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BY Father Dwight Longenecker
The children’s classic The Hobbit was written by a Catholic father for his children.
From that first book, J.R.R. Tolkien went on to write the most popular book of the 20th century, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a deeply devout Catholic, and he knew the power of stories. He enjoyed his children and loved to spend time with them. He knew how important it was for a father to spend time reading to his children.
A survey from Oxford University hammers home this point with statistics. For 40 years, researchers followed the progress of 17,000 children. The children were born in 1958. They were from a whole range of social backgrounds.
The researchers found that the children whose fathers read with them, played with them and organized family outings were more likely to have successful marriages, obtain higher grades at school and achieve higher qualifications. The kids who had involved fathers were more likely to stay out of trouble, less likely to have mental-health problems and more likely to avoid drugs and pre-marital pregnancy. These results were noticeable right across the social classes.
Ann Buchanan, the director of the Oxford University Research Center for Parenting and Children, said story reading at an early age helped create a special bond between father and child. She said, "A lot of fathers are not very confident about what to do with a small child, and reading is a fun activity and helps develop a good relationship."
She continued, "It doesn’t necessarily have to be actually reading — just looking at pictures in a book, having a laugh and saying, ‘Look at that funny elephant’ is productive."
Another researcher, Eirini Flouri from the "National Child Development Study," explained how there are four key areas for fathers to be involved: "An involved father reads to his child, takes outings with his child, is interested in his child’s education and takes a role equal to the mother’s in managing his child."
The research proves the point: Kids need dads. It is not good enough to simply bring home the paycheck at the end of the week. It is not good enough to push the children away or walk out to our own hobbies and friends.
Children need attention. Children need to be listened to. Children need a father’s active love and care.
The vital necessity of a father for a child’s success is even more troubling since family breakdown is growing in epidemic proportions. The number of children being brought up by one parent has risen from 8% to 22% over the last 30 years. In the majority of cases, it is the father who has walked out.
Too many men regard childcare as the woman’s work. They are happy to father children but not happy to be the fathers of children.
The reason children with active dads succeed is because the father helps the child to cope with the outside world. The mother is home-based. She helps a child know how to love and relate to others in the home.
Traditionally, the father has been the one to go out from the home and make his way in the wider world. As such, he is the one who helps the child to deal with the adventure of life and take those first dangerous steps away from the security of home.
Reading adventure stories with a child in the early days helps the child visualize the outside world. When he or she reads with the father, he or she realizes that it is the father who helps him or her think about the outside world in a positive and challenging way.
A father needs to be involved in reading with his child, planning family outings and be involved in the child’s education; but as Catholics, we would add that a father needs to be involved in the spiritual development of the children as well.
When a father prays with his child and goes to Mass with his child, the child draws the conclusion that his faith is worthwhile. Why? Because his dad’s actions show him to be a man of faith and that what Dad cares about matters.
This is a most important point: The things that are never spoken are often more powerful than the things that are taught explicitly.
Our assumptions about God, the world, ourselves, our families and our Church are deeply rooted and far more powerful in the training of our children than all the things that are on the surface. That is why what we do is a far more powerful teacher than what we say.
When a father gets involved with his children, it is worth 10 times more than extravagant gifts, promises or reassurances of his love.
For Father’s Day, we should remember St. Joseph. St. Joseph was the ideal father for Jesus. Joseph was active in these vital areas. He must have read to his child, because we know that it was the Jewish fathers and men who trained the boys to read and trained them to take part in the readings in the synagogue.
Joseph would have trained Jesus to follow on in the family carpentry business, and we see him organizing a family outing to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12. And we know that he took just as much care for the boy as Mary did. St. Joseph is an excellent patron saint for fathers, and we can always ask for his help and prayers when being a father becomes difficult.
With his help and our hard work, our children will grow up to be the happy, successful people we want them to be.
This column has been adapted from an essay that originally appeared in The Universe.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the author of Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers.
Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.