Father figure's importance can't be overstated

June 20, 2010

Today on this Father’s Day, a century after the first similar day was celebrated in Spokane, Wash., I think of the man I called “Daddy.” He was not my biological father, but the man I chose to become a father figure for me when, at age eight, I asked my Aunt Catherine and Uncle Osie if I could live with them permanently.

Already married 12 years, they had no children and it was a time in my life that I felt the need to create my own stable family unit.
Now every year when we approach the season to honor fathers I think not just about biological dads, like my husband, who raise their children with love and stability, but also about the men who step up and take care of business for children who need strong male leadership at home.

Whether they are grandfathers, stepfathers, uncles, brothers or family friends, it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to recognize that a child needs male role models, spiritual guidance and a firm, yet compassionate, disciplinary hand.

Even though I didn’t have the benefit of having my biological father to raise me, I was one of the lucky ones.

A study released in 2008 found that children who lived with both a mother and father figure have fewer behavioral problems than children who live with, say, a mother figure alone. This is no slap against mothers and grandmothers who raise children alone. After all, that was the case in my life for the first eight years.

However, the report, a 20-year review of major studies in the United States and the United Kingdom, seems to point out good indicators of two-parent households for enhanced cognitive skills like intelligence, reasoning and language development.

For example, “Long-term benefits included women who had better relationships with partners and a greater sense of mental and physical well-being at the age of 33 if they had a good relationship with their father at 16,” according to Dr. Anna Sarkadi from the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health at Uppsala University in Sweden. The report was published in a European medial journal for pediatricians.

That’s what the researchers have to say. I did my own research, based on years of living with a dad who was a good provider, who praised me incessantly for the little things I did right, who raised the bar by constantly challenging me to do better and for being a role model through his own actions.

And so on this Father’s Day, here is a tribute to my late father, and the many men who have become father figures for children. These are lessons learned.

Work hard: My father owned his own business, a funeral home. He would go to work every day before 6 a.m., come home around dinner time and then go back and work a few more hours. He put in the hours to make his business successful by working seven days a week.

Have a sense of humor: Despite his nickname of being “The Undertaker” in our hometown of Savannah, Ga., my father knew how to tell a good joke. Perhaps it was because of years of going to different churches and hearing hundreds of sermons that he would always bring back jokes to tell over dinner.

Be good to all people: As a business owner, he made it a point to make sure he was kind to people at all stations in life. This was especially important for our family’s business. After all, people at all socio-economic levels would eventually need the services of someone like “The Undertaker.”

Buy quality; spend a little more to get a lot more: My father surrounded himself with top-of-the-line merchandise and we were blessed to be able to do so. Maybe that explains my penchant for stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdales when I travel. (Or is that just my excuse?) His desire for the best ranged from the professional grade copper stove he put in our newly built house (in a kitchen where not a whole lot of serious cooking took place) to one day coming home with a huge riding lawnmower which barely fit in the storage shed out back and was way too overpowering for the little patch of grass around our house.

Dress for success: I don’t remember a day when my father didn’t wear a black suit, white shirt, black dress shoes and a Stetson hat. Even in today’s more relaxed sartorial professional environment, I’m grateful for the awareness of the standard: Dress not for the job you have, but for the job you want.

Make deadline: My first newspaper “job” was to write obituaries and ride like mad downtown to make the 9 p.m. deadline at our local daily newspaper.

My father taught me the importance of making deadline because families depended on us to do so. I’ve worked for newspapers all of my career and families still depend on us to make deadline.

This is my testimony, and my plea to all men who may be in a position to be good father figures to children in their lives. In this case, biology doesn’t always matter.