In Turkish, Mandarin Chinese and Swahili it is “baba.” In Spanish, Swedish, Russian, Norwegian, Japanese, English, and many others, it is “papa.” These similar linguistic roots are not surprising, because the word we translate as “father” comes from the cooing sounds that babies from every country make. That’s right new dads, the fact that Jill or Johnny is saying your name is probably not a sign that they recognize you, but just an ancient labial pattern that gives us one of our most venerable, cross-cultural words: Father. With Father’s Day recently celebrated, we thought it would be apropos to honor our fathers with a few thoughts.
The emphasis on the role of the father in a child’s development has clearly waned in the 21st century. Traditionally, the patriarch was considered by far the most crucial figure in a child’s development. As Adrienne Burgess points out in her book Fatherhood Reclaimed, in 18th-century England, the father was so much the dominant parental figure that the words parent and father were interchangeable. As time wore on, the mother became more identified as the key figure in children’s development, and that is pretty much where we still stand today. Many have written about how the portrayal of the father in media has declined from the wise, caring man (think “Father Knows Best”) to a clownish figure (a la Homer Simpson) and that declension is part of a broader, far more serious problem.
Today, it seems clear that fatherhood is in a state of crisis in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America — one out of three — live in biological father-absent homes. Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor. In 2011, 12 percent of children in married-couple families were living in poverty, compared to 44 percent of children in mother-only families. Similar statistics—well documented in the good work of the National Fatherhood Initiative—prevail for a multitude of social issues, from education to incarceration to obesity and drug abuse. Even churches are impacted by the “father factor,” as pastors, rabbis and priests all share that many of their potential congregants relate a similar sentiment: “I couldn’t trust the father I see; how can I trust the father I don’t see?”
Yet, in the midst of these clouds, there is light dawning on the horizon, as leaders are fostering a resurgence in the critical role of fatherhood. Tony Dungy reminds fathers that we “have been fooled into thinking that we can get joy and satisfaction from everything except fatherhood….but nothing will give us joy like seeing our offspring flourish.” Dungy’s organization, All Pro Dads, is one of many that are working to ensure that the best values of our generation are conveyed to the next through great dads. There is a national “responsible fatherhood initiative,” and President Obama has said that being a father is the most important job he has. He has even challenged dads across the nation to sign a “Fatherhood Pledge” to support responsible fatherhood.
Like many of you, I was blessed with a remarkable father. Coming to the U.S. from Havana, Cuba in 1940, he loved America, and taught us all to cherish the freedoms we share here—freedoms his country still does not enjoy. He taught us to passionately connect with every moment of life, because each one is a gift from God—the ultimate Father.