The Fathering Advantage

By Melvin Wong, Ph.D. (2019 December 9) PLUC Newsletter

This girl from the slum approached me in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and held both of her arms high,a gesture that I am very familiar with while visiting orphanages – she wanted me to hold her.

I gave her something better. I took her long and flimsy arms and turned her facing outwards, to face the world like most fathers would do when playing with their sons and daughters. I got myself into a squatting position and mustering all the strength in this near-70- year-old body of mine, I threw her up as high as I could. I realized I was so happy: a simple thing a father could do that will give satisfaction to his child. It is a familiar motion as I played the same toss-and-catch game with my daughter 30 years ago and she would giggle and laugh. That was how I bonded with my daughter before she went to kindergarten.

This 5-year-old girl was a lot lighter and skinnier than our daughter so I was able to “toss” her about five times before I got winded. I set her down and she raised her lovely skinny arms up again, wanting to play more. This time, she also squatted when I held her down before catapulting her up. She knew how to use the power in her small legs to spring up like Jack in the Box – such intelligence! I was amazed I could throw her so high and she was giggling with joy and so elated with this new feeling of triumph that she most likely never felt before! This is the Fathering Advantage moment that most men missed.

After a few times, I was winded again and had to rest. She wanted more but I was wheezing from the labor because I have chronic asthma that was exacerbated by a cold and my chest was seriously congested. I tried again and she was filled with so much happiness and I noticed between my hard drawn breaths that she was looking around for admirers. She felt special! Until now, I couldn’t understand why she was so brave in approaching me? Could it be that I was the only available man in this school yard where our missionary Esther was holding a play group for high-risk children in this poor neighborhood after church? Could it be that she sensed she could trust me? Or my grey hair reminded her of her grandfather? Perhaps she didn’t care how old this teacher was as she sought a happy relationship with a male figure in her childhood? I wondered what Jesus would have done in this situation?

Most people consider me a relatively seasoned clinical psychologist, former professor of psychiatry with years of childhood traumatization experience yet I still couldn’t offer a credible answer. But I know I was so happy with this unknown child, playing with her for about fifteen minutes before I reached for my asthma medication. I took a puff and tried to recover from the wheezing but alas, play time was over and she disappeared with the bunch of kids, nowhere to be found. I felt sad for a brief moment as I recovered from my fear of shortness of breath before the medication kicked in.

I recalled the relationship I had with our daughter when she was growing up with these father-daughter play times. She is now a matured clinician serving children and happily married. My wife and I were worried about how long their honeymoon period would last but in the 18 months we did not sense that they were ever unhappy with one another. Is that really possible? Connie and I were fighting like dogs and cats in the first few years of our marriage, how could our daughter not experience conflicts with her husband? It could be the maturity of my son-in-law but I also think our father-daughter relationship during her formative time of birth to six years old helped anchor her gender identity development as a girl and she was very secure with herself.

She was taller than the usual kindergartener so she sat at the back of the classroom. One day after school, she asked us “Why did my friends in the front of the class turn their heads to look at my reaction when our teacher asked a question?” Could it be the effectiveness of personal security caused her to be a natural leader? Our daughter is also a risk-taker, far exceeding what boys dared to experience! My son-in-law was amazed by that. I think the father-daughter playtime is different from mother-daughter playtime; in that fathers are masculine and by definition more adventurous and outgoing than the feminine mother. This is beyond the political “gender stereotyping” but actual differences between the genders in parenting that we should help celebrate to benefit healthy daughters. Effective fathering is an advantage that many clinicians have ignored until now.

Girls properly parented by healthy fathers also do not take risky dating relationships when they reach adolescence because they are not desperate for attention, and especially not for male attention. In other words, they do not become “boy crazy” because the teenage girl’s femininity was already satisfied and enhanced by her father. This is one of the last stages of feminine gender identity development that I wrote about in my book, Raising Gender Confident Kids. Once daughters are familiar with their fathers, they will learn healthy boundaries and what “good touch” is against “bad touch” and they will become less susceptible to sexual abuse and molestation. Healthy boys will naturally find these girls attractive, not only physically but they can appreciate the maturity and graceful character of these girls. Research has shown that girls with healthy social relationships with their fathers grow up more able to achieve academic success. This relates to the nature of play with their fathers which stimulate brain activity.

Boys need fathers to achieve full development of masculine gender identity too (for more details, please consult my book) as “mothers bring up their boys to become her good sons, while fathers raise their sons to be good men like them.” Author John Eldridge wrote about the three things that men need: “A battle to fight, a beauty to rescue and a life of adventure”. I believe that he was right. Boys with healthy fathers are initiators and can be risk takers and they are courageous. Perhaps we can think of this as characteristics of a warrior fighting against the “bad” from the position of being “good.” These healthy boys will grow up wanting to take responsibilities and would prefer independence over passivity. Good boys who grow up as healthy men will not be withdrawn socially but can engage the world emotionally and be effective relationally because boys can be happy without fear when their fathers are affirming.

When boys have good father models, they will learn to support women and not be a source of hurt. They see how fathers love their wives and are able to resolve conflicts in their relationships. Feminists will detest the phrase “a beauty to rescue” because “women do not need rescuing”. This is true up to a point, but the idea is about giving women a break, or for husbands to defer to wives as much as possible. Yes, women do not need rescuing but it would be nice for fathers to recognize them as fully human, equal to men in every way with the exception of physical-biological differences. Women need men for their beauty to be recognized and strengthened. This is part of the theology of “complementarity.” This should not be a dirty word in the political correctness of identity politics. Without experiencing a Fathering Advantage, little girls suffer the deficits from a healthy father and lose the advantage of being fully secure as a beautiful female created by God and not having to use sexual characteristics to enhance self-worth and self-image.

The playground where I met this little girl was part of the Pleroma Girls School, a privately funded Christian school founded in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as a Primary Preventive Education Ministry against human trafficking. As in many parts of the world where sexual abuse of girls and women are common, the perpetrators and consumers are weak men who psychologically seek intimate social relationship with women. These men experience inadequacies in their immature manhood and are typically only able to exchange social relationships with only sexualized experiences, which is an overly simplified view on relationships. Healthy fathers can bring up boys who can care for and love the females around them instead of violating them or exploiting them as “sex toys”. To address the root causes of human trafficking, we need to help fathers be healthy so their children can learn to be sexually healthy. Healthy fathering is an advantage to all of us.

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