Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fatherhood and Plan B

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Don't ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up.” This was illustrated quite vividly by an incident that took place during the PBS reality show, Frontier House. A group of modern people were trying to live like their homesteading ancestors from the 1800s. Fences were not a high priority to these re-enactors until a nearby rancher drove his cattle through the settlement. The cows trampled the settlers' crops and pretty much everything in their way. Seeing this, the viewer understood both the need for fences as well as the enmity that farmers have for cowboys. Not for cows, mind you, because farmers also have cows, which they control with fences and barbed wire. Without them cattle see no distinction between the croplands and the meadows. Not only will they destroy people food, they will trample the very crops which are meant to get the cows through the winter. Fences can protect.

Fences are barriers and today it's popular to look down on barriers. And yet everyone lives with them: the walls of your house, the internet firewalls that keep hackers from hijacking or crashing your computer, and the personal space most people observe. When someone who is not family or a close friend violates that by getting closer than 2 or 3 feet of us, we become very uncomfortable. It all comes down to what the barriers keep out and how well they do so. The Great Wall of China did keep the Manchus from invading, at least until someone left a gate open. That could be either good news or bad news depending on how you feel about the Manchu dynasty. However, had the levees surrounding New Orleans worked as effective barriers to keep out the flooding, that city would have been spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina. Barriers can be good.

However we have seen barriers, especially societal constructs, like the Jim Crow laws or redlining, used to exclude others and unjustly restrict people's freedom. Following Chesterton and knowing why they were put up—to oppress or segregate certain groups—means they and their ilk definitely should come down. But some people think that making definitional distinctions of any kind are exclusionary and want to dismantle all of them. One definition that people seem intent on dismantling is the concept of the traditional family. Critics say not all families are alike and they are right. They say traditional families have problems and they are right. No family is perfect and some families are downright toxic. It does not follow that there is something inherently wrong with the traditional family, any more than the existence of birth defects means that natural reproduction is inherently flawed. Nor does it mean that the alternatives, such as in vitro fertilization or the use of surrogates, are less susceptible to problems than nature's method for making babies. In fact, nobody who can safely conceive and give birth naturally uses any other method. The alternatives were developed for those who, for whatever reasons, couldn't do it that way, as a Plan B. Plan B can be good.

The biological family, consisting of a man, a woman, and any children they have is Plan A, that is, the plan most people consider first. Not everyone can achieve Plan A. Not everyone wants Plan A. That's why there's a Plan B. Plan B might be your preference. But that's no reason to disparage Plan A or deny that it is Plan A. For instance, if you're going to the mainland from the Keys, the fastest, cheapest way to drive is via the 18 Mile Stretch. That's Plan A. Card Sound Road is 7 miles longer and you have to pay a toll. That's Plan B. Now, like me, you might find Card Sound Road is more scenic and less stressful. You might feel it's worth the extra time and the $1 toll. Good. That doesn't change the fact that it is both the longer and more expensive drive to the rest of the state.

When it comes to the definition of the family, the first fence post people have been trying to remove is the father. The ongoing biological necessity of a mother is a given. Her body is designed to gestate, give birth to and feed babies. The father's role, aside from contributing half of the chromosomes needed to make a person, is less obvious. Some think that he is therefore redundant. But that's not what science says. More and more studies have shown that fathers are vital to both the physical and mental health of children. According to the National Principals Association, 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. According to the Department of Justice, 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes. According to the U.S. Census, 63% of youths who commit suicide are from fatherless homes. Children from fatherless homes are twice as likely to engage in early sexual activity, 7 times more likely to get pregnant in their teens, 5 times more likely to be poor, 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders, 32 times more likely to run away, 14 times more likely to commit rape and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. According to the US census 25 million children are living apart from their biological fathers. That's 1 out of every 3 kids.

Having an actively involved father in the home not only tends to protect his children from bad outcomes, but those children tend to have a higher IQ, better verbal scores, and better academic success. They are more likely to be emotionally secure, more confident in exploring their environment, and more sociable with their peers. Playing with their fathers helps children regulate their feelings and behavior. As a government study says, “Generally speaking, fathers also tend to promote independence and an orientation to the outside world. Fathers often push achievement while mothers stress nurturing, both of which are important to healthy development.”

Of course, this is greatly enhanced if the father and mother have a loving relationship. And, to quote the same US government paper on child welfare that I've been using, “Research consistently shows that the married mother-and-father family is a better environment for raising children than the cohabiting (living together) mother-and-father family.” No, it's not the magic of having a piece of paper; it's the willingness to publicly make promises and commitments. Promises never uttered are easier to break.

Now we all know of the damage bad marriages and bad fathers do to their children. Husbands who are continually angry with their wives, who show contempt for them or who clam up and refuse to discuss important issues with their wives tend to have children who are anxious, withdrawn or antisocial. Abusive fathers (and mothers) model behavior that is unconsciously copied by their children in their future relationships. But again, the flawed execution of an idea doesn't disprove the validity of the idea itself. Otherwise, based on the disastrous movie adaptation, you would have to conclude than Man of La Mancha is a pretty crappy musical. A more logical conclusion is that they just didn't do it right.

How do you do it right? Since this is Father's Day, I'm going to address fathers and potential fathers.

