“I don’t want my son to be like me,” said the young woman in one of those confidences college students often share with a sympathetic teacher. “I want him to learn to be a man, a good man, a good father some day.”

What she meant was, “not like his father,” who had abused both her and the child. This was why she had enrolled her son in Boy Scouts, hoping that the influence of other boys and men all dedicated to the selfless ideals of Scouting would help him grow into “a good man and father.”

Most societies have depended, not just upon Father himself, but upon groups of males to turn boys into good men. By good men we mean good fathers, protectors of women and children, and of a way of life.

Among tribal people, the entire male contingent may assume responsibility for the training process and for the great rituals which mark the transition from boy to man. Often these are staged to simulate birth. Dead to the world of women, they proclaim, the boy is reborn to his “fathers” and their world.

The conviction still lingers among many people in the byways and backwaters of life that, while females are born with all the mysterious powers of life-giving, men must be made. They must be shaped for hard tasks and heavy burdens. Shaped how? By pain, by fear, by hardship.

And it is the boy’s own father and all the “fathers” who demand that he prove his worth. Males take a hand in socializing the young among other primates as well. Once upon a time we thought of the male animal as little more than an enthusiastic sperm donor, cheerfully leaving to Mum the entire responsibility for bringing up baby. No longer.

Dedicated observers of monkeys and apes in the wild report that infants and juveniles (particularly young males) are powerfully drawn to adult males, reflecting, so the experts believe, a
need to break free of Mum and to reorient self to the group. Males are said to impart through example (and sometimes punishment) both social and motor skills, together with a sense of appropriate group behavior.

There are more surprises. Males in large bands do not simply function as a group. Individuals exhibit varying degrees of fatherly concern and affection, often to babies who are not their own. Males have been observed rescuing infants falling from cliffs or trees, and protecting them from less benign males.

They are known to cuddle and groom infants, to carry them in arms or on their backs, to soothe tantrums, and to adopt infants — male or female — orphaned or abandoned by uncaring mums (which exist in the wild as they do in human society).

What males can’t do for baby is provide milk, and so, inevitably, the little adoptee dies and is carried, grievingly, by its male “mother” until it no longer resembles what it was. Could the need to seek discipline and love from adult males, the need of adult males to give youngsters discipline
and love, be part of the primate biogram? No one questions the existence of a “mother instinct.” Is there, perhaps, a “father instinct” also? If so, that instinct is, in the human context, modified everywhere by custom and a prevailing image of what fathers are and ought to be.

Consider the image once held by Trobriand Islanders who live just off the east coast of New Guinea. In fact, there was no image at all, for Trobrianders traditionally knew nothing of biological paternity. (Certainly they did not at the time of World War I and some years thereafter when anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski lived among them.) Ancestral spirits were believed responsible for planting
a child in its mother’s womb. Mother’s husband was expected to love and tenderly cherish whatever little ones the spirits cared to bestow. He became a sort of assistant mother whose influence, he firmly believed, would shape not only the child’s personality but its looks as well. Both child and assistant mother preened when their resemblance was noted. But the person so ignorant as to point out a resemblance between a man and his sister’s son (who were thought to be blood related) would find he had insulted both parties.

With sister’s children, the Trobriand male was a hard, even a punishing taskmaster. It was Uncle who provisioned them, Uncle from whom they would inherit worldly goods. Uncle was the role model Mum upheld to her son. Naturally, Uncle became the nightmare figure in a boy’s life.

Naturally, he took all his troubles to Dear Old Dad. Thus did the Trobrianders neatly divide the two aspects of the father role — disciplinarian and best friend — between Dad and Maternal Uncle. It is a division which turns up in many parts of the world, the exact allocation of responsibility depending usually upon whether descent is reckoned through males or females.

From earliest times, however, the American dad has been expected to do it all. Never mind if the two role aspects were in conflict. Never mind the prevailing image of Dad. In Puritan colonies, each dad was head of a going family concern organized for survival. Food was produced, clothing made, the sick tended, the young trained, all in the bosom of the family. With time and a changing economy, the responsibility for making a living eventually became Dad’s alone. He was also expected to be moral preceptor and overseer to his children — their teacher, their benefactor, controller, role model, caregiver, and companion. The pattern is described by historian John Demos.

Did all dads of these early times follow this pattern? Certainly not. Enough did, however, to achieve offspring distinctly American in character. Foreign visitors took notice. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked with some astonishment how different American women were from their European sisters, how they were well and fully educated, how they were told everything about the corruptions of the world, and taught to defend their virtue with “manly energy.” For their part, American men consistently displayed “confidence in the understanding of a wife and a profound respect for her freedom.” So much respect, he said, that in America even a “young, unmarried woman may [travel] alone and without fear undertake a long journey.”

Men and women, he observed, respected each other, made their own choices in life and, good or bad, stood by those choices. Fatherly influences at work? He thought so, but also credited the high value democracy vests in the individual.

In pre-modern days, says John Demos, it was Father who maintained a correspondence with his adolescent and adult children far from home. Father was considered the responsible party when a child turned out badly. How-to books about child rearing were invariably addressed to him. And, not surprisingly, he received custody of the children when a marriage went sour. (“Shockingly cruel” today’s wisdom would insist. Maybe so. It must be admitted, though, that what is good for an individual is not always good for society. Father-custody did tend to inhibit divorce and keep families together.)

In 1810 things began to change. A Pennsylvania court ruled that, for small children, mother-care was better than father-care. Such rulings proceeded apace until, by 1847, Mum was routinely awarded custody. From this time on, writers and pundits exalted the mother’s influence over a child, and children themselves referred to Mum as “my angel mother.” Apart from his breadwinning function, Dad’s other responsibilities were gradually diminished until he became something of a minor player in the family drama.By the 1920s, Bronislaw Malinowsky was commenting on the perilous condition of fatherhood in England and America. Father, he said, was now “weak and henpecked,” one for whom his children feel “indulgent pity rather than hatred and fear.”

