“Relatively few studies .. highlight the unique role of fathers” says Laura Padilla-Walker of Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life in Science Daily. She and her colleague, Randal Day, have published a study in the Journal of Early Adolescence that looks at how fathers, by practicing “authoritative” (in contrast to “authoritarian”) parenting can help children (aged 11 – 14) develop “persistence,” the ability to “stick with it” when things get difficult.
Padilla-Walker and Day followed 325 two-parent families for several years. Among their findings is that persistence, which they say can be taught, is connected to better outcomes in school and lower delinquency rates. Being “authoritative” requires three basic ingredients:
- Children feel warmth and love from their father
- Accountability and the reasons behind rules are emphasized
- Children are granted an appropriate level of autonomy
About 52 percent of the fathers in the study showed “above-average levels of authoritative parenting,” in which fathers did not simply (for instance) issue orders, rules and directives and mete out discipline, but allowed their children some amount of independence.
As Day says, in their research, he and Padilla-Walker asked parents if their child could “stick with a task,” “finish a project” and “make a goal and complete it.” Day comments that “Learning to stick with it sets a foundation for kids to flourish and to cope with.”
On the one hand these conclusions seem the sort of advice any parent might offer a child. Of course we’d like our kids to learn to tough it out and not give up when things get difficult. But then — here in some parts of the US at any rate — there is a strong tendency for parents to over-emphasize winning, being at the top and getting the highest score, as markers of success; to focus on goals over effort.
Padilla-Walker’s and Day’s notion of persistence instead emphasizes sticking to a task even if you’re struggling and even if you won’t win the top prize — a fine message for Father’s Day, as it is today in the US.
As I routinely note, my 15-year-old son Charlie is autistic, on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum. Around the time he entered adolescence, my husband Jim started to devote even more time than he had been with Charlie. This change came at just the right time as Charlie, on entering puberty, entered a growth spurt that has resulted in him being almost as tall as Jim. Charlie, we have learned, thrives on daily physical activity in the form of long bike rides. Jim has spent much of the past years strategizing bike routes and running interference when drivers honk and otherwise indicate they’re not going to share the road. Charlie is a great bike rider, but he is very disabled, extremely sound-sensitive and not able to size up social situations and cues: He needs Jim and any ride can become quite an adventure. The point of every ride is not speed or mileage, but finishing it (preferably without unexpected drama).
Jim grew up in the 1960s when “authoritarian” fathers were definitely the norm. Being a dad to an autistic son definitely involves learning to be accommodating while seeking to foster Charlie’s independence and emphasize that there are certainly rules (stop signs and traffic lights) to follow — and all while conveying a lot of love in ways verbal and non-verbal.
Is it possible to be an “authoritative” parent without being “authoritarian”?
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there including my dad and Jim, Charlie’s best-ever dad!
Related Care2 Coverage
Photo taken on Father's Day 2012 in Liberty State Park, Jersey City, by the author.