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November 24, 2015
By Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Understanding the true role of fathers in children’s lives got a boost this week here (The Root, 11/22/15). Writing for a largely African-American audience, Sheehan Fisher takes on many of the current-day myths about fathers as uninterested in their children. His main point is that this has never before been the case and isn’t now, pop culture notwithstanding.

The movement in this country to treat fathers as equal participants in the parental team is not new. Yet our culture continually projects the view of fathers as secondary or peripheral parents.

The phraseology of the “maternal-child” health care system ignores the father’s relevance to the family. The lack of baby-changing tables in men’s bathrooms is not conducive to early paternal child care. Our country ignores these needs of fathers based on the belief that they aren’t as crucial to a child’s development.

Fisher points to the recent spate of social science and “news” about young fathers who are more involved in their children’s lives than were their own dads. But then he asks the crucial question “But is it New?” The answer of course is that it’s not.

Recent media discussion is emerging about the “modern-day father” who is more involved and contributing at home. But just like the recycling of fashion, the “new father” is actually an echo of the “old father” from centuries past. 

The history of fatherhood in this country contradicts the notion that fathers were traditionally distant, uninvolved men who left the parenting responsibilities to mothers. Going back to the Colonial era, fathers were closely involved in the upbringing of their children, since families were typically working together on their farmlands and on other responsibilities.

It was not until the machine age in the late 1800s, when many fathers left their homes to work in factories to support their families, that the family structure shifted parenting roles.

Just so. Indeed, the United States was actually a predominantly agrarian nation until the Great Depression. Only then, with the astonishing numbers of bank foreclosures of farms and the subsequent move by those families to cities, did the United States become a mostly urban society.

What did that mean in terms of paternal involvement with children? A lot. Consider the typical family farm. If it was well-run (and lucky), it managed to feed its members off of what it produced and brought in a bit of money from the sale of anything extra it produced. That meant everyone worked – men, women and children from a very young age. It also meant that everyone lived together, usually in fairly limited space.

Is it even possible that, under those conditions, fathers wouldn’t take an active role in childcare? Recall that human beings are a bi-parental species, one of between 5% and 10% of mammals who are. Recall as well that the more we learn about male brain chemistry, the more we understand that men’s brains are wired for fatherhood.

And of course children need their fathers just as much as they do their mothers.

So of course the fathers in those farm families took an active role in childcare. Everyone in those families worked at everything that was necessary for the family to get along. And that applies not just to American families in the early 20th century, but to all human societies since the establishment of agriculture some 11 millennia ago.

Plus, long before that, we now know, human females began selecting as mates, not only the males who were the best hunters, but those who appeared to be the best fathers as well. That sexual selection by females resulted in the child-focused men we’ve seen all along.

That this is new to current pop culture comes as no surprise. Fortunately it’s not new to Sheehan Fisher.

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