Dubai: When you think of a strong father figure, what kind of an image comes to mind? A man of few words, perhaps a little distant, and often the final authority figure? Or someone who is accessible, playful and generous with his encouraging words?
The concept of fatherhood, and the image of a ‘father figure’ has gone through a significant shift in the past few decades. While traditional societies focused on the father’s role primarily as the breadwinner, with the mum as the caregiver, both these roles seem to be merging over the past few decades.
A 2013 Pew research study conducted on parents in the US showed that the roles of mums and dads seemed to be converging, as they balance work and family. The study collected data from the year 1965 and then from 2011, on the number of hours each parent spent on tasks like childcare, housework and paid work.
But even though fathers seem to have increased their time on childcare over the years (spending only 2.5 hours per week in 1965, compared to seven hours a week in 2011), it is still significantly less compared to the time mothers spend.
So, while there has been some change in perceptions of what a man and woman’s role should be in raising a family, there are still certain traditional roles of ‘breadwinner’ and ‘caregiver’ that appear to be prevalent in most parts of the world.
Traditional concept of fatherhood
When it comes to fathers, confining them to the role of breadwinners may be damaging – not just to them, but also to the entire family unit. A 2018 study published in the international Journal of Marriage and Family concluded that entire families thrive as modern fathers move away from ‘toxic’ aspects of ‘manliness’, which limit men to being authority figures, breadwinners and disciplinarians, but not nurturers.
According to Kevin Shafer, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University in Utah, US, and the co-author of the study, men who think it’s not manly to play with their children or to show warmth and affection, or who feel that they are spoiling children by not spanking them or yelling, can have a substantially negative impact on their children.
“Children flourish when they have parents who are really involved in their lives, who they can count on, who are emotionally available and that care for them and who explain the differences between right or wrong, not just use fear,” Shafer was quoted as saying by a Utah-based news website Deseret News.
The study also found that there was a growing mindset among fathers that they should be engaged and more nurturing and expressive.
One man who is trying to change the traditional concept of ‘manliness’ is 40-year-old Egyptian entrepreneur and public speaker Michel Gerges. Growing up in a traditional society, Gerges saw fathers play a very specific role in the family.
“I am a product of a fatherhood and a certain mentality about manhood in my country. When I was a child, as any Middle Eastern man, my father wanted to raise up a ‘man’ - a ‘strong’ man. So, he was tough … we didn’t have a lot in terms of a relationship, but more of directions and instructions. That made me look tough on the outside, but on the inside, I think I was more fragile,” Gerges told Gulf News.
His own journey of unlearning the social conditioning and healing from it led him to extend similar support to other men around him.
“It took me a lot of time to heal from and recover from [those experiences]. As any other Middle Eastern man, I was told not to cry. I was told not to share my feelings, when it is actually part of my strength as a man. If you don’t share enough, if you don’t release your feelings, if you don’t relate your feelings to others and share them in the right way, it actually comes out in the form of anger. You explode. That’s why you see anger in the streets … because we were not taught how to regulate our feelings and express them in the right way,” Gerges said.
Over the years, his experience in leadership training led him to focus on men in particular, and help them redefine what it means to be a man. Last year, after years of working on the initiative, he set up his company in Egypt – ‘Rajul’, which means man in Arabic.
As any other Middle Eastern man, I was told not to cry. I was told not to share my feelings, when it is actually part of my strength as a man. If you don’t share enough, if you don’t release your feelings, if you don’t relate your feelings to others and share them in the right way, it actually comes out in the form of anger. You explode. That’s why you see anger in the streets … because we were not taught how to regulate our feelings and express them in the right way.
“The father has a very specific role to play in the life of his children. If any of these roles are not played in the right way it can damage the children’s personalities. Seeing this in our culture and also in my personal life, I had the urge to start Rajul,” he said.
