When I think of my father, I am filled with warm feelings. Love, really. Such a wonderful man. Not a perfect man, as he was perfectly human and complex in many ways. A product of his time. He grew up quite poor and worked his way up to be a small business owner. He passed away many years ago, and still, when I think of him, I remember his love, his warmth, the solidity of him.
The way his green eyes sparkled when they looked at me. And how he sometimes found me exasperating. I remember having a conversation with him about what course to study and he tried to convince me that bookkeeping skills were solid and would always provide me with work. Of course, at the time, I disagreed vehemently and scoffed at his small-minded ideas.
Now I see the value of what he was suggesting, even if I know that I could not be a bookkeeper of any skill or value! I often wonder what he’d think if he saw me now – a psychologist playing with other people’s children to help them alleviate their fears and anger and sadness….
We know from research and books and blogs that a father plays a vital role in the psychosocial and cognitive development of their children. Without a doubt, it is evident that fathers are important. After all, they provide one half of the genetic material.
But it is the real father, or father figure, that is vital, as opposed to simply the biological genes and ties. It is the father who is present and who plays an active role in their children’s lives who is considered invaluable. Truly, there is no single way (or perfect way) to raise happy healthy kids and to be a perfect (or good-enough) father.
In fact, fathers can be involved in different types of ways with their children that contribute positively to child development, from playing games and sport to discipline, health concerns and role models of how to be a good man. I was talking to parents at a school recently, and was so impressed by a father who highlighted the fact that in this time of very busy daily lives, it was the quality of the time he spent with his children rather than the quantity that was so precious. He would put away his phone, turn off the TV and engage with them … in a real and human way.
We know that the early involvement of fathers can lend emotional stability and the forming of a close bond that is essential for children, especially in terms of their sense of self and security. Fathers that are emotionally aware also assist their children to develop the vital skills of emotional intelligence, which are furthermore bound up with self-worth and success.
The rough-and-tumble play that many fathers may use to interact with their children is also valuable in development. This may help young children to moderate their use of aggressive impulses and to learn to express and control their emotions in a physically appropriate manner. Taking risks with dad can assist children to develop body awareness and manage basic problem-solving. Fathers, in fact, tend to promote independence and exploration within their interactions with their children.
In South Africa, a large number of children grow up without the presence of a biological father. In 2017, Stats SA conducted a General Household Survey and found that 61.8% of children younger than 18 had fathers who were absent from the household. To be considered a resident of a household, a father needed to spend at least four nights on average per week, for four weeks living there.
It must be acknowledged that reasons for the absence may be complex and included death, work, separation and divorce, the legacy of apartheid labour practices, among others. In fact, the Sonke project took a more detailed look at absent fathers and pointed out that the simple presence of the biological father or father figure is not considered critical. Or even positive. Especially when that figure may be dangerous, violent or have a negative impact on the children and other family members.
“… children need a “father” who is present and aware and reliable. They need someone who can play a part in their story.”
The authors of the Sonke Project did highlight that “Although, the presence of a father in a child’s life does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes, research has shown that generally father absence is associated with negative outcomes for children and women.” (Read the full report here).
Fathers are valuable when present – particularly in terms of what the father stands for as an individual and a human. It is what he brings, what he does, how he provides love and warmth and limits that are important. And added resources, of course. Thus, a father who is present and committed provides emotional and intellectual factors that are essential for development – as well as an important connection to a child’s identity and social standing, particularly in African cultures that place emphasis on linkages to the metaphysical aspects of life, such as the ancestors.
We know that fathers play a critical role in the well-being and development of children, and that at the same time, there are many fathers out there who are not able to fulfil the role for a number of reasons. Positive male figures can play an equally important part and serve as role models who can guide and nurture children, and contribute to all aspects of the child’s development. It’s also never too late for an absent father to try to reconnect.
So, in the end, children need a “father” who is present and aware and reliable. They need someone who can play a part in their story. And that presence and love resonates on – just like it does for me when I am thinking of my father. And the tears still prick underneath my eyelids. I loved him, as difficult and stressed and wonderful and cuddly as he was … I loved my version of him, the part he played in my everyday life, the role he played in my life story! I do not remember his money or his wrinkles or his weight, I remember how he held me in his arms! And for that I am grateful.
Written by Shelley Roe-Berning, counselling psychologist at CentaPaeds