?”  The female host quickly quipped “seventy-five cents.”  The two male hosts looked at her shocked and then faked laughter.  She didn’t laugh.  She was making a serious statement even if an admitted exaggeration.  Her opinion of fathers reflected many people’s.

I, of all people, could project my own experience onto all dads.  My father was neglectful and emotionally abusive.  I have almost no good memories of him.  But I have been blessed to know many wonderful fathers over the years who would gladly lay down their lives for their wives and kids.  You don’t see that celebrated throughout the year.  There may be one or two stories in the media right about Father’s Day–such as this morning on a major network’s Saturday morning variety program.  I’m glad for little favors.

Our society is suffering a “father hunger” crisis.  Far too many children are fatherless.  But I lay part of the blame on feminists who have loudly proclaimed “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and who have bashed fathers and men in general as overall sinister influences.  (Of course not all feminists are guilty of this, but far too many are.)  And I lay part of the blame for the father crisis on society that has bought into this myth that, as one feminist said, “All men are potential rapists.”  All this negative communication about men and fathers amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I believe boys are growing up very confused about the value of being a man and being a father.  Rosie O’Donnell adopts a boy and the world celebrates it.  After all, a boy doesn’t need a father.  Yes, he does.  It is simply a fact of nature (and of the order intended by God).  Young males need good, powerful, loving males to mentor them and that usually means a dad.

I once saw a documentary about young male elephants in Africa who went wild and became violent towards other elephants–rogues–in the absence of older males.  When older male elephants were introduced into their groups the young males settled down almost immediately.

I think our society has lost its mind about men and fathers and their importance and value to families and especially children.  Fathers Day seems to be the only time of the year when it is okay to speak positively about men and celebrate their contributions to their families. But even then there’s a lot of reminding about the negative and a lot of humor about men and fathers you wouldn’t hear about women and mothers especially around mother’s day.

So, please celebrate your dad if he’s been a good dad and speak kindly of the men who have spoken well into your life.  And do whatever you can to help turn around this negative image of men and fathers in American society.  Let boys know they are valuable as boys and potential husbands and fathers and counter the negative images portrayed of men and fathers in the media.

  • http://www.barrybiblicalnotes.com Barry Applewhite

    Dr. Olson,
    You are raising a critical issue, as you do so often!

    I would like to add that I am sick and tired of “smart woman, dumb man” advertising on television that has been saturating the airwaves for over 40 years. Just watch TV ads for an hour and try to find one where men are presented as something other than a joke or a jock.

    Think also about movies such as “ET, the Extraterrestrial,” which added the idea that all adults are idiots, and only children can save civilization. Other movies since then have done the same.

    Part of the reason fathers are so under-appreciated is that media are filling children’s minds with trash about the role of men in society and the family, and Christians are saying nothing about it. Now we are seeing the result!

    -Barry

    • rogereolson

      My point exactly. I have written many e-mails to companies that display TV ads featuring dumb men. One in several ads featuring a dumb man is fine; they are, however, the norm.

  • gingoro

    One of the saddest situations is when both parents are abusive or just ignore the children. It leads to children eventually asking “If they didn’t love us, why did they have us?”.
    Dave W

  • Daniel W

    I have two things to point out.

    1. I think the era of man-hating feminists is largely over. Of course there still are some, but it is no longer very prevalent. I gather this from observation. I am a graduate student at a secular state university, and all of my female colleagues would consider themselves feminists. However, none of them could really be considered “man-hating” like some feminists in the 60s and 70s were. I also come across many articles written by prominent feminists due to my association with my female colleagues, and I see the same trend there. Men are not often denigrated in the way they were in the earlier waves of the feminist movement.

    2. I don’t know how much we can blame the advertisers. I think they are tapping in to the fantasies of many American mothers. I, too, have noticed this extremely irritating trend of portraying dumb men. However, I think that picturing husbands and fathers as stumbling doofuses may be one way that some mothers feel empowered while under the weight of domestic responsibility. The mother feels empowered and more important because her husband could not survive as a man, much less a father, without her. This eases the strain of the burdens placed upon her. Even working women often still find themselves left with the majority of the responsibility when it comes to child-rearing and maintaining a clean house. You can write this theory off if you would like. It’s just a thought.

    • JohnM

      I do blame the advertisers for pandering to the insecurities and resentments of women at the expense of men, and note that it’s not really doing women any favor either. However, I don’t fault secular advertisers as much as I do Pastors and other Christian speakers for often doing the same thing. The place for Christians to begin challenging a negative image of men propagated by stale denigrating humor is in the church.

      • Daniel W

        You are right. It was wrong of me to just clear business interests of responsibility. There’s too much of that. I guess what I meant was maybe we should make sure to show mothers real support. This especially applies to working mothers. If both parents work outside the home equally, then they should also put forth equal effort in caring for the children.

  • Pingback: Theologian Roger Olson has thoughts about Father’s Day | Political Jesus

  • LectorEl

    My issue with father’s day is that my gentle, patient father, and my brilliant, steadfast step-father are both erased by the manufactured ur-dad that supposedly represents every good father in the world. Which, no. I can’t be the only one whose Father(s) don’t fit the beer-drinking, rough-and-tumble, grillmaster, man-child stereotype. Fathers deserve to be acknowledged as being all over the spectrum of humanity, not the narrow little wedge they’ve been shoved into.

    On another note, please don’t blame the feminists. We’d like nothing more than for men to be equally involved parents and participants in adult life. The stereotype that we hate men is a vicious, petty-minded smear campaign that became a cultural meme.

    I’d recommend spending a little bit reading feminist blogs- they can very enlightening. A few good starter blogs, that cover things you might like are ‘Sociological Images’,(It’s host is down right now, but hopefully it’ll be up in a day or so) ‘Shakesville’, or ‘finally, a feminism 101 blog’.

    The best starting place would be here, on ’101′. You’ll be happy to find confirmation that feminists don’t, in fact, hate men:

    from there, I’d recommend these pieces on Shakesville:

    Man Haterz

    Mommy Vs. Daddy

    The Terrible Bargain

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t say all feminists hate men. I said SOME do. I’ve run into them now and again. I think popular culture has absorbed some of the worst ideas of some feminists about men. Also, if I may elaborate, I think many women love the men in their lives but don’t like men in general. (I’m sure it’s true also that many men love the women in their lives but don’t really care about women in general–i.e., their real well being). I would probably count as a feminist in the broadest sense of the word. I consider men and women absolutely equal and deserving of everything the other gender deserves. What I don’t see in our culture is any respect for men. Unless a man is in the military or a sports hero or a great scientist he isn’t likely to get any respect in the media. I agree with you that “Men deserve to be acknowledged as being all over the spectrum of humanity….” That’s where our culture is failing boys and men. Boys are not being acknowledged as valuable for their maleness; as Garrison Keiller wrote in The Book of Guys “Being a man used to be a privilege; now it’s just a problem.”


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