What are the three primary roles of a father?
Through almost every studied culture, fathers have assumed three primary roles: the protector, the provider, and the disciplinarian. Before we discuss each of these roles, it is important to note that in many two-parent families today, mothers are fulfilling these three roles as much as fathers. Mothers protect their children by strapping them into car seats and buckling seatbelts, monitoring computer usage and assessing the environment for other potential dangers. Mothers provide for their families by working outside the home as much as fathers do. Additionally, today mothers are taking on a more disciplinarian role for their children than in the past, when we used to hear the phrase, "You wait until your father gets home." For the purposes of this course, we are discussing the importance of the father's role in a child's life, but it is important to acknowledge that mothers engage in these roles as well.
Protector. One of the strategies we've used is encouraging fathers to baby-proof or child-proof their home when the mother is expecting. What are the things they can do to prepare the home for the child? That's one of the ways that men can protect their children from dangers inside the household. They can also protect their children from external dangers. This is especially important in communities where there are higher levels of violence, where there is a potential for the child to be exposed to gang activity or crime.
Moms tend to see the rest of the world in relation to their children. Fathers tend to see their children in relation to the rest of the world. Mom's traditional emphasis is that she wants to protect her child from getting hurt by forces from the outside world (e.g., bullies, strangers, mean dogs, accidents, disease). She never wants this to happen to her child. In fathers, their paternal instinct also wants to prevent bad things from happening, but if it could happen, they want to do what they can to prepare their child to cope with these types of dangers. Often, the dads will try to prepare the child to handle external dangers, such as dangerous strangers, mean dogs, lightning, bullies, falls, or accidents. Both of these roles are important for the child. Mom is protecting the child and dad is preparing the child.
Another role of the protector that fathers play is by observing the social environment and knowing the peers and friends of their children. Also, when our children go to another family's home, do we know what is in the home? Do they have firearms in the home? Is it in a safe neighborhood? What do I need to do to protect my child from environments that could cause a threat to them? Fathers also guarantee their child's safety by shaping their environment. In other words, they can look at their surroundings (e.g., the household, the neighborhood, the community) and encourage safe opportunities, as well as remove hazards from the child's path.
Provider. As the role of provider, a father's ability to provide for his family is related to his sense of duty, his sense of identity, and his manhood. Different cultures have different messages about what it means to be a man, a husband, and a father. Many of those cultures see that one of the father's primary roles is that of a provider. That the "real men bring home the bacon," they support their family, they tend the fields or work in the factories, the mines, and the forests. Although the jobs may be dangerous, that is their responsibility as the provider for their family. As I mentioned, in many two-parent households today, fathers are no longer the sole provider, but it still is an important role that fathers fulfill in their families.
Disciplinarian. In preparing their child for the future, fathers often have high expectations. They want their child to succeed, to see what's on the horizon, to aspire to bigger and better things. As such, fathers need to be there to teach their child how to handle their impulses, how to stay calm under stress, and how to deal with situations where they don't endanger themselves or endanger others. In the dominant culture in the United States, many fathers are fulfilling the role of the disciplinarian, but it has to be in a safe and respectful way. It can't be in a violent way, because boys that are raised in homes with violence tend to perpetuate that in their family. Using this role as a disciplinarian is important as the father uses his physical presence and teaches their child how to respond to situations accordingly and appropriately.
This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course, A Father's Place: The Importance of Male Involvement in Early Childhood Development, in partnership with Region 9 Head Start Association, by J. Neil Tift, BA, MA.