ccclosefacebookheartsearch

Are fathers necessary?

Photo: Jim Champion. Creative Commons.

Dads can offer a lot in any kind of family. But it may turn out that children just need more than one person to love and care for them, regardless of sex.

My sense of the value of fathers has long been torn between my own experience in that role and the findings of social science about their importance. Let me explain.

When I was in college in the 1960s, Freudian psychoanalysis was very influential. Freud saw family dynamics as the key to understanding psychological development. In his view, mothers provided nurturing while fathers provided discipline.

Normal development depended on the family drama: boys had to overcome sexual rivalry with their fathers—the “Oedipus complex”—and their fear that their fathers might castrate them to prevent them from seducing their mothers.

Girls, for their part, had to fall in love with their fathers, get over that, and accept the fact that mother had won him. Neurosis could result from a failure to progress through these stages—a sort of arrested emotional development.

Anthropologists were skeptical. Bronislaw Malinowski found that in the Trobriand Islanders he studied, a matrilineal society, the mother’s brother was important for discipline, while fathers were affectionate and boys had no sexual rivalry.

Margaret Mead challenged Freud’s idea that girls suffer penis envy, pointing to cultures where men have womb envy, with fathers pretending to give birth. It seemed that Freud’s thinking was limited by the families around him; fathers play different roles in different cultures.

We have seen a huge rise in single-parent families, mostly single-mother. The children have problems, yet there is no epidemic of mental illness as some might have predicted based on Freud’s theories.

So are fathers really necessary?

Not for discipline, which women can do too. Some psychologists now think that it is the father’s role to stimulate, excite, play, and introduce children to the world outside the family. But even that may be a Western idea.

Now we have single-parent families headed by mothers or fathers, and children raised from infancy with two mommies or two daddies. Cultures around the world, and some within Western nations, have relied on grandmothers more than fathers.

I became a single father after my wife’s death—the kids were 18, 14 and 9—and I certainly was needed then, but I was more like a mom than a conventional Western dad. (I often say that I was a great dad, but it was a lot harder to be a pretty good mom.)

Dads can offer a lot in any kind of family. But it may turn out that children just need more than one person to love and care for them, regardless of sex.