“We are trying to reach out to men to inspire them, to equip them and to walk alongside them to become better men, better fathers and better husbands,” he added
A balancing act
A 2019 study by Ras Al Khaimah-based Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research showed the presence of a father figure in a child’s life plays a crucial role in shaping children’s self-esteem and educational success.
While the study found that men are still seen as the family’s key breadwinner and also a ‘moral role model’ in many families, it also concluded that a father’s influence was far greater than just those two roles. Children appeared to have greater self-esteem and better academic performance if they perceived their fathers as being more positively and responsibly engaged in their lives, more emotionally responsive, did household chores, were accessible, and showed paternal affection than those who did not.
This is also the conclusion Gerges has also reached after working with men in the Arab world for many years, helping them learn how to balance their role as a leader with being able to express their emotions and being available for the family members.
“If you are a good man and if you are a good father, you are already a great leader. You are leading massive numbers of people already, because your children will deal with the world and will impact people in their lives as well,” he said.
A father’s guide: 5 tips to implement
Gerges shared some of the most effective ways in which fathers can play a more positive role in raising children and finding fulfilment in their role in the family:
1. Work on yourself
“If you have not healed from your own wounds, you will project that on to your children. If you are not working on your own communication, don’t expect them to know how to communicate. Healing and recovery are very important,” Gerges said.
Sharing his personal experience, he said that it took him two years of counselling to heal from some of the experiences he had faced in his life. He advised fathers to focus less on what they say to their children and more on how they behave in front of them, and the way they live their lives.
“Your fatherhood and leadership flows from you,” Gerges said.
2. Remember – you are the one that confirms and affirms your child’s identity
“All children, when they are at the age of five to six years, have a very deep question – ‘Am I good enough? Am I good enough for my father and mother?’,” Gerges said.
If the early years of their lives have been spent more with their mums, if they were growing up in a traditional family set up, needing the approval of their father becomes a lot more important. A World Bank study conducted in 2018 also reached a similar conclusion – fathers matter a great deal for the psycho-social wellbeing of their children. “What’s more, they put a life-long stamp on children, with positive effects on children’s self-esteem persisting into adulthood,” the study stated.
This is why fathers need to play a role in affirming children’s sense of self, according to Gerges.
“A big part of that required affirmation is knowing that this is a role you have to play and then saying the right words. Communicating your love and care for your children - ‘My son, I love you’, ‘You’re my son’, ‘You are good’, ‘I like this/that about you’.
“When fathers do that, they let their children feel that they belong to them. And that is a big part of their identity – to belong to something or someone bigger than us, that is very important for us as human beings,” Gerges said.
Noticing things that your child does and encouraging him or her also goes a long way in helping children believe in themselves, he added.
3. You are the source of emotional security within the house.
Gerges said that while people often associate a father’s role with ensuring the physical security of a home, he is also critically important in maintaining the emotional security of the house. He calls it similar to being the ‘emotional AC of the house’.
“The father should express his feelings in front of his children in the right way, to teach them. Stop asking boys not to share their feelings or not to cry. Regulating emotions is a big part of a father’s role,” he said.
4. Create moments for your children to have fun and learn
Take time out to create experiences with your children, whether through outdoor adventures, sports or light play. This gives them an opportunity to spend quality time with you, where they can learn and play.
“The boundaries for a person are formed in their own mind through four factors – my own self-image, how people see me, my expectations of myself and other’s expectations from me. Expect more from your children, in a more positive way. Expect them to be able to play, read, study … to fly, because in this way, you are actually enlarging their capacities. You are bringing them up in a healthier and more adventurous way.
“Realise your role and do the things you need to know. Know that if you don’t do it, you are bringing up a damaged human being in the world,” Gerges added.
5. Respect their mum
Finally, Gerges also urged men to focus on their personal relationship, which can play a big role in shaping children’s understanding and expectations of adult relationships.
“Love and respect their mum. The way I love and respect my wife is teaching my daughter what to accept and not to accept from her future husband. It is teaching my boy how to treat his wife,” Gerges said.