THE PRIORITY OF FATHERING
BY DR. JAMES C. DOBSON
I was walking toward my car outside a shopping center a few weeks ago, when I heard a loud and impassioned howl.
“Auggghh!” groaned the masculine voice.
I spotted a man about 50 feet away who was in great distress (and for a very good reason). His fingers were caught in the jamb of a car door which had obviously been slammed unexpectedly. Then the rest of the story unfolded. Crouching in the front seat was an impish little three-year-old boy who had apparently decided to “close the door on Dad.”
The father was pointing frantically at his fingers with his free hand, and saying, “Oh! Oh! Open the door, Chuckie! They’re caught . . . hurry . . . Chuckie . . . please . . . open . . . OPEN!”
Chuckie finally got the message and unlocked the door, releasing Dad’s blue fingers. The father then hopped and jumped around the aisles of the parking lot, alternately kissing and caressing his battered hand. Chuckie sat unmoved in the front seat of their car, waiting for Pop to settle down.
I know this incident was painful to the man who experienced it, but I must admit that it struck me funny. I suppose his plight symbolized the enormous cost of parenthood. And yes, Virginia, it is expensive to raise boys and girls today. Parents give the best they have to their children, who often respond by slamming the door on their “fingers”–especially during the unappreciative adolescent years. Perhaps that is why someone quipped, “Insanity is an inherited disease. You get it from your kids.”
Without wanting to heap guilt on the heads of my masculine readers, I must say that too many fathers only sleep at the* homes. And as a result, they have totally abdicated their responsibilities for leadership and influence in the lives of their children. I cited a study in my previous book What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women that documented the problem of inaccessible fathers. Let me quote from that source.
An article in Scientific American entitled “The Origins of Alienation,” by Urie Bronfenbrenner best describes the problems facing today’s families. Dr. Bronfenbrenner is, in my opinion, the foremost authority on child development in America today, and his views should be considered carefully. In this article, Dr. Bronfenbrenner discussed the deteriorating status of the American family and the forces which are weakening its cohesiveness. More specifically, he is concerned about the circumstances which are seriously undermining parental love and depriving children of the leadership and love they must have for survival.
One of those circumstances is widely known as the “rat race.” Dr. Bronfenbrenner described the problem this way, “The demands of a job that claim mealtimes, evenings and weekends as well as days; the trips and moves necessary to get ahead or simply to hold one’s own; the increasing time spent commuting, entertaining, going out, meeting social and community obligations . . . all of these produce a situation in which a child often spends more time with a passive babysitter than with a participating parent.”
According to Dr. Bronfenbrenner, this rat race is particularly incompatible with fatherly responsibilities, as illustrated by an investigation in the 1970s which yielded startling results. A team of researchers wanted to learn how much time middle-class fathers spend playing and interacting with their small children. First, they asked a
group of fathers to estimate the time spent with their one-year-old youngsters each day, and received an average reply of fifteen to twenty minutes. To verify these claims, the investigators attached microphones to the shirts of small children for the purpose of recording actual parental verbalization. The results of this study are shocking. The average amount of time spent by these middle-class fathers with their small children was thirty-seven seconds per day! Their direct interaction was limited to 2.7 encounters daily, lasting ten to fifteen seconds each! That represented the contribution of fatherhood for millions of America’s children in the 1970s, and I believe the findings would be even more depressing today. (What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women (Wheaton, ILL.: Tyndale, 1975], pp. 157-58)
Let’s compare the 37-second interchanges between fathers and small children with another statistic. The average preschool child watches between 30 and 50 hours of television per week (the figures vary from one study to another). What an incredible picture is painted by those two statistics. During the formative years of life, when children are so vulnerable to their experiences, they’re receiving 37 seconds a day from their fathers and 30 or more hours a week from commercial television! Need we ask where our kids are getting their values?
Someone observed, “Values are not taught to our children; they are caught by them.” It is true. Seldom can we get little Johnny or Mary to sit patiently on a chair while we lecture to them about God and the other important issues of life. Instead, they are equipped with internal “motors” which are incapable of idling. Their transmissions consist of only six gears: run, jump, climb, crawl, slide, and dive. Boys and girls are simply not wired for quiet conversations about heavy topics.
