National Catholic Register


How to Be a Father

It’s a challenging time to be a father, James Stenson tells the Register. But he also gives advice on how dads can be the leaders of the family.

BY Tom McFeely

June 17-23, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/12/07 at 10:00 AM


James Stenson teaches fathers how to do a better job.

Stenson, a teacher who helped establish two Opus Dei-affiliated boys’ schools in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, has worked since 1989 as an educational consultant specializing in family life and family-school relationships. He has also set up a website (parent and has written several books on effective parenting, including Father: The Family Protector.

Stenson spoke recently about the challenges of fatherhood with contributing editor Tom McFeely during a conference on parent leadership in Vancouver, B.C.

Is this a particularly challenging time to be a father?

Yes, very much so.

Fathers have just lost the sense of the job description that they have, except at a very intuitive basis. I think really since World War II, with the rise of people working outside the home and commuting back and forth, that most people growing up today never see their father work.

That’s a really serious social problem. Because as Aristotle pointed out, young people do not learn virtue by listening to talks and lectures and scolding on virtue. They learn virtue by imitating people they admire.

Oftentimes youngsters admire their basketball coach more than their father. Because if you think about it, the basketball coach is the only adult male some kids see up close every day working.

Since World War II, we’ve had three generations now grow up with a blocked-off idea of what does a father do, what does a man do.

Erma Bombeck said that when she was a little girl, she had a dollhouse with little figurines — the father doll, the mother doll, the kids, the dog and the cat. And she put the mother doll in the kitchen, the kids’ dolls different places, the cat doll in the kitchen and the dog doll outside.

She had the father doll, and she didn’t know what the heck to do with it. She couldn’t figure out what does he do around here anyway. So she just hid it under the bed.

There are reasons for that. What I’m trying to get across to men is that the main job that they have in the family is to be a protector.

Can you elaborate on what this means?

They are four ways a man protects his family.

First, he protects his family physically. In Third World countries, in this country a hundred years ago, if there’s a prowler outside at night, the father would put the kids aside, pick up the fireplace poker and go out and confront whoever it was. If it was a fire he’d lift up the kids and carry them out.

The kids sense he is the strongest person in the family — his muscles are there, he’s the only one who can open the pickle jar. And they sense that he loves them too, partly because of the way he plays with them when they’re small.

To put it another way, the kids sense that Mom and Dad would both die for them. But Dad, in addition, would kill for them. He would do harm to anyone that would try to harm them.

Men are very sharply divided into predators and protectors. It’s just temperamental. And God calls upon you to be a protector, to do as St. Joseph did.

The second way a man protects his family is he protects them from destitution. We call it putting food on the table, providing for the family, but it is a form of protection. If he doesn’t work, if he’s sick or he dies, the family’s in big trouble. The kids sense this down through the ages, from the mother. She defers to her husband as the person who’s responsible for the roof over their heads, food on the table.

That being said, these two ways of protection have been very much diminished in recent decades.

Dad goes out and disappears in the morning, comes home in the night and often just goofs around the house, watches TV and doesn’t do anything — they never see his talents in action. They have very great difficulty establishing a link between what he does out there and the fact that we have food.

Of course we’ve professionalized protection too; dial 911 for police or the fire department.

The other two means of protection, though, are still with us. But I think men are rather clueless about them, frankly.

One is a man protects his wife against the aggression of the children. There are two ages when the kids are very disrespectful to their mother, very aggressive. One is what psychologists call their first adolescence, from 2 to 5. And the other is later, from about 13 to about 15 and a half, 16.

The father is the one who takes the kids aside and says to them, in a no-nonsense voice, “She’s not just your mother, she’s my wife. And I don’t allow anybody to treat my wife with disrespect. Don’t force me to get physical about it, just be nice to her or else.”

Guys who have stepped in have found that kids do respect their mother much, much more. And their wife is extremely grateful.

The final way a man protects his family is that, especially as the kids enter the teen years, he strengthens their judgment, their dealings with people, their integrity, their will, their competence, so that they can later protect themselves.

How does a father do this?

He shows his kids how to make their way in the world, honorably and with their principles intact.

