By David C. Dollahite, ’83
Modern revelation and recent research explain the father’s sacred calling.
FOR too long society taught that all a father needed to do to be successful was provide a decent income and play with his children. While research makes it clear that these things are indeed very important in children’s development, much more is needed. In recent years, the positive effects of “father presence” in families have received considerable attention from researchers as a result of learning about the consequences to women and children when fathers fail in their responsibilities. Scholarly evidence on the negative consequences that may occur when fathers do not live up to their appointed responsibilities is sobering. Possible results include poverty, emotional and behavioral problems, substance abuse, and gang involvement. Scholars have found strong evidence that good fathering, founded in a strong marriage, helps children in their cognitive, social, and moral development.
Consistent with this research, latter-day scripture and prophetic teaching emphasize the importance of fathers in God’s plan of happiness. President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “Fathers, yours is an eternal calling from which you are never released. . . . Its importance transcends time” (“To the Fathers in Israel,” Ensign [November 1987], p. 48).
Given the importance of fathers to children and the powerful forces pulling fathers and children apart, it is not surprising that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ have spoken with increasing frequency and fervor about fathering. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” states, “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families” (Ensign [November 1985], p. 102). Thus, a father is called to preside over, to provide for, and to protect his family.
Presiding in Love and Righteousness
Recent research has shown how religious beliefs and practices can promote responsible and involved fathering and teach fathers how to preside in the home. For example, my research on Latter-day Saint fathers suggests that their religious beliefs provide them with a powerful framework for fathering that inspires and guides their behaviors. The fathers’ belief that family relationships can be perpetuated beyond the grave creates an expectation of an eternal relationship with their children that helps them commit to and care for them even in challenging times.
Additional research I have conducted with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim families demonstrates fathers’ presiding role in the religious lives of their families. Whether it is a Jewish father blessing his children at the Sabbath table, a Catholic father taking his family to mass, a Muslim father leading his family in prayers, or a Latter-day Saint father gathering his family for scripture study, presiding in love and righteousness requires a deep and abiding commitment to the well-being of one’s family. For Latter-day Saint fathers specifically, presiding involves extending the blessings of the priesthood to children through father’s blessings and leading family members in prayer, scripture study, family home evening, and other family devotional activities. My research has highlighted the unique power of priesthood blessings in turning the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.
To understand how to preside in love and righteousness, fathers can look to the example of Heavenly Father. In the scriptures Heavenly Father repeatedly refers to his Son as “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (see Matt. 3:17, Matt. 17:5; see also 3 Ne. 11:7, JS—H 1:17). This is a divine pattern that all fathers can follow. Some children never or only rarely hear the words I love you and I’m proud of you from their fathers. By frequently expressing love for and satisfaction with their children (both verbally and in writing), fathers can provide them with a great blessing of security and confidence in themselves.
Providing the Necessities of Life
President Boyd K. Packer has said to fathers: “You are responsible, unless disabled, to provide temporal support for your wife and children” (“The Father and the Family,” Ensign [May 1994], p. 21). Paradoxically, in a time of great economic and material prosperity for so many, fathers often disregard this responsibility, particularly when they do not live with their children. Children depend on their parents, and particularly on their fathers, for housing, food, clothing, and physical care.
As important as providing for these necessities of life may be, it should not be used to justify spending an undue amount of time and energy at work to provide a high standard of living. Just as important as providing for children’s temporal needs is providing for their emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Children need their father’s time, presence, and enthusiastic involvement. Too many fathers spend so much time providing for things far beyond the necessities of life that they have little time to preside in love and righteousness.
It has been said that children spell love T-I-M-E. To meet their children’s needs, fathers must make spending time with them a high priority. Fathers must continually strive to not allow their career or job to deplete their time and energy and turn attention away from their family. One father learned the importance of putting family first when he stayed at work later than he had planned to finish up a project and was late for his son’s first swim meet. He arrived just as his son was getting out of the water. He vowed he would never again let his job keep him from missing important events in his child’s life. To help him remember what really matters, another father says to himself as he drives home from his office, “Now my most important work begins.”
Protecting the Family
The tragic and frightening events of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath (including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) have many children and parents worried about their personal safety, as well as the safety of loved ones, friends, and fellow citizens. However, these threats are by no means the only frightening aspect of contemporary society; dangerous people, ideologies, and images increasingly threaten individuals, marriages, and families. Parents worry about protecting their children and helping them feel safe in an increasingly dangerous world.
Moral dangers today confront children at progressively earlier ages. President Howard W. Hunter taught: “A righteous father protects his children with his time and presence in their social, educational, and spiritual activities and responsibilities” (“Being a Righteous Husband and Father,” Ensign [November 1994], p. 51). Fathers should actively protect their children by helping them make wise choices about the literature, movies, television programs, Internet sites, and friendships they invite into their lives. President Hunter says fathers can find safety for their family in the gospel: “A man who holds the priesthood leads his family in Church participation so they will know the gospel and be under the protection of the covenants and ordinances” (p. 51).
Physical protection is important, too, and fathers can lead out in providing such protection in numerous ways. Teaching children ways to be safe in various situations (such as engaging in water sports, biking, crossing streets, driving cars) can help them avoid serious injuries. Parents can teach their children about the danger of taking alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs into their bodies as well as about the harmful effects of pornography and graphic violence in film and video games.
Family preparedness is a way to protect family during times of need. Fathers should take the lead in ensuring that principles of preparedness are taught and lived in their families. Recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley has warned Latter-day Saints that financial prosperity can be fleeting and has encouraged them to be cautious and prepared (“To the Boys and to the Men,” Ensign [November 1998], p. 52–53). Church leaders have regularly counseled members to get out of debt, live modestly, and have a savings they can subsist on during a financial crisis.
Children also need emotional protection, especially during times of crisis. Research shows that children feel deep security and comfort from regular family routines in such times. Family meals, bedtime rituals, family recreation, and other comforting consistencies can have a reassuring and stabilizing effect on children. Religious traditions and rituals such as attending church and other religious activities, regular prayer, and other devotions can be especially comforting in these anxious times.
Parents can also provide emotional protection by regulating what children experience in the media. Too much exposure to television, magazine, and Internet images of destruction, war, and danger can take its toll on a child’s sense of security. Fathers who feel a need to know every breaking detail about the war on terrorism, for instance, would be wise to consider getting their fill after young children are asleep so as not to traumatize them with a flood of scary words and pictures.
Appropriate physical affection between parents and children also helps children feel safe. Hugging, holding hands, and sitting close can give children a tangible sense of security that words alone cannot provide. Research confirms the emotional and psychological benefits children receive from meaningful physical affection and protection from parents.
Prophecy warns of serious consequences if the hearts of fathers and children are not turned toward each other (Mal. 4:5–6). Such consequences are seen in the abundant evidence that father absence, carelessness, neglect, and abuse cause children to suffer physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. Fortunately, evidence exists that the reverse is also true. Fathers who turn their hearts to their children by presiding in love and righteousness, providing them the necessities of life, and protecting them from danger bless their families immeasurably.
David Dollahite is professor in the School of Family Life at BYU.
Find more fathering ideas, activities, and stories online at the FatherWork Web site.