First and foremost, resolve to be a good father even before you are one. That means refraining from situations that could make you an unwitting father. One of the most neglected areas in all the discussions of sex today is the fact that, biologically, it's primarily about making babies. That's why it is such a strong urge in all species that have 2 sexes. That's why salmon fight their way up raging streams. That's why male peacocks grow gorgeous fantails and shake them in dances to attract females. It's why the male bowerbird spends hours building a little hut and decorates it with hundreds of carefully arranged flowers, feathers, stones, discarded glass and plastic, all in the same color. Whatever else the participants are aiming for, their bodies are simply trying to create new life. This is not a side effect of sex; it's the main purpose. Ask any biologist.

Once you've found the person with whom you wish to create life, marry her. Being a baby daddy doesn't make you a man. Men make commitments. Men accept responsibility. The world was not built by those who lost interest in something once it became difficult but by those who persevered. Being in a committed relationship is not always easy. Raising children certainly isn't. A real man isn't afraid of the hard work of building a good relationship and a strong family.

A key element of that is the strength of your word. Only make promises you can keep; keep every promise you make. Do that and your wife and kids will respect you, and what's more, trust you. Trust is the foundation of any good relationship. The world is full of untrustworthy people and unreliable promises. Be different. Your kids will be the better for it.

That also applies to discipline. Let rules and the principles that underlie them be clear. Let the penalties for breaking the rules or violating the principles be clear—and reasonable. Don't threaten your kids with any punishment you are unwilling to follow through on but let them know bad behavior has consequences. The world is not going to shrug off dishonest, selfish, illegal or unreasonable behavior. Prepare them for that.

Unless you are willing to spend a couple of hours a week personally laying out for your children an integrated worldview and comprehensive ethical philosophy, take them to church. Don't send them; take them with you. Children are the keenest judges of hypocrisy. If you want them to do something, you must do it yourself as well.

Read the Bible to them. Discuss it. If you don't know something, be honest and tell them so. Then tell them you'll look up an answer. Don't worry. Children ask tough questions but it's unlikely that theirs hasn't already been asked in the last 2000 years. There is probably an answer, perhaps several. Don't give them the impression that faith means having all the answers all the time. Or the first time they are at a loss for one, their faith will collapse. Teach them that faith isn't believing a bunch of facts about God; faith is trusting God, relying on him in the present based on his goodness to us in the past.

Once again, children tend to do what you do. Teach them to trust God by trusting God. Teach them about thankfulness by being thankful. Teach them about mercy by being merciful. Teach them to admit their faults and amend their lives by admitting your faults and amending your life. Teach them about faithfulness by being faithful. Teach them about love by loving them and loving their mother. It's as simple as that; it's as hard as that. That's Plan A.

Sometimes it's harder than that. Sometimes things aren't going the way you planned. Or maybe they are and you realize you made the wrong plans. Maybe you neglected to plan. Maybe things came up that nobody could have planned for. Sometimes for whatever reason you find yourself smack dab in the middle of Plan B. Welcome to the club. That's life. But God is not frustrated. He can bring goodness out of whatever happens.

For proof of that, you need go no further than Abraham and his descendants. We think his family must be Plan A because they are God's people. But they are really examples of how God can even use people in Plan B, no matter how broken they are.

Sarah gave up on the idea of Abraham having the child God promised through her. She chose Plan B and so gives her maid Hagar to her husband as a surrogate. And when Hagar got pregnant, things got tense, as, by the way, all plural marriages in the Bible do. Sarah drove Hagar and her child out into the desert. But God saved Hagar and made her son Ishmael the father of a great nation.

Isaac and Rebecca had twins and each had a favorite. This exacerbated the sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob and the jockeying for birthright and blessing led to a legacy of jealousy and deceit. Rebecca's favorite, Jacob, had to flee so his brother wouldn't kill him. She never saw him again. That was not her Plan A. But God used the situation and both brothers eventually prospered.

Jacob planned to marry one woman, Rachel. But that trickster was himself outsmarted by his father-in-law Laban and found himself hung over and married to Rachel's sister, Leah. After what reads like a bedroom farce, Jacob ends up with 4 jealous and competitive wives and 12 sons. But God makes them the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Despite the obvious lessons of his childhood, Jacob favored the children of Rachel, especially Joseph, over his other sons. That situation almost led to fratricide and Joseph spent years in slavery and in a foreign prison. That doesn't sound like Plan A. Yet, though his life seemed to go from bad to worse, God used Joseph to save a nation as well as his father and brothers. Joseph turned out to be the noblest of the patriarchs.

Life seldom unfolds the way we'd like. Most of us find ourselves working under what we'd call Plan B at times. And yet most of the principles I listed can still be implemented. It's never too late to start following God. There is no situation that God cannot redeem. He can make Plan B look like it was really Plan A all along.

Never forget that you too have a father, one who understands you better than you do yourself. One who loves you more than you do yourself. One who can take any sorry state of affairs, even our crucifixion of his son, and turn it into a blessing. And so he cannot be stymied by any predicament we get ourselves into. The only question is whether we are going to continue to work against him or if we are going to start working with him.

Fatherhood is not for wimps or spoiled brats. It's not for the rigid who can't stand it when Plan A goes off the rails and you have to resort to Plan B. We all have to improvise at times. The two things that must remain constant is your love and your willingness not to give up but to persevere. Nor can you turn back the clock to the hallowed days of your childhood and do everything the way your dad did it. The best way to honor your father is to be the best father you can. And to realize that our Father in heaven is ever ready to help us and to bless us if we just let him.       

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