He teaches them savvy. For instance: “The top of somebody’s desk isn’t a bulletin board. Don’t stand there reading at other people’s desks. People think you’re a sneak. Above all don’t be looking at the boss’ desk, and most of all don’t ever let him catch you doing it. He may not fire you on the spot, he probably won’t, but he’ll remember it.

Don’t whisper in hallways, it looks conspiratorial. If you’re going to say something, say it in a normal voice in a private room or something.”

And one of the things a father says also to the kids is, “Stop whining. Don’t complain about things that can’t be helped. Take action or shut up. That’s the manly way to do it.” He tells his daughters this too, “Don’t whine.”

And he tells the kids, “Mind your own business, don’t interfere with things.” This seems to be a very important part of what he teaches at home.

You see, the kids will imitate their parents. And the mother’s job in the family is all-embracing. Everything is her business, everything that goes on under the roof.

So if the kids are not aware, if they’re not careful, they’re imitating the mother and they’re meddling in the affairs of their brothers and sisters outside the family, they’re gossiping.

The father is the one who says, “This is between your mother and your sister. It’s none of your business. Stay out of it.” That’s very important for them to take into professional life, as well: “Stay out of other people’s affairs.”

This last thing that fathers do is so important. For centuries, whenever a son or a daughter left home, it was the father who carried on a correspondence telling them how to live honorably, how to live morally according to the faith.

It wasn’t the mother, it was the father, usually.

Like John Adams and John Quincy Adams — the correspondence between those two was a wonderful correspondence. Or Lord Chesterfield and his son, another famous instance.

So in these areas a father has ongoing responsibilities even after children leave home?

Yes, and it never really ends. You continue being a father, even after you are a grandfather. You just keep at it.

And your kids will always respect you. And in many ways the voice of their conscience is the voice of their mother and father, the memory of their parents’ voices.

In terms of educating children, what is the father’s contribution?

The father, more than the mother, is exacting in terms of competence.

The mother would tend to be more forgiving — “If you made a good effort, that’s fine.” But the father would say, “That’s a good effort, you made a very good thing, but it’s not quite there yet.”

A friend of mine, a science teacher in high school, was having a science fair in middle school, and they had medals for the students who did the best job.

After the science fair was over, some of the parents came up, the mothers in particular, and said, “My son didn’t get an award. You know, he worked so hard and put time into it.”

And the husband is sitting back, kind of embarrassed, and he’s shaking his head and saying, “I told him to get started sooner. He kept putting it off, putting it off, and now he’s getting the results. Now he’s got to live with the consequences.”

The father, in a sense, realizes that all the kids’ work now is a preparation for their real-life work in the professional world, and he tries to show the criteria whereby that can be done effectively and competently.

What are the mistakes that fathers commonly make?

The most serious thing, I think, is they neglect to teach moral values to the kids. As I said before, they don’t have a job description so they think the job is mostly to provide for a comfortable home and then to share in that comfort.

Most North American homes today center around amusement. And that’s not real life.

Secondly, the fathers would leave most of the upbringing of their children to their wife, not themselves. The wife is the one who corrects the homework, and the father is more concerned in the athletics.

It should be both. Both parents should be interested in both aspects of the kids’ upbringing.

What can a man do in his spiritual life to assist in his development as a father?

He can depend on God’s help for what he’s lacking. You know, Flannery O’Connor once said that being aware of our limitations is the beginning of greatness. That was certainly true of her.

And he consciously, deliberately, sets a good example for his children. Sometimes that means reforming, that takes a lot of courage.

He leads his kids to the sacrament of reconciliation because it’s difficult going to confession. But they see their father coming out of the confessional happy, because it is the sacrament of innocence regained.

To have an active prayer life, and above all, asking the children for their prayers. Most parents don’t do that. Make it clear to the kids, “Your prayers are worth a lot more than mine because you’re young and God loves children.”

Take them for visits to the Blessed Sacrament. They’ll never forget it, they’ll remember it all their lives.

What can wives do to help their husbands be better fathers?

There’s one woman I knew in Milwaukee who put this wonderfully. She said, “I think the job of a woman and a mother is to keep reintroducing her husband to the children as a great man.”

A man’s reputation in his family depends on his wife.

Tom McFeely writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.