Why we need fathers

The emperor penguin dad incubates his mate’s eggs, protecting them with a flap of skin, and when they are hatched he plays a full part in providing for them. Most fish dads spread their seed externally, and take no further interest.

Fatherhood accords with the needs of each species, and the proof of success lies in the fact that they survive and flourish. Their instinctive behaviour accords with the law of their own natures as these have evolved.

So what does the nature of the human species require of fatherhood if it is to survive and flourish?

We can try a little reasonable speculation. The complexity of the human being requires a long period of development between conception and adult independence, so we can infer that long-term parental care is needed. We see this first in the mother, who not only carries the baby from conception to birth but is able by nature to feed it. We also know that there is a crucial period in the first two or three years of life when the child’s basic apprehension of his place in the world is largely set. Am I lovable and competent? Do I trust other people? What is approved behaviour? And so on. The child learns by a kind of radar – the messages to and from its close carers.

What is the father’s role at this stage? At the material level he may have to ensure economic security. But he will also have to be a close carer. Anyone who has fathered girls, for instance, will have noticed how quickly they develop the art of managing men. It is here that the child learns to react in somewhat different ways to men and women. Through both parents, the foundations of relationships between the sexes are laid. The future of its lifetime sexual relationships is to a large extent set.

But of course the process continues and, at each stage of development, the child or adolescent has new things to learn about being an adult. Both parents provide role models. We may hope that these are good, complementary models; but we also hope that they will differ in certain respects because the child needs to learn different things from each of them. Another clue to the natural role of the father is through biology. Thus a zoologist from Mars would notice that, in homo sapiens, sexual activity is not confined to the time of fertility but is used as an important bonding activity. So there is a built-in inducement for the mates to remain together. For humans, procreation is not just an instantaneous episode of fertilisation but a long-term process of two-parent nurturing. He would also notice that, whereas the natural law is imposed willy-nilly on the lower animals, the human animal is free to obey or disobey.

This last distinction is important. When a species acts according to its own nature, it flourishes. But since human beings have free will they can choose whether to flourish or whether to decay. And we would expect to find that getting fatherhood wrong would lead to damage. There is plenty of evidence that this is so.
A recent survey shows some of the effects of poor fatherhood on criminality, and this site gives a broad account of general research. This looks at fatherhood under seven dimensions and concludes, following a review of research studies, that “fathers who do well in most of them will serve their children and their families well”.

This will come as no surprise since our own experience and observation confirms this. For instance, when I was marriage counselling I often found that the death of a father was reported, by both men and women, as a major point of change. The death of a mother was much more rarely reported. I speculate that we take a mother’s approval for granted (valued of course, but seen as the mother’s natural duty). But the father’s approval is gratuitous, and so experienced as more important. Paternal support, living up to one’s father’s expectations, failing one’s father, are all highly charged factors. As one study concludes: “Overall, father love appears to be as heavily implicated as mother love in offsprings’ psychological well-being and health, as well as in an array of psychological and behavioural problems.”

There are circumstances, such as bereavement or a father’s profession, which make the full discharge of fatherhood impossible. And mothers may, often heroically, find ways to mitigate the lack. But this is damage limitation rather than an alternative.

Our society puts a low value on fatherhood. We see this in our high rate of teenage pregnancy, the ease of divorce, the growth of co-habitation, which is notoriously unstable, and the fiscal benefits of single parenthood. Our attitude towards placing a child for adoption in a same-sex partnership, or even allowing a child to be born into a same-sex partnership, needs have nothing to do with any moral view we have of such partnerships. It is simply something to be avoided just as we might avoid placing a child with elderly parents or in a marriage we know to be unstable. The child is less likely to flourish.

You will have seen that I have traced the deep need for fatherhood entirely from what we know about human nature. The only assumptions I have made are that the interests of the child trump the interests of the putative parents, and that we should wish to arrange society in ways that help it to flourish. It is up to those who think fatherhood to be unnecessary to demonstrate their case with the same tools.


Visit the STOP PRESS page to review The Catholic Herald’s strong leading article this week on the outcome of the Second Reading in the House of Commons of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Tell us what you think.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Why we need fathers

  1. Andy says:

    “Our attitude towards placing a child for adoption in a same-sex partnership, or even allowing a child to be born into a same-sex partnership, needs have nothing to do with any moral view we have of such partnerships. It is simply something to be avoided just as we might avoid placing a child with elderly parents or in a marriage we know to be unstable. The child is less likely to flourish.”

    I was glad to see you not using moral or religious grounds for this argument. However, having used a rational approach to the subject, I’d like to hear you justfify your view that the child is “less likely to flourish”. There is evidence that elderly parents or unstable marriages have a negative effect on a child; in the former case they lose their parents at a young age, and in the latter case, they suffer from their parents’ stress and potentially witness the breakup of the relationship, causing trauma.

    With same-sex parents, there is no evidence for children flourishing any less than they do with heterosexual parents. And this isn’t down to a lack of evidence either way – there is a large and growing number of loving, flourishing families headed by same-sex couples, with good outcomes for the children. Indeed, in the UK social services have historically placed many of the children with greatest needs with gay parents, who have done sterling work meeting those needs, and turning the children’s lives around.

