Father’s Day has always seemed to me a silly kind of holiday. It’s a time to give Dad something he doesn’t need, like another splashy necktie, or, what’s worse, something he does need—like an electric staple gun that takes away his last excuse for not rescreening the porch. Until recently, at least, fathers did not need a special day, because they ruled the roost and ruled the world—ask any feminist.
In recent years, fathers have been taking it on the chin in the media. If you can believe what you hear on the evening news, we fathers are either “deadbeat dads” who abandon our families and refuse to pay child support, or, if we don’t run off with a younger woman, we stay at home beating our wives and molesting our children. Predictably, support groups and advocacy movements have sprung up, defending “men’s rights” and demanding recognition for all that fathers contribute to society.
I’m sure they all mean well, but speaking as a son and as a father, I have to say, “No thank you.” I’d rather be insulted by the press and hounded by social workers than join my voice to the chorus of whiners. If fatherhood means anything, it means accepting responsibility for yourself and your family, without offering apologies or expecting gratitude.
Fathers and mothers cannot afford to care too much about what other people think. This includes their children, who quite naturally resent being told what to do, day after day. Years ago, when I was a young college professor, I had a colleague who refused to discipline his kids. His excuse, he said, was that he didn’t want to do anything that would make his children dislike him in later years. “I never want to lose their love.” In other words, how they felt about him was more important than how they turned out as human beings.
I am quite sure that my own children wish, from time to time, that they had a less exacting father, someone who was not always finding fault with their homework or punishing them for what they regard as minor infractions of household rules. “Some day they’ll thank me,” I say to myself, but for all I know they’re just as likely to find a therapist who will convince them their father was a monster. I want their love and respect, but even more than that, I want them to grow up to be good men and women who will accept responsibility for themselves without blaming their problems on everyone else.
When I was a boy, I loved and respected my father, but I also feared him. “Shh,” my mother would warn us in the midst of our mayhem, “your father’s home.” We settled down immediately. Although my mother smacked me once or twice for giving her “sass,” my father never laid a hand on me. He didn’t have to. He was a big man, physically intimidating. As a 70-year-old heart patient, he was insulted and threatened by a pair of biker hoodlums on the streets of Atlanta. He warned them not to come any closer, and when one of them made the mistake, he decked him with a single punch. One day, teaching me to box, his left hook just grazed my chin. It almost took my head off.
But it was not my father’s physical strength that overawed me, but his moral certainty, backed up by the eloquence of his tongue—”his refined vocabulary most unpleasantly emphatic.” My mother told me that she never worried about my father cheating on her, because she knew that in betraying her he would be betraying himself, which is something he refused to do.
I hope that my wife has the same confidence in me, although I will probably never be the man my father was, or the father he was, for that matter. My children do not fear me, and when I bark out commands, one of my daughters will come up and rumple my hair, saying, “Of course, daddy.” These are degenerate times, but I hope that I will never degenerate so far that I will have to join a support group for fathers who get no respect.