How, then, do conscientious parents convey their attitudes and values and faith to their children? It is done subtly, through the routine interactions of everyday living (see Deut. 6:4-9). We saw this fact illustrated in our own home when Danae was ten years old and Ryan was five. We were riding in the car when we passed a porno theater. I believe the name of the particular movie was “Flesh Gordon,” or something equally sensuous. Danae, who was sitting in the front seat, pointed to the theater and said, “That’s a dirty movie, isn’t it, Dad?”
I nodded affirmatively.
“Is that what they call an X-rated movie?” she asked.
Again, I indicated that she was correct.
Danae thought for a moment or two, then said, “Dirty movies are really bad, aren’t they?”
I said, “Yes, Danae. Dirty movies are very evil.”
This entire conversation lasted less than a minute, consisting of three brief questions and three replies. Ryan, who was in the back seat, did not enter into our discussion. In fact, I wondered what he thought about the interchange, and concluded that he probably wasn’t listening.
I was wrong. Ryan heard the conversation and apparently continued thinking about it for several days. But amusingly, Ryan did not know what a “dirty movie” was. How would a five-year-old boy learn what goes on in such places, since no one had ever discussed pornography with him? Nevertheless, he had his own idea about the subject. That concept was revealed to me four nights later at the close of the day.
Ryan and I got down on our knees to say his bedtime prayer, and the preschooler spontaneously returned to that conversation earlier in the week.
“Dear Lord,” he began in great seriousness, “help me not to go see any dirty movies . . . where everyone is spitting on each other.”
For Ryan, the dirtiest thing he could imagine would be a salivary free-for-all. That would be dirty, I had to admit.
But I also had to acknowledge how casually children assimilate our values and attitudes. You see, I had no way of anticipating that brief conversation in the car. It was not my deliberate intention to convey my views about pornography to my children. How was it that they reamed one more dimension of my value system on that morning? It occurred because we happened to be together . . . to be talking to one another. Those kinds of subtle, unplanned interactions account for much of the instruction that passes from one generation to the next. It is a powerful force in shaping young lives, if! If parents are occasionally at home with their kids; if they have the energy to converse with them; if they have anything worthwhile to transmit; if they care.
My point is that the breathless American life-style is particularly costly to children. Yet 1.8 million youngsters come home to an empty house after school each day. They are called “latchkey” kids because they wear the keys to their front doors around their necks. Not only are their fathers over committed and preoccupied, but now, their mothers are energetically seeking fulfillment in the working world, too. So who is at home with the kids? More commonly, the answer is nobody.
Have you felt the years slipping by with far too many unfulfilled promises to your children? Have you heard yourself saying,
Son, we’ve been talking about the wagon we were going to build one of these Saturdays, and I just want you to know that I haven’t forgotten it. But we can’t do it this weekend ’cause I have to make an unexpected trip to Indianapolis. However, we will get to it one of these days. I’m not sure if it can be next weekend, but you keep reminding me and we’ll eventually work together. And I’m going to take you fishing, too. I love to fish and I know a little stream that is jumping with trout in the spring. But this just happens to be a very busy month for your mom and me, so let’s keep planning and before you know it, the time will be here.
Then the days soon become weeks, and the weeks flow into months and years and decades . . . and our kids grow up and leave home. Then we sit in the silence of our family rooms, trying to recall the precious experiences that escaped us there. Ringing in our ears is that haunting phrase, “We’ll have a good time . . . then . . .”
Oh, I know I’m stirring a measure of guilt into the pot with these words. But perhaps we need to be confronted with the important issues of life, even if they make us uncomfortable. Furthermore, I feel
obligated to speak on behalf of the millions of children across this country who are reaching for fathers who aren’t there. The names of specific boys and girls come to my mind as I write these words, symbolizing the masses of lonely kids who experience the agony of unmet needs. Let me acquaint you with two or three of those children whose paths I have crossed.
I think first of the mother who approached me after I had spoken some years ago. She had supported her husband through college and medical school, only to have him divorce her in favor of a younger plaything. She stood with tears in her eyes as she described the impact of his departure on her two sons.
