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Fathers Aren’t Disposable

Dr. Pat Fagan, Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative or MARRI, discusses the important role of fathers in families, especially in the relationship between fathers and sons.

Pat Fagan discusses demographic winter and fertility

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Fathers Aren’t Disposable

JOHN RUSTIN: Thank you for joining us for Family Policy Matters. This is the time of year that we give special recognition to mothers and fathers. In May, we celebrate Mothers Day and in June we celebrate Fathers Day. More than just an opportunity to give cards and gifts, these days really commemorate the love and appreciation we have for our parents and the tremendous impact they have on our lives. More than that, however, mothers and fathers play a critical role in the stability and overall structure of our families in society. While this may seem quite obvious, the importance of mothers and fathers cannot be overstated. During this edition of Family Policy Matters, we’re going to explore the important role that fathers play in the lives of their children. 

Today, I’m joined by Dr. Pat Fagan, Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative or MARRI, which is dedicated to delivering robust social science data on the impact of marriage and religious practice on the lives of adults and children, and on the future of the nation. Among his volumes of work in the areas of marriage, family, child development and religion, Dr. Fagan has published a series on the phases of the father-son relationships, which we’ll be talking about today. 

Dr. Fagan, welcome back to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you with us on the show again.

PATRICK FAGAN: It’s very good to be with you. Thank you.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Fagan, I know you have spent decades studying, researching, writing, and speaking about marriage, parenting, and family, but this is not just a vocation for you, I know it’s a real passion. As the father of eight children, you bring a wealth of personal insights and experience to the table. If I may, I’d love to ask you to give just a brief introduction into your own story to our listening audience. What was your family life like growing up and then as a husband, a father, and now a grandfather?

PATRICK FAGAN: I grew up with two great parents, working-class, in Dublin. My father was a truck driver and the neighborhood was filled with similar families. Everybody, everybody went to church every Sunday and everybody was married. So compared to today it was absolutely idyllic. The friends I made—I still visit when I go back—that I grew up with, went to Catholic schools all the way through. We regarded ourselves not as poor, but you know, poor enough. Mom and dad had seven children. So, raising seven children on a truck driver’s income was a stretch, but we did it and it was great. I am blessed with them. I remember when my father died, I remember talking to others—I had never myself, my sister said she had seen it—but I had never seen my parents argue, which was a tremendous gift. I’m sure they did, but they did it behind closed doors. We never saw disunity between them. We prayed as a family, we worshiped as a family. I do remember there was a key incident in ’66: Television came into Ireland. On the east coast of Ireland, you could get TV beamed across from the United Kingdom. But we didn’t have our own national TV. But it came in ’66. Everybody bought a TV. And I remember it being on in the living room and this was this new instrument. And I remember two, three days into it, my mother’s saying: I don’t like this, I’m losing my family. Wow, what an insight. 

JOHN RUSTIN: I think that probably shows just the closeness of your family and the interruption that device brought into the home. And of course, we see that in so many ways these days with technology, and it’s just incredible. Obviously, you have had, what many would consider to be, relatively large families, both growing up and also of your own. And I know you’ve had a lot of experiences in the context of those families. Summarize for us, if you would, what the research shows about the really profound impact that fathers have on their children and the lives of their families.

PATRICK FAGAN: It is the profoundest. […] Of course, the mother is biologically tied to the baby intimately for at least a year and a quarter, up to two years, between the pregnancy than the whole catharsis of the birth canal and giving birth. You know that awful pain, immediately followed by that magnificent joy of holding her new child, and then the breastfeeding, which lays all sorts of basis. So nothing can trump the relationship of a mother to a child. A father could never attain that. He has a very different role and has a very important role. Mother provides the family; father builds the family, the two together. Of course, a great marriage is needed for a great family. The father’s contribution: He bonds to his children by an act of the will. I will be a good father. I will take care of my children. I will make the time to play with them. And the most important phase, of course in everything in life, is the earliest phase. The most important phase of the father with the child is those first years, because that’s when the deep friendship and the deep attachment can be formed. What does he do? He plays and he reads to them. What way does he play? Whatever way comes naturally to the kid and to him. The mother lays the basis, the mother makes reality and the world comfortable for the child, than the father brings the child gradually out into the world. But you have to trust him, and the deeper the trust the more the child will follow and take the father’s direction and trust him to lead in a right direction, son or daughter.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Fagan, from your research and experience, talk a little bit about the unique role that fathers play in the lives of their daughters, and also in the lives of their sons. Now, as the father of a daughter and a son myself, I’ve certainly experienced the different ways that I interact and relate to each of my children. And it is different. Let’s talk about that a little bit.

