Fathers Are Not Natural Imbeciles
We have all seen the sitcoms where the father is left with the kids and when finally the mother returns, all hell has been let loose. She quickly saves the day and order is restored. Show after show, movie after movie, commercial after commercial, fathers are portrayed as natural imbeciles —inherent buffoons and incompetent idiots.
Home Improvement’s plot is basically Tim Allen failing in whatever he tries and then apologizing to his wife for his bungling. Married with Children’s Ted Bundy, The Simpson’s Homer, The Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin, Everyone Loves Ramon’s Raymond Barone are all great examples of fathers who are selfish, idiotic fools, who fail at being fathers. In the end, of course, most of these shows have some redemption in them by having the fathers learn some valuable lesson, but then the next episodes begins and all such gained wisdom has been lost.
I quite understand that these shows are comical. I imagine many telling me to lighten up a bit, or to stop taking myself so seriously, or drop my sanctimonious attitude, but I do believe any serious student of virtue will agree that what we find humorous often shows the content of our character. What type of character, then, is the person who is consistently laughing at crude jokes and finds pleasure in seeing fathers neglect their children and wives to go out and drink beer, play golf, or simply watch television?
Why do we find pleasure in seeing men fail, be lazy, get drunk, or acting like adolescents? To be sure, the ability to laugh is a gift from God and it certainly has its proper place in a thriving life, for it relieves the soul of excess weariness just as laying around restores the weakness of the body. But certainly there is a morality of laughter?
But besides the character issue, I think the reason we laugh at these fathers is because we, as a culture, have come to believe fathers are not natural parents. How many of you would laugh at seeing a mother act this way? Imagine a show where the woman is consistently failing at being a mother and wife. She neglects her husband to go shopping (or some other stereotypical womanly activity), never sees her children because she’s at the bar, and when left alone with the kids, all hell brakes loose. How many of you would laugh at seeing Margin Simpson strangle Lisa: ‘Why you little . . .’? Unfortunately, I imagine there is some shows out there already writing this script—Desperate House Wives?
For more then a century, our culture has slowly bought into the idea that fathers are natural imbeciles. As David Popenoe writes, by the early 20th century, ‘fathers even came to be depicted in American popular culture as ‘incompetent’ around the home compared to the mother’ (115). ‘The strong culture message was that fathers were both less qualified and less necessary in parenting and that mothers were the ‘natural parents’’ (111). By the time you reach the 2000’s fathers are simply not qualified and (in some circles) not necessary in parenting.
However, it is certainly not just pop-culture advocating for the incompetent father. Many conservative and liberal social sciences have also bought into the idea that men ‘are not ideally suited to responsible fatherhood.’ (Blankenhorn, 3). Basing their science on an evolutionary assumption (an assumption I find too reductionistic), they argue that ‘men are inclined to sexual promiscuity and paternal waywardness.’ Thus,
Fatherhood constitutes what might be termed a necessary problem. It is necessary because, in all societies, child well-being and societal success hinge largely upon a highly level of paternal investment . . . It is a problem because adult males are frequently . . . unwilling or unable to make that vital investment (Ibid).
What I find slightly ironic is if these scientists are right, then evolution is totally failing the human race. On the one hand, evolutionary forces are compelling males to be sexually promiscuous and to be unable to father; on the other hand, evolution has ‘designed’ the thriving child and society to hinge on an involved father. Bummer!
Conceivably, there just might be another way of looking at fathers. What if a father is not naturally an imbecile? What if the reason so many fathers are wayward has nothing to do with their natural evolutionary makeup, but simply that they are morally failing to live up to being a true man? What if our culture actually started portraying men as confident, responsible, noble, and wise fathers that actually knew how to raise a child? What if the reason fathers are so essential for children and society is because human nature is actually designed to function that way?
Well, it turns out that men might be more naturally directed towards fatherhood then the media and some social sciences have caused us to believe.
