This is the 4th of the 5 roles I discussed in a previous post that every Dad has to provide for his family. As "The Law" of a household, it is often up to the father to set boundaries or establish principles and guidelines for his household, especially for his children. It is said that a mother creates a baby and raises a boy, but a father takes the boy and makes him a man. Simply put, it is up to men to instill the character, strength and discipline that makes young men successful.
Across America, there are approximately 18.3 million children who live without a father in the home, comprising about 1 in 4 US children (Father Absence Statistics). The United States has the highest rate of children living in single-parent households of any nation in the world (Kramer, 2021).
It is no surprise that 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children (Research and Statistics), 63 percent of teen suicides, and 85 percent of children and teens with behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes (Martinez, 2011).
Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of high school than children with both parents at home (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021).
The numbers don't lie. Fathers are crucial to the mental health and stability of children. But why?
The simple answer is that men are natural protectors and builders. Our focus generally is not on nurturing but on survival and strength. In the earliest years of a child's life, they need nurturing and safety. A mother's role is absolute crucial in this regard. However, as the child reaches adolescence, they naturally begin to test the limits of their environment including rules, discipline, punishments and forgiveness. This is where a father's role is crucial.
What fathers contribute in this equation are the guard rails. Imagine a car swerving left and right down a winding road. Also imagine it has an inclination to test the guard rails. If there are none, the car would naturally just leave the road and crash. But a road with strong guard rails keeps the car going on it's path. Likewise, it is also true for children's mental health. They NEED those guard rails. And men contribute that in this role.
Every father should think about what rules in your house are worthy of stricter punishment. Which rules are core to your moral code? Which rules will make the children grow into respecting law-abiding citizens? Which rules will keep them safe in dangerous situations? Then when you've figured that out, talk about it with your family and routinely reinforce it with your example and your speech.
SETTING THE HOUSEHOLD RULES
In my household, I established household rule number one at a very early age. Pretty much as soon as they could speak or understand speech.
RULE #1: KEEP YOUR HANDS AND BODY TO YOURSELF
I reinforced this rule by explaining what can happen when you break the rule and what damage you can cause even by accident. I further reinforced this rule with punishments and heart-to-hearts as it is a core belief of mine that every person has the right to bodily autonomy (dominion over his or her own body, free from influence of another person). It will be a constant back and forth as they grow to keep a balance between light-hearted play and violence (and yes kids get violent). But if I see them getting too rough or potentially could hurt someone, I just yell out "WHAT'S RULE NUMBER ONE?" And in unison they'll answer back, "keep your hands to yourself." So I count this as a success, even if they get away with a couple suplexes from time to time.
RULE #2: DON'T OPEN THE DOOR WITHOUT MOM OR DAD
As they are starting to get older, with the oldest being 10 and the youngest being 7, it is time that we add another rule to our household list. Don't open the door without Mom or Dad. We have finally reached the age when friends will come to the door asking if one of them can come out to play. And I have been relegated to a nameless parental figure called "So-n-so's Dad." But I digress. Without fail, they just open the door to see who it is. Without knowing the potential danger you could be inviting, it is common sense to just open the door. So we had to have a talk and create this rule. If the only parent at home needs to step out to the corner store, it is only necessary to say "What's Rule Number 2?" And the kids know, don't open the door. I have reinforced this rule by explaining the danger and also by reminding the kids that Mom and Dad have a key. We won't knock. If someone is knocking, it isn't Mom or Dad and you should watch out.
As the children grow, we may need to add to this list of critical household rules, but for now things are working well.
INSTILLING VALUES AND MORALS
Outside of these rules, another important discussion I have had, especially with my sons, is about values that I find important as a man. The first of which is integrity. I've told the kids from their youngest speaking years that Dad doesn't lie. If you have a question, I'll always tell you the truth. Same goes for my wife. If a dress or outfit looks bad, I'll tell her. I've always told her. And she knows I'm not being mean, I'm being honest. If she doesn't want to hear the truth, then don't ask and I won't say anything.
Telling the truth means that if there is a question, they know they can come to me and I will give them an answer. I took this example from my grandfather, my role-model. I remember asking him once when I was a kid what a "prophylactic" was. I heard it at school and was confused. He said in a calm and straight voice that it's a fancy word for things like condoms which are used in sex. I was slightly embarrassed by immediately calmed by how clear he was. This opened the door for me to ask other more difficult but direct questions like "why SHOULDN'T people do drugs" or "how can a man be a good father?"
Another factor with integrity is accepting responsibility for your actions. It takes courage to stand up and look someone in the eye. Especially when you have made a mistake. At a certain age, usually pre-pubescent, boys start becoming enfatuated with the differences between kid rules and adult rules. What a kid can do and what an adult can do. They want to know when they can start staying up late, or eating whatever they like whenever they like. They want to know when a boy becomes a man. And I LOVE this talk.
As a brainteaser I will turn it around on them and ask "when do YOU think a boy becomes a man?" Their answers may sway from when he gets a job, when he's 18, when they have their own house, when they get married, etc. I say none of those are it. A boy can work, a boy can be older than 18 or own property. Children in some countries have even gotten married! But it actually happens when he stands up and takes full responsibility for his own actions. Integrity is the absolute core to manhood, in my opinion of course. Without it, a person drifts on the support of others, on the accomplishments of others and shirks responsibility for their mistakes. A man accepts his faults and accomplishments as his own and then makes adjustments. This is how you avoid lifelong slips into substance abuse or homelessness. My children will learn that it is up to them as adults. Whatever you make is up to you and your actions, alone.
n extremely important role as a Father is establishing guidelines for your family, "the Law". Expectation management is crucial to a healthy marriage and also important for growing children. As a Father you will help to establish those guidelines with your spouse and then back her up and empower her to the children. Women's natural role as a nurturer should be embraced and empowered so that means letting her do most of the conversations that require a strong nurturer. And when she needs a strong voice to come in and remind everyone of the rules, then you need to be that strong voice. And I don't mean yelling. You know you are the strong voice, when what you say is heard and you don't need to raise your voice or repeat yourself. Children crave guidance. Sometimes it can be gentle, and sometimes it will need to overpower their will especially when they are in the phase to test your limits. But communication in the household will be dynamic, multi-faceted and require your strong voice.
Being "the Law" in the house doesn't mean following behind everything they do. It means, you and your spouse establish the rules. She nurtures, corrects, follows and teaches. And when they need the strong voice, the voice of maturity, guidance, acceptance and mentorship, you are there.
Some households have moral codes like "Murphy's stick together" or "family first" or "a Lannister always pays their debts." See what I did there? This family code usually comes from a Father in the household who is acting in his role as the "The Law." The family code and values will most likely become engrained into the identity of your children. So choose wisely what you teach. Fathers set the tone for morals and values in a family and also help set which rules are more firm. I explained the two firm rules of my household, but yours might be slightly different. Remember, that Fathers raise boys into men. And our society needs strong-willed disciplined men. Men who know right from wrong and who accept responsibility for their actions.
If you enjoyed this post, here is a link to Dad Role 5: The Hammer.
Kramer, Stephanie. “U.S. Has World’s Highest Rate of Children Living in Single-Parent Households.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 28 May 2021.
Martinez, Ken, et al. “A Guide for Father Involvement in Systems of Care.” Technical Assistance Partnership for Child and Family Mental Health, Feb. 2011.