“They miss their daddy every day,” she said. “They don’t understand why he doesn’t come to see them. The older boy, especially, wants a father so badly that he reaches for every man who comes into our lives. What can I tell him? How can I meet the boy’s needs for a father who will hunt and fish and play football and bowl with him and his brother? It’s breaking my heart to see them suffer so much.”
I gave this mother a few suggestions and offered my understanding and support. The next morning I spoke for the final time at her church. Following the service, I stood on the platform as a line of people waited to tell me goodbye and extend their greetings. Standing in the line was the mother with her two sons.
They greeted me with smiles and I shook the older child’s hand. Then something happened which I did not recall until I was on my way back to Los Angeles. The boy did not let go of my hand! He gripped it tightly, preventing me from welcoming others who pressed around. To my regret, I realized later that I had unconsciously grasped his arm with my other hand, pulling myself free from his grip. I sat on the plane, realizing the full implications of that incident. You see, this lad needed me. He needed a man who could take the place of his renegade father. And I had failed him, just like all the rest. Now I’m left with the memory of a child who said with his eyes, “Could you be a daddy to me?”!
Another child has found a permanent place in my memory, although I don’t even know her name. I was waiting to catch a plane at Los Angeles International Airport, enjoying my favorite activity of “people watching.” But I was unprepared for the drama about to unfold. Standing near me was an old man who was obviously waiting for someone who should have been on the plane that arrived minutes before. He examined each face intently as the passengers filed past. I thought he seemed unusually distressed as he waited.
Then I saw the little girl who stood by his side. She must have been seven years old, and she, too, was desperately looking for a certain face in the crowd. I have rarely seen a child more anxious than this cute little girl. She clung to the old man’s arm, who I assumed to be her grandfather. Then as the last passengers came by, one by one, the girl began to cry silently. She was not merely disappointed in that moment; her little heart was broken. The grandfather also appeared to be fighting back the tears. In fact, he was too upset to comfort the child, who then buried her face in the sleeve of his worn coat.
“Oh, God!” I prayed silently. “What special agony are they experiencing in this hour? Was it the child’s mother who abandoned her on that painful day? Did her daddy promise to come and then change his mind?”
My great impulse was to throw my arms around the little girl and shield her from the awfulness of that hour. I wanted her to pour out her grief in the protection of my embrace, but I feared that my intrusion would be misunderstood. So I watched helplessly. Then the old man and the child stood silently as the passengers departed from two other planes, but the anxiety on their faces had fumed to despair. Finally, they walked slowly through the terminal and toward the door. Their only sound was the snuffing of the little girl who fought to control her tears.
Where is this child now? God only knows.
If the reader will bear with me, I must introduce you to one other child whose family experience has become so common in the Western world. I was waiting at Shawnee Mission Hospital for word on my dad’s heart condition, after he was stricken in September. There in the waiting room was an American Girl magazine, which caught my attention. (I must have been desperate for something to read to have been attracted to the American Girl.)
I opened the cover page and immediately saw a composition written by a 14-year-old girl, named Vicki Kraushaar. She had submitted her story for publication in the section of the magazine entitled “By You.” I’ll let Vicki introduce herself and describe her experience.
That’s the Way Life Goes Sometimes
When I was ten, my parents got a divorce. Naturally, my Father told me about it, because he was my favorite. [Notice that Vicki did not say, “I was his favorite.”]
“Honey, I know it’s been kind of bad for you these past few days, and I don’t want to make it worse. But there’s something I have to tell you. Honey, your mother and I got a divorce.”
“I know you don’t want this, but it has to be done. Your mother and I just don’t get along like we used to. I’m already packed and my plane is leaving in half an hour.”
“But, Daddy, why do you have to leave?”
“Well, honey, your mother and I can’t live together anymore.”
“I know that, but I mean why do you have to leave town?”
“Oh. Well, I got someone waiting for me in New Jersey.”
“But, Daddy, will I ever see you again?”
“Sure you will, honey. We’ll work something out.”
“But what? I mean, you’ll be living in New Jersey, and I’ll be living here in Washington.”
“Maybe your mother will agree to you spending two weeks in the summer and two in the winter with me.”
