At 10:28 a.m. on Sunday, December 6, 1907, an explosion occurred in mines 6 and 8 that were owned by the Fairmont Coal Company of Monongah, West Virginia. The blast killed most of the men inside the mine instantly, but one Polish miner was rescued, and four Italian miners escaped. Of the 362 men who died, 250 were fathers, leaving about a thousand fatherless children. The Monongah mining disaster has been described as “the worst mining disaster in American history.”
Grace Golden Claytons was a daughter of one of the men killed in the disaster. Grace suggested that her pastor, Robert Thomas Webb, honor all those lost fathers in a special service. Thus, on July 5, 1908, the first observance of a “Father’s Day” was held in Fairmont, West Virginia, in the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South. Two years later, on June 19, 1910, a Father’s Day celebration was held in Spokane, Washington. Sonora Smart Dodd had heard a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, and approached the Spokane Ministerial Alliance about a day to honor fathers, and the alliance chose the third Sunday in June. Thus, the first Father’s Day sermons honoring fathers were presented throughout the city that day.
While a number of attempts were made in the United States to have a special day set aside in the yearly calendar to celebrate fatherhood, it was another 60 years before President Richard Nixon proclaimed a permanent national day in honor of fathers, signing it into law in 1972.
What do dads do for their kids that warrant this special attention? How can dads be there for their kids, especially their sons? In an age when the role of the father has been misunderstood and minimized, it’s worth reflecting on why fathers matter.
The relationship a boy shares with his father is a constant in life. While friendships with school friends, university friends, and work colleagues might come and go, the father-son relationship lasts a lifetime. “While other male role models may add to a boy’s understanding of manhood, a father is the most important connection in a boy’s life,” writes Roland Warren, a father and a former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
Warren suggests four things every son needs from his father.
- to know that he matters to his father
Boys need to know that they matter—that they count! They need to be assured that their father sees value in them simply because they are, not because of what they do. “The primary way dads can help their sons understand that they matter is by making them a priority over the myriad demands that life throws at us,” says Warren. Boys can’t afford to get the message that they’re worth only the “leftovers” from their fathers. There’s no end to the things that demand a father’s time and energy—work, technology, sports, entertainment, the gym—and it’s easy for boys to get the message that they aren’t important.
Dads need to know that there’s a huge difference between “being in the house” and merely “being at home.” They can be physically present but emotionally distant. They may be inside the house, but their attention is on what they need to complete in the garage, a comparative analysis of sales on their laptop, or the football scores on TV. The words No, I can’t have a game with you, son. I’m way too busy are heard too many times in our homes.
As Tim Winton admits, “I suspect that, as contemporary parents, we all tend to expect too much—to have every cake and eat it too. We’re at the mercy of our social and material ambitions. Often our kids come off second best to this compulsion to be bigger, richer, groovier. That’s why I cringe when I hear that yuppy phrase ‘quality time.’ So often it’s guilt time, obligation time . . . paying my dues time, being seen to be a good father time. There are men of my generation who spend less time with their kids than their fathers did.”
Warwick Marsh from the Dads4Kids Fatherhood Foundation collected the following data from a variety of sources that clearly portrays the importance of fathers being present with their kids. Boys with involved fathers are
- 40 percent less likely to repeat a grade in school;
- 70 percent less likely to drop out of school;
- more likely to get A grades in school;
- more likely to enjoy school and engage in extracurricular activities;
- more secure as infants;
- less likely to show signs of depression;
- less likely to commit suicide;
- more empathetic; and
- less aggressive.
- to know that his father loves him
Every boy needs to hear the words “I love you” from his mother, and it’s even more important that he hear these words from his father. But this isn’t easy for fathers to do! It isn’t the usual way of being the tough, in-control, macho father! It can be uncomfortable, but it’s essential that fathers convey their love to their sons. A son may not be able to kick a ball, hold a hammer, or play the trumpet like his dad, but he needs to know that his dad loves him anyway, even when his best choices are the wrong ones. His dad’s love and guidance will open the door to trust and acceptance that build the father-son relationship and help boost the son’s sense of self.
Love provides a sense of anchoring. It conveys the message that in spite of any difficult or tough times, Dad will always be there, Dad can be relied on. Love is also about nurturing and care-taking. It provides a sense of security. “Despite the conventional wisdom that nurturing is primarily the mother’s territory, the root meaning of nurture is “to protect,” a role that most dads are comfortable with,” says Warren.
- to know that what he does is important to his father
A son needs to know that his interests, schoolwork, hobbies, and friends are pleasing to his father. A father can successfully guide his son toward what’s right and valuable only when the son is confident that he has a high degree of acceptance from his dad. Show him that everything he does is important to you, and then you can show him what’s really important—and he’ll welcome it.
As Joseph Hart notes, when a father expresses “criticism, disdain, disappointment or ambivalence of his son, the son never fully matures. Instead, he lives with a private fear that he is not really an acceptable or worthy man.” Sons need to hear words like, “I’m proud of you,” “you’re amazing,” “I know you can do it,” and, “you messed up, but you’ll bounce back.”
As Jim Valvano stated, “My father gave me the greatest gift anyone can give another person: he believed in me.”
A son needs to know that his father is supportive of his dreams. True, he may not be the next Spider-Man, Mark Zuckerberg, or Winston Churchill, but he doesn’t need his father to discourage him from trying! In his book Wild at Heart, John Eldredge describes the “father-wound” that’s handed down from generation to generation, most often as the result of sons not hearing what they need to hear from their dads. Men learn they are men by having their fathers notice and reflect their son’s evolving man-ness—competency, mastery, strength, bravery, and intelligence. This happens best through male bonding and adventure, through affectionate and approving gestures, and through verbal and nonverbal messages of affirmation: “You’ve got what it takes,” “nice shot,” and “atta boy!” “In this way,” says Joseph Hart, “fathers bestow a growing sense of adult masculine identity onto their sons.”
- to know that his father is proud him
A son has an innate need to be affirmed by his father. Affirmation provides the power source for firing up confidence and a positive sense of self. A son needs to know that his dad is pleased with him, not for what he does or does not do but simply because of who he is.
A son who receives words of support from his father only when he completes an assigned task may grow up to be a workaholic, constantly working hard to seek his father’s approval and never knowing when he’s done enough!
The way a father affirms his son will be culturally and community shaped and dependent on his personality and interests. “The objective of affirmation,” notes Warren, “is to meet a son at his particular point of need and to connect to him—heart to heart.” Any act of affirmation by his father, whether big or small, communicates to his son that his love is abiding and unconditional.
Someone once said, “You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons, but if you treat them like sons, they turn out to be heroes, even if it’s only in your eyes.” Every son can be a hero, and every father can make him one!
Trafford Fischer is a family life educator, currently based in Sydney. He is passionate about strengthening relationships.