    The quality of a child’s parenting is depends on many important factors, including the stability of the relationship, the encouragement and opportunities given and the unconditional love regardless of the childs choices in life. As adaptable as children are, they cannot flourish if these are missing, which in many cases they sadly are. From my first-hand experience, as long as these fundamentals are in place, the number of mums and dads is something children easily adapt to.

  2. Frank says:

    I thought I had read evidence indicating that same-sex couples’ relationships tend to break down more often than heterosexual couples. If this is true, the problems of an unstable environment would again arise for children.

    Again, is there not evidence that such an arrangement can lead to gender-role confusion for the child?

    The argument is often posed: wouldn’t it be better for a child to be placed with loving people of same-sex attraction rather than a cruel or neglectful heterosexual couple. This weighs the argument one way; what would Andy say would be the child’s best interests in a situation where there is the possibility of choosing either loving heterosexual parents or loving homosexual parents? Sometimes such a scenario must arise?

  3. Andy says:

    Indeed, that scenario arises all the time, where both hetero and homosexual people are being assessed as adopters for the same child or children. Social services make an assement based on every aspect of the prospective adopters’ suitability. Some parents will have less time to devote to children, some will be older, some will have more emotional issues, some will have had recent relashionship problems, some will have less experience with caring for children. These are examples of the things that could cause a couple not to be matched with children. The fact the a couple is of the same sex obviously wouldn’t be ignored as there are implications, mainly the increased potential for bullying from other children. However, there is a wide range of factors which are proven to have a much greater bearing on the child’s outcome.

    There are many areas in which gay couples may have more than others to offer as adopters. Most gay people have been through the trauma of “coming out”, and being different, and have a good empathy with children in care. A high proportion already work in the care industry and with children, as nurses, phycologists, teachers etc. And they generally arrive at adoption as a first choice, without the previous dissapointment and trauma of infertility / IVF.

  4. I would certainly not deny that there are many examples of single sex couples being successful parents. And I can easily imagine situations in which, for a variety of reasons, this would be the best choice. But is Andy arguing that fathers are simply an optional extra and that, in the ordinary way, they do not have important elements to contribute to a child’s welfare through being fathers?
    Perhaps he could direct us to long term studies, with sufficiently large sample sizes (matched for all the relevant factors) to yield significant results. (My article directed readers to studies showing the value of fatherhood; and I could have provided many more.)
    In the absence of such ‘fatherless’ versus ‘fathered’ studies, I think we must act on the naural law arguments which I have cited.

  5. Frank says:

    Andy says that in the UK the social services have ‘historically’ placed ‘many of the children with greatest needs with gay parents.’

    How ‘historical’ is this ‘historically’? I mean, in the last 50 years? 40 years? 30 years? 20 years? 10 years? I would guess Andy means, in the past 10 years or so, when it became acceptable to place children in this way. That is a short time for a very large social experiment that challenges the very basis of traditional parenting.

    Quentin mentions the need for fathers; I would like to add the need for mothers. In same-sex parenting, one of these elements is bound to be missing.

  6. Juliana says:

    The reason for specifically Catholic adoption agencies should be (apart from giving children a stable home) to pass on the Faith in a practising Catholic family. The family, as understood and taught by the Christian Churches, are headed by a mother and a father. Therefore, Catholic children should be placed within such families. This is presumably what their natural parents would want.

    By definition, a homosexual couple cannot fulfil this criteria.

    I do not doubt that in certain circumstances a home with same sex couples is far better than staying in a children’s home, but not for children who are to be brought up as Catholics. Therefore
    Catholic Adoption Societies should be left to do what is expected of them and let gay couples apply to secular adoption societies, of which there are plenty.

  7. PAFC says:

    From the unusual perspective of an astrologer, I can only endorse the views of those who argue for a stable conventional family in which to bring up children. Astrology is a rich symbolic language, in which the father is represented by the Sun, the mother by the Moon. These also symbolise the male and female sides of the human psyche. In order for a child to develop both aspects of their human nature in a balanced way, he or she needs to have both a father-figure and a mother-figure on which to pattern initial outlook and behaviour. For a girl, the mother’s love and attention is extra important, to set her an example; likewise a father’s love and example is essential for a growing boy. In the chart of birth the Sun is never absent, nor is the Moon. The loving, guiding presence of both parents is always the ideal. Where the Sun or Moon is poorly related to other bodies in the heavens, the child’s experience of that parent will be in some way compromised. To encourage un-natural parenting is to invite just such difficult patterns into a child’s life, profoundly affecting their view of the world and their behaviour later on. The outcome is not always too bad, as we humans are spiritual beings, children of a loving God, with great resilience and ingenuity! But the importance of the normal ideal cannot be over-stressed.

  8. Frank says:

    That’s neat! And who would have thought that I would ever agree with an astrologer.

  9. Pingback: Catholic Infertility Support

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