“Why not more often?”
“I don’t think she’ll agree to two weeks in the summer and two in the winter, much less more.”
“Well, it can’t hurt to try.”
“I know, honey, but we’ll have to work it out later. My plane leaves in 20 minutes and I’ve got to get to the airport. Now I’m going to get my luggage, and I want you to go to your room so you don’t have to watch me. And no long good-byes either.” “Okay, Daddy. Good-bye. Don’t forget to write.” “I won’t. Good-bye. Now go to your room.”
“Okay. Daddy, I don’t want you to go!”
“I know, honey. But I have to.”
“You wouldn’t understand, honey.”
“Yes, I would.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“Oh well. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye. Now go to your room. Hurry up.”
“Okay. Well, I guess that’s the way life goes sometimes.”
“Yes honey. That’s the way life goes sometimes.”
After my father walked out that door, I never heard from him again. (Reprinted by permission from American Girl, a magazine for all girls published by Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.)
Vicki speaks eloquently on behalf of a million American children who have heard those shattering words, “Honey, your mother and I are getting a divorce.” Throughout the world, husbands and wives are responding to the media blitz which urges and goads them to do their own thing, to chase impulsive desires without regard for the welfare of their families.
“The kids will get over it,” goes the rationalization.
Every form of mass communication seemed mobilized to spread the “me first” philosophy during the 1970s and early 1980s. Frank Sinatra said it musically in his song “I did it my way.” Sammy Davis, Jr., echoed the sentiment in “I’ve gotta be me.” Robert J. Ringer provided the literary version in Looking Out for Number One, which became the best-selling book in America for 46 weeks. It was flanked by Open Marriage, Creative Divorce, and Pulling Your Own Strings, among hundreds of other dangerous best sellers. The best program then sold the same sickness under the guise of psychological health.
It all sounded so noble at the time. It was called “the discovery of personhood,” and it offered an intoxicating appeal to our selfish lusts. But when this insidious philosophy had wormed its way into our system of values, it began to rot us from within. First, it encouraged an insignificant flirtation with sin (perhaps with a man or woman from New Jersey) followed by passion and illicit sexual encounters, followed by camouflaging lies and deceit, followed by angry words and sleepless nights, followed by tears and anguish, followed by crumbling self-esteem, followed by attorneys and divorce courts and property settlements, followed by devastating custody hearings. And from deep within the maelstrom, we can hear the cry of three wounded children–two girls and a boy–who will never fully recover. “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:15, K]V).
For those younger fathers whose children are still at an impressionable age, please believe the words of my dad, “The greatest delusion is to suppose that our children will be devout Christians simply because their parents have been, or that any of them will enter into the Christian faith in any other way than through their parents’ deep travail of prayer and faith.”
If you doubt the validity of this assertion, may I suggest that you read the story of Eli in 1 Samuel 2-4. Here is the account of a priest and servant of God who failed to discipline his children. He was apparently too busy with the “work of the church” to be a leader in his own home. The two boys grew up to be evil young men on whom God’s judgment fell.
It concerned me to realize that Eli’s service to the Lord was insufficient to compensate for his failure at home. Then I read farther in the narrative and received confirmation of the principle. Samuel, the saintly man of God, who stood like a tower of spiritual strength throughout his life, grew up in Eli’s home. He watched Eli systematically losing his children, yet Samuel proceeded to fail with his family, too! That was a deeply disturbing truth. If God would not honor Samuel’s dedication by guaranteeing the salvation of his children, will He do more for me if I’m too busy to do my “homework”?
Having been confronted with these spiritual obligations and responsibilities, the Lord then gave me an enormous burden for my two children. I carry it to this day. There are times when it becomes so heavy that I ask God to remove it from my shoulders, although the concern is not motivated by the usual problems or anxieties. Our kids are apparently healthy and seem to be holding their own emotionally and academically. (Update: Danae finished college in 1990 and Ryan was completing his junior year at the time this was written.) The source of my burden derives from the awareness that a “tug of war” is being waged for the hearts and minds of every person on earth, including these two precious human beings. Satan would deceive and destroy them if given the opportunity, and they will soon have to choose the path they will take.
