Is there a fathering instinct?
Celebrated child development expert Erik Erikson maintains that adults have a fierce desire to protect and nurture the next generation. This is the generative nature of parenting- to nurture and protect the next generation
We recognise this desire in women as the maternal instinct. Men’s strong desire to look after the next generation is best recognised through their protective instincts. Man as hunter and gatherer has always had the survival of his family and community as a motivating force.
But the generative notion of fathering extends way beyond protection of children. Generative fathering means that men help the next generation not just to survive, but to thrive and grow. It is in the wellbeing of the next generation that traditionally men have left their mark.
This generative or instinctive notion of fathering has been lost in recent years as men have spent less time around their children. Fathers may be born to the task of raising children but they need to be around children so they can nudge fathering out them.
Too often fathers see themselves as playing a role, when the essence of fathering is actually embedded in their own psyche and linked to their child’s development. According to Erikson there are seven tasks that a father carries out to ensure the well-being of the next generation. It is a brilliant framework that helps men move away from playing roles and gets them to focus on the needs of their children. The seven tasks of fathering, also known as fatherwork, are:
1. Ethical work: Men commit to acting in a child’s best interests. Research shows that when men make a strong commitment to look after the well-being of their baby then they will sustain long-term involvement and support for their child. Ethical work is shown when men make decisions about work and careers with their children’s best interests in mind.
2. Stewardship work: This aspect of fathering involves men providing for children and also helping them develop the resources and independence to look after themselves. In many ways this shows itself when dads take on a teaching role, which tend to do when they spend time with kids. Listen to a man when he interacts with his son and inevitably he will be showing him how to do something, even if it is how to kick a football.
3. Developmental work: This aspect of fathering refers to the notion of helping children deal with either sudden change, such as a death in the family, or normal developmental changes, such as moving into adolescence. Dads who do this work well support their children though difficulties and respond with understanding to changes in children’s development.
4. Recreational work: This aspect refers to men’s promotion of relaxation and learning for their children through play. This aspect of fathering tends to be a strong point for many dads, who are the kings of play. It is well-recognised that men play differently with children than mothers, which is fixed in the biological matrix. Men’s domain is rough play, sometimes destructive play and often involves a challenge whether intellectual (e.g chess) or physical.
5. Spiritual work: This aspect of fathering involves men helping children develop values and a set of beliefs that will act as a compass as they move through adolescence and beyond. This involves counselling, teaching and advising. Many readers may remember their own fathers delivering stern lectures, which comes from this aspect of fathering. Good intentions, but poor delivery.
6. Relationship work: This aspect of fathering involves men helping children and young people form relationships and friendships. We do this by sharing our love and thoughts, by displaying empathy and understanding for a child and also by facilitating a child’s relationships with others. In recent times men have stayed out of this area but it is a part of fatherwork.
7. Mentoring: We complete the cycle by ensuring that we support our own children in their own generative work. This involves giving help, support and ideas for our own children when they move into adulthood. In recent years men have fallen down badly in this area as too many men have shallow relationships with their own fathers.
This framework for fathering has depth and breadth. It works on an instinctive level, but many influences come to bear to prevent this instinct and intuition from informing our action. Often it is useful to ask yourself – “What does this situation with my child require of me?” If a child is having friendship issues at school then relationship work is needed. If a child is feeling stressed and needs to relax then it is time for recreational work. If a child gets worked up through play then it is important to do some stewardship work and ensure a child calms down and regains control before bed. If a child is changing schools then it time for some developmental work, to help him or her cope with change.
If you are a father (mothers can do the same thing), reflect on some of the interactions that you have with children, and determine in which area of fatherwork do they fit. You will find that there is an area for each situation. As you respond to children’s needs think about the type of fatherwork you are doing. You will soon discover that you are involved in a variety of very important work. And it will change the way you think about fathering and provide a strong guide to how you should respond to children’s future needs.