It turns out that a father feels the same attachment and closeness a mother has towards their newborn. It turns out that ‘men are predisposed emotionally to nurture their children in most ordinary circumstances . . .’ It turns out that the ‘desire to feel emotionally connected to one’s children is the same for men and women.’ It turns out that fathers can ‘interpret their child’s behavior cues’ equal to the mother. It turns out fathers are ‘equally anxious about leaving their baby in the care of someone else.’ It turns out there is ‘no gender differences in heart rate, respiratory rate, or skin temperature . . .’ when men and women perceive their infant in distress.
Furthermore, it turns out that men ‘have a similar physiological capacity to differentiate their newborn from other newborns in a nursery.’ It turns out that single male parents have the same worries as single mothers. It turns out that ‘there is no evidence that, given equal experience and support, parents of one gender necessarily excel as caretakers.’ It turns out, as Michael Lamb writes, that ‘with the exception of lactation, there is no evidence that women are biologically predisposed to be better parents than men are.’ Lamb continues, ‘Social convention, not biological imperatives, underlie the traditional division of parental responsibilities.’ Tthis information in last two paragraph is taken from Pruett,’s FatherNeed, 22-23)
The Proposed Solution
Now I believe Lamb’s words go a bit far with the social convention idea; nevertheless, I welcome Lamb’s underlining assumption—namely, men are naturally geared for fatherhood. In many ways, Lamb’s comments gives support to my conviction that if God established the family as the natural place to raise children, then both will have built in them a natural disposition to parent. Nonetheless, this natural gearing of the father need not entail that parental responsibilities are all social convention. The fact of the matter is the parenting styles are different and they have different functions to play at different ages in getting their children ready for the world. Such differences just seem to be based upon the difference between masculinity and femininity—between fathers and mothers and not merely on social convention (though social conversion certainly can play a role).
My studies and experience have suggested that both mother and father are primary parents that are essential for the child’s well being. It’s also unfortunate that our economic life has caused either one (or both) to have to be separated from the home for long periods of the day because their differences in parenting styles are complementary to each other and mutually enhances the life of their children. Reverend John S. C. Abbott, writing in 1842, expresses my view fairly well when he writes,
There is a sentiment, perhaps unexpressed in words, yet constantly acted upon, that it is the duty of the father to provide needful support for the family, while it is the duty of the mother to guide and govern the children. This sentiment has been the ruin of many families, and has brought down the gray hairs of many fathers with sorrow to the grave. It is very rare that a family can be well regulated, unless there be cooperation of both parents in watching over and governing the children” Popeone, 98 emphasis mine
What! . . . Surely this is a raging liberal—a pre-prototype feminist? Actually, this was the voice of a conservative thinker lamenting the departing fathers from the home. True, he also laments the idea that the father is no longer the ‘head of the house,’ but what I find interesting about this quote is the emphasis on both parents being needed. It looks like the good Reverend didn’t need the social sciences to teach him what used to be common sense—both parents are need to raise children. It is about time our culture gets behind this idea—luckily many are.
I long with all my heart to see fathers return to the home. Not to lord themselves over their wives and children, but to be loving servants, seeking the individual good of each member of the family. I long to see men rise up and not fulfill the social expectation of being lazy, drunken, perverted failures.
It is time to discard the ‘natural father imbecile’ idea. It is time for us to stop laughing at irresponsible fathers and rise to a higher standard of comedy. As Erwin Panofshy writes in 1934,
Whether we like it or not it is the movies [and Television shows] that mold more than any other single force, the opinions, the taste, the language, the dress, the behavior, and even the physical appearance of the public …’ Erwin Panofsky “Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures”.
Just maybe, we can rise the next generation of men to see their natural ability to be competent fathers, who are not predisposed to being imbeciles.
Despite attaching some of Blankenhorn’s views above, this books is otherwise great and I strongly recommend it.
Brandon Wall is a Counselor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: http://www.cedarrapidscounselingcenter.com/
Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473. For more information about Dr. Wall click here.