Good Dads are Patriarchs

The best dads are old-fashioned patriarchs according to a Globe report of a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Good fathering is all about stability, says the study, which seems to result from having a wife, a college diploma, and strong ties to non-domestic-sphere institutions such as the church and civic associations. One might hope that after a century of feminist struggle and decades of the gay and lesbian movement’s challenging of the nuclear family norm, that what’s considered the “good” 21st century dad wouldn’t be such a perfect match for the character profile of the lead in “Father Knows Best.”

But the data shows that “involved” dads, are “conventional men.” They go to church, participate in civic activities, show up for family dinners, favor their sons and “biological” children, and occasionally pick up their kids and toss them up and down for fun. At a time when federal and state governments are tying welfare to marriage and punishing women who stray from the two-parent, heterosexual cookie-cutter version of parenting, this study and mainstream reporting on it, is a thinly disguised boost for right-wing social policy that hurts women, children and men.

So, since the stakes are high, and since studies assert “facts” that are used to defend and reinforce social and cultural norms about what families should look like, let’s examine the data (as reported by the Globe) and see what sense we can make of it.

The study categorizes dads by whether they are involved in civic organizations, whether they have “biological” or “nonbiological” children, their level of education, their religious affiliation, and the gender of their children. Then it ranks them as below average, average, or above average when it comes to their level of involvement with their kids. It further quantifies “good fathering” by counting the number of dinners dads eat with their kids, and the number of hours they spend on organized youth activity.

The most significant conclusion of the study seems to be that dads who are involved in community/civic activities and who are either Evangelical Protestants or Catholics are above average when it comes to one-on-one time with their kids, and they rank particularly high when it comes to “hours per week of organized youth activities.”

Newspapers spun the story as evidence that “ties to church, town make for better fathers” (Boston Globe, 8-12-01, p. A4). But a close examination of the data reveals what I would call a much more startling and newsworthy revelation. According to the small print at the bottom of the table, “average” is defined as a dad who “took part four times per week in some kind of one-on-one activity, such as reading to the child, helping with homework, or playing.”

Four times??

How is it possible that the average dad can look back over the average week and count only four events — of any length of time — with his kids? And these are kids he lives with! It seems to me the headline might just as well have read, “Even above-average dads rarely interact with children.”

Not that I put much stock in studies that attempt to reveal something about parenting. They always seem to raise more questions than they answer. What’s the best way to measure parent/child interactions, for example? Is reading “Goodnight Moon” to your toddler a significant one-on-one event? It takes less than three minutes, after all, and is essentially a rote activity after the first time through.

I myself have read whole books to my children, with accurate timing for picture-viewing and plenty of expression in my voice, while my mind was 95% elsewhere. This is an important skill I developed ages ago when my kids were toddlers and begged to hear the same book over and over again. Repeated readings of even the most charming children’s books can get extremely boring and any parent with a sense of self-preservation will develop similar antidotes to the tedium.

I am much more “present” when I am doing other things like having my 6-year-old help me cook dinner. But for family researchers, this probably does not rank as quality time. It’s not child-centered. It’s certainly not “playing” or “helping with homework” (as the study defines one-on-one time), yet I’m much more engaged during this sort of parallel activity than I am during the 452nd reading of “Goodnight Moon.” She is wielding a vegetable peeler, after all, and this requires my attention. Vegetable slices are landing on the floor and she is eating half the ingredients. If I don’t pay attention, there will be no meal.

They didn’t ask whether dads cook dinner with their kids in this particular study, but they did discover how many dads showed up to eat dinner with their kids. Just about any dad, it turns out, eats about 4.4 meals per week with his kids. Those Evangelical Protestants are top-ranking by a slim margin, sharing .3 additional meals with their kids per week than the average. And the wandering “unaffiliated” flock, who have not been to church or attended a Promisekeepers rally recently, manage to eat 4.2 times per week with their kids.

Does any of this matter? Does the half a meal extra that the Evangelicals eat with their kids make them better dads than the unaffiliateds? What if the deeply religious are using those mealtimes to remind their children to beware of the devil or scarfing down food prepared by the dutiful wife, who also serves it, cleans it up, and takes menu suggestions for future family dinners? Is this the definition of good fathering? Does context or background labor matter? Apparently not.

The same is true for the church-goers’ quality time. All we know is that they experience something more than 4 one-on-one events per week with their kids, and that this parenting “time” follows the basic “banking” model (nod to Paulo Freire) — you make a deposit into the kid (e.g., help with homework) and expect to be able to make a withdrawal later on (e.g., a higher rank in fathering polls).

What about all the crucial parenting activities that don’t follow this model? Walking your kid to the bus stop and waiting there with her in the rain; spending half an hour on the phone ironing out health insurance snafus; painting their bedroom; bringing them with you to the picket line, the rally, the meeting; teaching them how to clean the bathroom — over and over again!

And what about dads who have very little choice? Or whose family lives are structured so that these quantifiable moments are actually irrelevant to the quality of their parenting? Many of the Salvadoran immigrant fathers I teach ESL to work two jobs.

Abraham Romero is a security guard at a mall in the suburbs from midnight to 8:00 am. He comes home in the morning, sleeps for a few hours and then eats lunch with his family. At 2:30 he drives his wife to her job and then drives himself to his job as a hospital janitor, where he works from 3-11. Then it’s a quick change of uniform and then security guard shift begins all over again. “But I have weekends for my family,” he says. And that seems awfully generous to me.

It would probably be better for him if he simply slept all weekend. The study, however, renders his kind of dedication invisible. It doesn’t ask, for example, how many hospital toilets you clean each week in exchange for the privilege of raising your children in the Land of Opportunity.

Turns out the one thing Evangelical Protestant and Catholic dads really score high on compared to Mainline Protestants and unaffiliateds is “hours per week of organized youth activities.” The former spend about 2 hours more than the latter. Why might this be? The study does not say. But one guess is that some churches and civic groups are youth oriented anyway, so dads involved in these institutions are naturally more involved in organized youth activities.

As with the quality time and the dinners, the study doesn’t tell us anything about what the organized activities are.

Does it matter?

Yes. We do not do our parenting in a vacuum. Coaching Little League, escorting the church youth to the bowling alley, showing up for dinner, and/or reciting “Goodnight Moon” are not automatic signs of “good” fathering. In fact, could it be that during a time of war such as we are in now, a time when institutions are reinforcing inequality and laying the groundwork for a future society that will have our children be either the oppressors or the oppressed, the haves or the have-nots, could it be that coaching Little League is a poor use of time for any caring dad?

Not that I’m against kids playing baseball.

I’m just tired of a popular culture that reinforces patriarchal norms, and that offers a narrow, context-less definition of good parenting — one that encourages us to focus on quantifiable moments and micro-behaviors, rather than the world our kids will inherit from us, and the tools we will have equipped them with to carry on.

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