By Dr. Nancy Fishman / Morgan Hill, Calif.
As Father’s Day approaches, I think about the importance dads have in their children’s lives. Frankly, there are volumes written about the relationships between fathers and sons, and fathers and daughters. But how often do we actually stop and think about the impact fathers have on their children’s self-image, feelings of security, and sense of belonging?
Heinz Kohut (1913-1981), an Austrian-born psychoanalyst, developed the theory of self-psychology wherein he suggested that children grow along three lines of psychological development. Both mothers and fathers are influential in helping children achieve satisfaction along these lines.
Kohut refers to the first line as “mirroring transference.” When parents look into the faces of their children with delight, the children internalize their parents’ approval. They also collect all their parents’ reflections and use these to create a self-image. If a father, for example, looks at his child with a broad smile as he urges the child to take first steps, the child will feel the father’s approval and be encouraged to succeed.
The second line of development is referred to as the “idealizing transference.” Kohut posited that fathers are particularly responsible for providing a sense of security and protection, which children internalize as the foundation for their own sense of stability. He suggested that an infant differentiates between the nurturing embrace of their mother, and the feelings of security they experience in their father’s strong arms.
Kohut’s third line of development is “twinship.” He wrote about the need for the same-sex parent to bring their child into the sorority of women, or the fraternity of men. Fathers who spend time with their sons give their sons a sense of belonging to a group outside the family.
I treated a young man many years ago who described being awkward around groups of guys, feeling like he never really fit in.
As I became acquainted with his background, I learned he was the only boy in the family, and his father was a traveling salesman. When his father returned home on the weekends, his dad was busy with chores around the house and preparations for the next week’s outing. Consequently, he spent almost no time with his son. My patient had no memory of going to a baseball game, camping, or participating in Scouts with his father. Simply, he never incorporated the feeling of belonging to the “men’s club.”
Kohut’s work does not take into account the complexities of modern-day sexual fluency and sexual identity preferences. It is critical that both parents feel and demonstrate acceptance of their children, regardless of the children’s choices.
A friend recently shared photos of her young daughter and son. Both were clad in dresses. She didn’t hesitate to tell me how much she and her husband love their children. Though her husband had once imagined parenting a boy, he was not prepared for a son who wanted to be considered a girl. This man has given his child the great gift of acceptance as he demonstrates his appreciation for the child’s life. Hats off to this father, and all fathers who take the time to see and celebrate the uniqueness in their children.
As Father’s Day nears, I think about my own father. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, parents resorted to Dr. Spock for childhood remedies and parenting advice. My father and his brother ran a children’s summer camp in northern Michigan. His advice to the campers’ parents didn’t come from Dr. Spock, I can tell you that! He simply told the parents to let the kids be kids.
My dad was the classic go-to-work father, who would return home reliably every day at 5:00 p.m. He grew up in a family of all brothers and hardly knew what to do with four daughters. But he inadvertently modeled some amazing lessons for my sisters and me. We watched him take coffee and the newspaper to our mother every morning as she lay in bed. We noticed how he valued and adored her, never raising his voice to her, or us. He lingered at the dinner table listening to us talk about our day. He wasn’t always patient, but we saw him try to be.
He was very verbal about the importance of looking out for each other. He gave us a love for music, sports, Westerns and war movies. He encouraged us to bring friends home and treated them with kindness. My friend was having problems with her parents; he did not hesitate to have me clear out the guest room and invite her to move in. When our primarily White school district integrated with a totally Black school district, he encouraged me to have new friends over for dinner. I’ll never forget the first time we drove a new Black friend home to her very inferior housing project. My dad tried to console me, but didn’t sugarcoat the truth.
He was a history major at the University of Michigan and loved to show off his knowledge to us, modeling the importance of education. He was not overly protective, but managed to ease his anxiety about having teenage daughters by installing a soda fountain in our basement and telling us to invite friends to our house (where he could keep an eye on us). When our mom died of cancer at the age of 47, Dad stepped up. He took us clothes shopping, bought our first very large cellular phones that came in a bag for emergencies, made sure we had warm winter coats, and bought caseloads of feminine hygiene products.
He had faith in us. He encouraged us to be strong, independent, and ambitious. In 2013, at the end of his long life, he trusted us to make decisions for him. We watched him steadily decline with grace, a positive attitude, and appreciation for his daughters and caregivers. He was very far from perfect, but we were loved and adored.
I’ve seen a different brand of father emerge since the days of my youth. Fathers are far more involved with their children, since parenting and other aspects of maintaining homes have become a partnership. I am so impressed with fathers who can lead with gentle authority while having fun with their children. I’ve seen the sparkle in children’s eyes when time with their father is filled with joy and laughter, as this is a child’s first experience of friendship.
Several years ago, when my husband and I were still living in Michigan, my daughter and her family came to visit from California. We had walked to our favorite Italian restaurant in Birmingham and were comfortably seated when the waiter arrived at our table. Standing between three-year old Emma and her father, the waiter introduced himself.
“Welcome! My name is Tony and I’m going to be your server tonight.”
Without missing a beat, Emma turned to him and said, “Hi! My name is Emma. Meet my friend, Daddy.”
Happy Fathers’ Day! I hope you enjoy your families, near or far, and are able to recall a special memory of your dad this week.
This column is devoted to psychological topics that speak to the human condition, such as relationships, family, love, loss, and happiness. The ideas, thoughts, philosophies, and observations expressed here are personal and not meant as professional advice. Names and identifying information in anecdotes have been changed to protect the privacy of real people.
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Nancy Fishman, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, consultant, and author. Visit her website for an extended biography and more information: www.NancyFishmanPhD.com