Involvement, influence, and affection: three keys to father-child relationships. Though they may sometimes find it difficult to express their feelings, most fathers care about their children and families.
In a 1980 Gallup poll, six out of ten fathers said their families were "the most important element of my life at this time." Only 8 percent said their families were unimportant to them. When asked what they found most satisfying about their families, fathers rated "children," "closeness," and "being together" as personally important. 
This hearty endorsement of family life contradicts some of the traditional roles or popular images of fathers in our society:
The Wallet: This father is preoccupied with providing financial support for his family. He may work long hours to bring home his paycheck and does not take an active part in caring for the children. Making money provides this father with a distraction from family involvement.
The Rock: This is a "tough" father - strict on discipline and in charge of the family. He may also believe that a good father remains emotionally distant from his children, so expressions of affection are taboo.
The Dagwood Bumstead: This father tries to be a "real pal" to his children, but his efforts are often clumsy or extreme. He doesn't understand his children and feels confused about what to do. He may also feel that he is not respected within the family.These traditional stereotypes are now clashing with another image of a father:
The Caregiver: This father tries to combine toughness with tenderness. He enjoys his children but is not afraid to set firm but fair limits. He and his wife may cooperate in childrearing and homemaking.
This type of father has always been around. But the number of men who choose this role is increasing. Many fathers today recognize that family life can be rewarding and that their children need their involvement.
This shift in roles is influenced by two major social changes: the increase in the number of women working and the rising divorce rate. As more and more mothers join the work force, fathers are being asked to take on more responsibilities at home. In 1979, 40 percent of the mothers of children under age 3 were employed. Instead of remaining on the fringe of family life, many fathers are helping more with child care and housekeeping.
Fathers are also profoundly influenced by the escalating divorce rate. For every two marriages there is now one divorce - a tripling of the divorce rate between 1960 and 1980. If they are not directly involved in a divorce, most men have friends who are. They witness the loss their friends have experienced and reexamine the importance of their own family relationships. Remarriage and stepfathering are also creating new challenges for many fathers.
Because of these changes in our society, many men are being forced to develop family relationships that are quite different from those they had with their own fathers. They cannot easily fall back on their own childhood experiences for guidance. What worked very well for their fathers 20 or 30 years ago may not work at all with the kinds of challenges fathers face today.
These changes in social attitudes mean that men have more options for meeting their obligations as fathers and husbands. Some men will express their feelings more openly, while others will be more reserved; some will enjoy the companionship and play of very young children, while others will prefer involvement with older sons and daughters. Fathers do not have to try to fit a certain stereotyped pattern.
According to sociologist Lewis Yablonsky, a man's fathering style is influenced by some or all of the following forces: his enthusiasm for being a father, his own father's behavior, the images of how to be a father projected by the mass media, his occupation, his temperament, the way family members relate to each other, and the number of children he has. No single style of fathering or mothering, no matter how ideal it appears, is right for everyone.
Regardless of their personal style, most fathers are interested in having a satisfying relationship with their children. Although they might not be able to put it into words, most fathers know they are important to their children. According to psychotherapist Will Schutz, a good relationship needs three things: involvement, respect and influence, and affection.
Involvement: The Foundation of a Relationship
The first step in any relationship is the feeling by both persons that the other is interested in them and wants to be with them.
Many fathers begin to prepare for this kind of relationship before their child is even born. A father who seeks involvement is interested in his wife's pregnancy and makes preparations for the child's birth. When the child is born he is eager to hold the infant. In countless small ways, this father demonstrates involvement - he may gently touch and play with his children, hold and talk to them. By doing these things he sends a clear and emphatic message:
I want to be your father. I am interested in you. I enjoy being with you. You and I have a relationship that is important to me.
Every child wants to sense this type of involvement from his or her father and mother. Without it, a child feels isolated and rejected. The foundation of the relationship crumbles.
What the Research Shows
Research on father-child involvement demonstrates that :
(1) Fathers are significant for children;
(2) Fathers are sensitive to children;
(3) Fathers play with children differently than mothers do.
These differences in play continue as the child grows older. Fathers may vigorously bounce and lift a 1- or 2-year-old in rough and tumble physical play; mothers may prefer to play conventional games like "peek-a-boo," offer an interesting toy, or read. Fathers' play appears to be more physically stimulating while mothers are more interested in teaching.
As a result, children seem to prefer fathers as play partners, though in a stressful situation they may be more likely to turn to their mothers. This preference could be due to fathers spending a greater proportion of their time playing with their children than mothers. One researcher noted that about 40 percent of a father's time with his young children was spent in play in contrast to about 25 percent of the mother's time. Even though fathers may spend less total time in play than mothers, their type of play and their apparent interest in that type of involvement make them attractive play partners.
There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern. Some men simply do not enjoy playing with children, and some mothers may prefer an arousing, physical form of child play. Also, when both parents work, the additional demands on the family could affect the amount of time one or both parents spend enjoying their children.
Suggestions for Fathers
How can fathers become more involved with their children? First, they can give each of their children exclusive attention as often as possible. During their time together fathers could enjoy their children's company without allowing outside distractions to interfere. As a result, their children would feel noticed and special. There is no single formula for how this might be accomplished. A father and child might play, talk, learn a skill or read together. What is important is that they notice each other and acknowledge a common interest. This type of undistracted attention promotes a sense that each is important to the other.
Fathers might also give their children a glimpse of their work world. Children want to know what life is like outside the home and what their parents do at work. Many farm families and small businesses include their children in the operation at an early age. Parents in other occupations may find it more difficult to give their children a glimpse of their work, but even brief visits or tours will help.
Business and industry are gradually beginning to acknowledge that many workers are parents too, and that adjustment in this role can have a positive effect on work performance. Some industries provide day care centers for children of their employees. Both mothers and fathers are able to visit their children during breaks.