This mission of introducing one’s children to the Christian faith can be likened to a three-man relay race. First, your father runs his lap around the track, carrying the baton, which represents the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the appropriate moment, he hands the baton to you, and you begin your journey around the track. Then finally, the time will come when you must get the baton safely in the hands of your child. But as any track coach will testify, relay races are won or lost in the transfer of the baton. There is a critical moment when all can be lost by a fumble or miscalculation. The baton is rarely dropped on the back side of the track when the runner has it firmly in his grasp. If failure is to occur, it will likely happen in the exchange between generations!
According to the Christian values which govern my life, my most important reason for living is to get the baton–the gospel–safely in the hands of my children. Of course, I want to place it in as many other hands as possible, and I’m deeply devoted to the ministry to families that God has given me. Nevertheless, my number one responsibility is to evangelize my own children. In the words of my dad, everything else appears “pale and washed out” when compared with that fervent desire. There is no higher calling on the face of the earth.
(Taken from Straight Talk: What Men Need to Know, What Women Should Understand, by Dr. lames C. Dobson [Dallas: Word, 1991], pp. 59.60, 63-66, 68-73, 77 79, 82.)
A Man and His Family Personal Evaluation
On a scale from 1 to 10 rate yourself in the following areas, with 1 being “terrible” and 10 being “perfect.” If you’re comfortable with the idea and really want to gain some additional insight, you might also have your wife or kids rate you in these areas. If you aren’t married but have children, skip to question 6. If you’re single and not a father, answer the following question: What can I do now to prepare to be a good husband and father if God leads me into marriage?
1. My wife and I have a clearly defined menu of expectations regarding our relationship and our family.
2. My wife and I understand and regularly engage in meaningful communication.
3. My wife and I are involved in a small support group to help us strengthen our marriage and family.
4. My wife and I recognize our personal and emotional wounds suffered in the past, and we have learned how to compensate for them.
5. My wife and I are dependent on the Lord Jesus Christ for quality life.
6. I spend plenty of quality time with each of my children. (How many minutes a day would you estimate you spend talking with each child?____)
7. My children know my values, and they are picking up the values and attitudes I care deeply about.
8. When I make a promise to my children, they know I will always keep it.
9. When it comes to the ultimate purpose in life, each of my children understands how I feel about a relationship with Jesus Christ and shares that core value with me.
Now review your list. Does one area stand out as something that needs the most attention right now? What will you work on first? In that number one area, what one thing could you do to help move that rating closer to 10? (You might ask for help here from your wife or children.)
In the Group
1. Talk about how you did this past week in the activity you selected to help move you closer to purity.
2. In 60 seconds or less, describe the quality of marriage you saw in your parents’ relationship as a child. (Each member should do this.)
3. Complete the following statement: I would describe the quality of time my father spent with me when I was a boy as . . . (Each member should do this.)
4. Do the answers to questions 2 and 3 give you any insights into the success or failure of your own marriage and parenting? For singles-do these answers give you insight into your potential for success in your future family (if you have one)?
Next, based on the needs of your group, you can focus the remaining discussion on either marriage or fathering.
5. What are some of the things on your menu of expectations for your relationship with your wife (or if you’re single, with your future mate)?
6. How meaningful is communication with your wife? What can you do in the next week to make it more meaningful for her?
7. How do you express your values to your children (by telling them, by what you do, by how you spend your time and money, by what you read or watch on TV, etc.)?
8. Have you heard someone say recently, or have you said: “Well, I’m not spending much time with my children, but it’s not really the quantity of time that’s so important, it’s the quality of time”? What is your feeling about that statement?
9. What changes can you make now in order to spend more time with your children? How?
Memory Verse: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…. Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 5:25; 6:4).
On Your Own
1. Write down one activity you plan to do this week to strengthen your marriage or parenting. Write it in your Day-Timer or on a 3×5 card to remind yourself.
2. Read Promise 5, “A Man and His Church,” prior to the next meeting.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS TAKEN FROM SEVEN PROMISES OF A PROMISE KEEPER, AND PUBLISHED BY FOCUS ON THE FAMILY PUBLISHING, 1994, PAGES 115-127. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY