My father, Daniel Jordan McMahon, is one of my heroes–how many people get to say that about their fathers? My father modeled kindness, compassion, generosity, self-awareness and self-discipline, appreciation of others, integrity, commitment to community, love of my mom (another hero) and siblings, and so much more; I won the lottery and I have had numerous other influential father figures in my life.
Daniel Sempre, the hero of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, like many of us blessed with great fathers, takes his for granted. In part, I think, because the role invites anonymity and obscurity, Daniel is unaware of how special his father is until another character points it out. “A good father?” [says Daniel] “Yes. Like yours. A man with a head, a heart, and a soul. A man capable of listening, of leading and respecting a child, and not of drowning his own defects in him. Someone whom a child will not only love because he’s his father but will also admire for the person he is. Someone he would want to grow up to resemble.”
Four years ago, my daughter Erica, then a junior in high school, and I were clearing the table after dinner and we put on the television to watch “The Simpsons.” We watched Homer’s amusing antics and after a few minutes I asked her to match me show for show as I named shows where the father is a bumbling idiot whose incompetence is a central part of the humor while she should name shows with a good father who takes care of his children, is an occasional source of advice or wisdom for them, and respects and loves his wife.
I don’t watch tremendous amounts of TV, and I identified some of these only from commercials about them or from talking to others, but I was able to name “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “American Dad,” “According to Jim,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” before she named any shows. With a look in the paper she then added, for my side, “Two and a half Men,” “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody,” “Grounded for Life,” “Yes, Dear,” “Still Standing,” “Drake and Josh,” “That’s so Raven,” “Home Improvement,” “The War at Home,” “Snoop Dogg’s Fatherhood,” “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels,” and “The Osbornes.” I hadn’t heard of some of these. She also pointed out that there are several shows where the father is essentially missing, such as “Gilmore Girls,” and several shows that cast teens without any parents at all on Vh1 or MTV to say nothing of “South Park” and its take on all adults. Eventually she did point out that in “7th Heaven”–no longer on the air–the father is not oblivious, deranged, or incompetent. I named “The Cosby Show” which served only to show how old I am and so held my tongue about “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver.” We also noted that in many of these shows the father is bald and/or fat while the mother is attractive. Think of the fathers in “Seinfeld” (the mothers don’t come off too well here either). Jerry’s father is something of a joke but George’s father…wow; Kramer has no father (but he has a mother!).
Is there another role in society that is consistently held up to such ridicule on American TV?
Statistics show that as many as 35% of children are born to single mothers and that these children face substantial economic disadvantages and are at greater risk for a host of social ills including problems with grades in school, more run-ins with authority whether school authority or the legal system, and greater likelihood of drug use. Is the absence of fathers in our families a reason why they appear so hapless in our entertainment? After all, viewers with little experience of a father may be willing to absorb almost any nonsense about fatherhood. As the principal of an all-boys school I have concerns that, while not unique to me, are particularly intensified. I worry about the young men I am responsible for and I want them to understand the role of father as more than a biological one.
There are things we can do with our school’s curriculum that help our young men think about fatherhood. In our American Literature classes we teach Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Twain’s Huck Finn, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, all of which not only represent the American tradition in literature but allow our teachers to spend lots of time talking about the role that fathers take (or don’t take) in each of these texts and about the quest for father figures. Dimmesdale’s cowardice and refusal to be a father, Pap’s violence and cruelty are measured against Jim’s moral teachings, and Jack Crabb’s adoption by Old Lodge Skins are all common discussion and paper topics. In our theology, history, government, psychology, and health classes we can give time over to the role of fathers in society. We count on our male and female faculty members, our coaches, our club moderators, and our advisors to send consistent messages to our young men about being gentlemen and to provide them with good role models.
But what happens when the students go home and turn on the TV? One of my favorite lines in Ellison’s masterwork, Invisible Man, is when the wise vet tells the narrator, “be your own father.” Certainly part of that novel’s extraordinary power comes from the collection of figures who, variously, are presented as father figures from Bledsoe to the Vet to Woodridge (in two flashbacks) to Wheatstraw to Kimbro to Brockway to “Brother” Jack to Tarp to Hambro to Rinehart to Dupre. Think, too, of the struggles of young Emerson with his father and Trueblood’s betrayal of his role as father (and Norton’s!).
The college population in 1973 was approximately 58% male and 42% female and that was a terrible waste of the skills and abilities of so many women—40 years later we have completely reversed that statistic. Today, 59% of all Master’s degree candidates are women. In 2005-2006, 1.4 million students took the SATs; 750,000 of them were female, 650,000 were male. A young man who doesn’t finish high school or go to college will likely earn less than ½ of what a college grad earns. He’ll be 3 times more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to be homeless. He’ll be more likely to get divorced, more likely to engage in violence against women, and more likely to engage in crime. He’ll be more likely to father children out-of-wedlock and more likely not to pay child support. Single mothers were primary caregivers for one-third of American boys in the 1990s. Studies show that divorce and single mothering correlate to crime among males. Boys from broken homes commit two-thirds of violent crime. This is not just a matter of helping boys learn to become husbands and fathers; it is also a matter of helping our girls.
In Robertson Davies’ The Manticore, the main character is given the following insight by a beloved former teacher, “Every man who amounts to a damn has several fathers, and the man who begat him in lust or drink or for a bet or even in the sweetness of honest love may not be the most important father. The fathers you choose for yourself are the significant ones.” I hope that all children have numerous fathers to choose from in their lives—they just won’t see many examples on TV.
Thanks Dad, love Daniel.
All statistics from ASCA School Counselor, Washington Post, ETS, Newsweek, New York Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.