PATRICK FAGAN: Because the daughter is female, that dictates a huge different relationship, and then the son is male and he can learn to be male from his father. The daughter learns to be female from her mother, but what she gets particularly from the father is the affirmation that his rejoicing in seeing her grow into a wonderful and maturing female. She’s the apple of his eye. So she draws immensely on his regard for her. That’s the big gift he gives her. That’s the father with the daughter. With the son, it’s very different. And the way I would sum it up and where my work is bringing me, the huge task the father has, modern and future fathers, their task is getting bigger because cultures are being evaporated. And the flattening of cultures, the eradication of cultures between the pill and the digital and industrial movement and everything, cultures are just being wiped out across the world, particularly in their capacity to transmit the sexual mores from one generation to the next. And as a result, it’s going to fall heavier than before in all of human history on fathers and mothers, the fathers to transmit to their son, the mother to their daughters, how to be a great husband and a great father. It is up to future fathers to take the sexual education of their sons into the home because what’s being transmitted outside is toxic and poisonous. 

So there are different phases. There’s the earliest phases: He binds himself with hoops of steel in affection to his son when it’s easiest, the first four years. How does he do it? Through play and rejoicing in the son, and he keeps it up, five, six, seven, eight. By the time he’s getting around eight, nineand this is a judgment call—he’ll have his first talk with his son about the sexual. He may have answered other questions, but he deliberately gets him ready for adolescents in a light way. And that’s, again, a judgment call. He’ll also have to very early protect him because now, by eight years of age, most boys have been exposed to pornography. The environment is saturated with it and the father has to have inoculated a bit, got them prepared. And then of course as he’s moving into puberty, he’s got to get him ready for the all the changes that will take place. And if the son really trusts his father, he will listen to him. If the father isn’t close to his son long before he comes through adolescence, when it gets time to talk to him, the son won’t listen and he will listen to someone else. So that’s why, on so many levels, the father has to be attached to his son and then he’ll teach him what’s going to happen to him, and then he’ll teach him how to overcome the temptations, or if he slips or falls—and it’s a very easy area for people to slip and fall—how you get back up. And then he teaches his son how he, the father, deals with these temptations.

JOHN RUSTIN: Do you see the character of that father-son relationship is passed down from generation to generation? In other words, is one father’s approach to marriage and parenting often handed down to the next generation because we, as sons, certainly learn from our fathers. And do the positive characteristics that are instilled often get handed down from generation to generation? And likewise, do the negative characteristics of those relationships, or that training or fatherhood potentially get passed down to the next generation?

PATRICK FAGAN: Oh, without a doubt. The marriage between mother and father is the big sexual educator. Period. A great marriage educates so much. The kids just absorb it subconsciously, unconsciously, like sponges. It just seeps in. And so many messages are given and delivered. That is, by far, the strongest sexual education anybody gets, be it for good or ill. So yes. But the good news is, if something bad happens, all people have a sense of where true happiness lies, and what’s good. And so many men and women have come out of broken families where things went wrong between the parents, but they’ve been able to, through all sorts of good things happening—the grace of God, good friends, good relatives, reading good books—get on the right path and say: I’m determined I am going to have a good marriage, and gradually figure out how to do it. So yes to your question, the good is transmitted, so too is the bad, but the bad can be overcome. And of course, the good can be neglected and cast aside. Each generation builds on the one before, but each generation takes its own responsibility at has begun doing its own heavy lifting.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Fagan, in your opinion, what is the most important thing a father can teach or seek to instill in his son?

PATRICK FAGAN: The love of his wife, without a doubt. And that’s what everything, the whole point of it all, is that his son is going to become a great husband. Bottom line.

JOHN RUSTIN: We could go on and on and I’d love to do that, but unfortunately we’re just about out of time, but before we go I do want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to learn more about the topics that we’ve been discussing today, and about your great research and work at MARRI.

PATRICK FAGAN: That’s right, the place to go is And then if you go to the blogs you’ll see a lot that will lead you into all sorts of data. I think it’s true to say it’s a treasure trove of the social sciences on the issues of marriage, family and religion.

JOHN RUSTIN: I would encourage our listeners to visit that website. Again, that’s Dr. Pat Fagan, with that I want to thank you so much for being with us again on Family Policy Matters, and for sharing your great insights, both personal and professional, on the topics of marriage and parenting. We’re so grateful for the work that you do and just pray God’s blessings on you and on MARRI into the future. 

PATRICK FAGAN: Thank you very much. It’s been a real pleasure being with you again.

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