Raising the Standards for Good Fathering
by Glen F. Palm
There are many current efforts to illuminate and support good fathering in contemporary US culture. The "raising of standards" for fathers has been a theme promoted by many different groups including the Promise-Keepers (1995), Jesse Jackson (1994), Blankenhorn (1995) and the National Fatherhood Initiative. The confusion about good fathering has been exacerbated by social changes and the recent emphasis on family and cultural diversity. Family professionals may find themselves caught between various perspectives about good fathering. The emphasis on cultural and family diversity moves us towards a relativist view (Kipnis, 1987) of good fathering (e.g., Hanson & Bozett, 1985). From a relativist perspective we may be reluctant to make a judgment about good fathering unless a father has clearly crossed the boundaries of abandonment or abuse. Feminist perspectives (e.g., Hochschild, 1989 and Ehrenseft, 1990) suggest a new standard based on the ethic of gender equality with equal household work and child care work as a measure of good fathering. Blankenhorn (1995) in his social critique of contemporary fatherhood reconstructs "the good family man" as his definition of the good father. This view begins to move us towards a more Absolutist view of good fathering. The "good family man" must be a provider, protector, partner in the family workload and is a spiritual/moral leader. Blankenhorn's view raises a specific set of standards that incorporates many of the roles fathers have played throughout history. He pushes us towards a more Absolutist view by prescribing roles that appear to exclude men who do not fit rigid definitions of the best family structure and religious beliefs. The standards are clear and high and include a number of important functions of good fathering yet they may exclude men who are striving to do good fathering in difficult circumstances. Both Blankenhorn and the Promise Keeper's movement remind us of the importance of raising standards for good fathering at a time when our standards are fuzzy at best. As family educators we need to work towards a middle ground understanding that doesn't prescribe good fathering from a narrow moral perspective yet does not avoid the task of clarifying good fathering because family life is too complex and too diverse to develop meaningful standards. This article will begin to address the issue of raising standards by defining good fathering as an ethical issue and exploring the roles and strategies that family educators can employ to support a careful examination of good fathering.
One of the important learnings about fathering has been to define fathering as a process. The ethics of good fathering has to recognize that the focus of fathering is on the evolving relationship between father and child not a static set of roles. I have found myself challenged by experiences with a variety of men who do not meet the role requirements of a "good family man" yet appear to be working towards good fathering. For example the seventeen year old father in prison who brightens when he talks about his 6 week old daughter. His toughness begin to melt as he describes his recent visit with her and his delight with her first smiles. The depth of his caring is apparent as is his inability to be a provider or to share in the day-to-day care taking. I begin to ask myself, "Can men do good fathering from behind bars?" When I reflect on Blankenhorn's set of roles as an effort to set high standards and I agree with the general thrust yet they miss this budding expression of good fathering. The dilemma here is wanting to set high standards for all fathers and wanting to affirm and support the efforts of the seventeen year old father in prison. It becomes clear that we need more than role prescriptions to help us to define, understand and support good fathering.
Good Fathering as an Ethical Issue
Recent work with ethics in family education (Palm, 1994) has emphasized the importance of bringing different perspectives to understanding ethical issues. Three very different approaches to ethics were identified and can be applied to the ethical question "What is good fathering?"
Some examples of specific applications of these perspectives will serve as a heuristic device to stimulate thinking about the ethical issue of defining good fathering.
These are just a few examples of how each different approach to ethics could be used to describe concrete standards for good fathering behavior. The three approaches provide a way to address and raise standards that balances the tendency towards either relativism or absolutism.
Responsibilities of Family Educators
The primary responsibility of family educators is to begin to collaborate with parents, especially fathers in exploring the ethics of good fathering. Raising the standards for good fathering should not be the domain of professional experts or spiritual leaders but should involve all members of the community especially fathers. The following list of roles and strategies is provided as a place to begin the discussion of higher standards.
ReferencesBlankenhorn, D. (1995). Fatherless America. New York: Basic Books.
Ehrenseft, D. (1990). Patenting Together. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Hanson, S. & Bozett, F. (1985). Dimensions of Fatherhood. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Hochschild, A. (1989). The Second Shift. New York: Viking.
Jackson, Jesse (1994). Keynote Address to the Family Re-Union III: The Role of Men in Children's Lives. Nashville, TN. July, 1994.
Kipnis, K. (1987). How to discuss professional ethics. Young Children. 42 (4), 20-21.
Palm, G. (1994). Developing ethical guidelines for family educators. Views, (winter,1994), 12-13.
Promise Keepers. (1995). Raise the Standard 1995. (Conference Booklet) Men's Conference, Mpls, MN. July 1995.
Published in Family Information Services, September, 1995. Resources for professionals who work with parents and families 800 852 8112
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