By the l950s, the stereotypical American household — as purveyed in many television sitcoms — included a well-meaning, permissive, somewhat bumbling dad baffled by his brighter and more manipulative wife and kids. Then, suddenly, bumbling Dad had become a brute, a self-seeking, self-centered tyrant visiting abuse on helpless children and wife imprisoned in a punishing marriage.

Divorce for women now came to be seen as something of a passage rite, necessary to the attainment of liberated selfhood. As for the children of divorce, why surely they would thrive in an environment free of strife. This was the confident view. The social landscape underwent change as the rates of divorce rose sharply. There were more and more broken homes in which Dad was allowed to visit but not to play a significant part in his children’s lives.

At the same time, the rates of marriage fell. There were more and more children who had never known Dad in the home, merely a succession of males, temporary consorts for Mum. “Why won’t he commit?”

This was the plaintive question young women of the 1970s began asking (and continue to ask today). “Why should he?” one is always tempted to reply. All the comforts of home are now available to him without commitment. If his girlfriend inconveniently becomes pregnant, he can recommend abortion, or he can decamp. Why should he undertake the hard tasks, shoulder the heavy responsibilities of fatherhood, when Dad is being given such a bad rap? Especially when female celebrities continually proclaim in their lives, their writings, and their pronouncements, the essential irrelevance of men. Dads, who needs them?

As it turns out, children need them. Consequences of the Daddy Dearth were, by the mid-1980s, being analyzed in books and scientific journals: rising rates of suicide and homicide among young people, along with increases of drug abuse, illegitimate births, and crime. Divorce was shown to have effects on many children far less benign and more longstanding than previously supposed. Boys were particularly hard hit. After all, they depended for a sense of self on what kind of dad was in the picture or whether Dad was there at all.

Still other effects were noted. Although nobody disputed the fact that some single mothers reared their children very well and some married couples did not, the fact remained that most children did better in families that included fathers. Studies published in the 1990s confirm this finding. For one thing, such families are less likely to suffer poverty. Children with fathers at home are less likely to be mentally ill, to do poorly in school, or to wind up in jail. They are less prone to violence and suicide, less prone to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Dad gives his daughter self-confidence and the will to reject importuning young males. Dad gives his son a model of what men are supposed to be on the job, in the home, with women, and, one day, with his own children.

But where are the fathers to do these things? In shorter supply than they have ever been. As dads have declined in numbers and prestige, so have the organizations and institutions designed to augment the paternal influence or even to function as father-surrogates. Feminism has consistently attacked the legality of all-male schools, all-male camps, all-male military units. Even the ideals and sexual exclusivity of Scouting have undergone court challenge.

Although, as Christina Hoff Sommers has noted, feminists seem to view boyhood as a kind of disease, they have nevertheless demanded the right of girls to be boys. No wonder male pride in the hard tasks, the discipline, the responsibilities that would one day be Dad’s alone, has diminished, along with Dad himself.

The importance of fathers and father surrogates has received only grudging acknowledgment from organized feminism. Nor have its leaders accepted any responsibility for fatherly absence. “If children need fathers so much,” they seem to be saying, “let men do something about it.”

And men are trying. Far more worried than feminists about the plight of Americas children, many of them have organized into groups and movements such as Big Brothers, One Hundred Black Men, Wade Horn’s National Fatherhood Initiative, Colin Powell’s America’s Promise, and David Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values. Most are designed to encourage surrogate fathering for children without dads. Two others encourage Dad himself.

In October, 1995, the Million Man March drew huge numbers of African-Americans to Washington. Their demonstration was aimed not at changing government policy, but at changing men into better fathers, better husbands, more responsible human beings. So was the demonstration staged in D.C. two years later by the faith-based, multi-racial Promise Keepers.

Feminists held their peace during the Million Man March, even though it was organized and led by Louis Farrakhan, whose Islamic religion dictates for women a code of dress and conduct one would expect feminists to find intolerable. They chose instead to save their firepower for the Promise Keepers. On every talk show available at the time, feminist leaders accused Promise Keepers of having a hidden agenda. Their pious vows were just ploys to force women back into submission.

As it happens, the organization has recently suffered reversals not because of feminist opposition, but through financial difficulties. Whether or not it survives, the efforts of Promise Keepers to call dads back to their responsibilities may well have made a difference after all. Ditto the efforts of other groups with the same goals in mind. Changing population statistics will eventually tell us whether this is so, especially those charting the rates of marriage and divorce; of illiteracy and illegitimacy; of drug and alcohol abuse by teens; of sexually transmitted diseases among teens; of teen suicide, homicide, and crime in general.

But statistics tell us nothing about the image of Dad and whether that image is undergoing a makeover. For that we must turn to television. Not to the entertainment purveyed there, not to the serials, sitcoms, and dramas in which casual, recreational sex and random violence are behavioral norms. For a glimpse of trends in the nation’s moods and perceptions, we must study, rather, the despised commercial message.

Why? Simply this: Advertisers know that a product sells best when it is associated with images of current popularity or concern. So it is that the viewer can now see, among the many mini-dramas devoted to the single mother and her career, more and more portrayals of Dad — Dad playing with children, guiding children, cuddling baby, diapering baby, holding baby close to his sometimes naked chest. Assistant mother. Best friend. Clearly the image of Dad is fast becoming an important marketing tool. What does that say about the public’s attitudes and concerns? Does this new popularity reflect nostalgia for Dear Old Dad, by now long gone from the scene? Or does it express a nation’s desperate longing to have him back again? Time and TV will tell. Stay tuned.