As I celebrate my second father’s day as a dad, I’ve been thinking more and more about my own father, who died over ten years ago. When I travel back home to Boston I always drive down the spartan Cape Cod highway to the Veterans Cemetery. I will sit on the crisply cut grass by his gravestone, admiring the blue skies, soaking up the sun and feeling the breeze through the trees. I’ll update him about my wild adventures in China, but I think he already knows. I know he and my Alex would get along swimmingly, and I’m sure he’s as proud of me as he’d always been. And then I choke down that ache of longing, dust off his stone and make the lonely drive back, wishing he were still here.
As I remember my dad, I think about the importance of fatherhood and how signally important it is for me to raise my children as best I can. My father did the best he could, a very typical father at the time, focused more on providing than nurturing. Somehow he worked three jobs to provide for his wife and four children under the age of five. We four have used our parent’s relaxed, unconditional love as bedrock to develop our own life path and rhythm. Some took a longer time to figure out that path, including me, but as a late bloomer I’m pretty darn happy with what I’ve already accomplished in my life.
As I now think about fatherhood and the differences not just between American generations but also cultures in China and the USA, I find research on fatherhood quite fascinating. I recently read last winter’s CDC National Health Statistics Report, Fathers’ Involvement With Their Children, reviewing the amount of time that fathers spend with their children. I found it reassuring that most American fathers were quite hands-on, a more modern approach than in my father’s time. Among fathers living with children younger than five, 98% played with their children, 90% bathed, dressed or diapered them, and 60% read to them at least several times a week. These numbers have increased from their earlier 2002 survey. I fit into this hands-on dad category, and it’s a very conscious decision on my part. My career path at this time absolutely is secondary to ensuring that my children’s first years are as nurtured and guided as they can.
Now that I’ve immersed in Chinese culture for almost a decade, and especially now as a first time father, I’ve wondered more and more whether I can combine Eastern with Western “best practices” of fatherhood, such as I’ve tried to do with medicine. But are there any true differences, or are they just superficial anecdotes from my limited viewpoint here in our first tier economic bubble of Beijing? And if there are true differences, is either “better” than the other?
I found a couple of excellent review articles to shed light on this, including Parenting and fatherhood in urban China—a sociological perspective from 2009 and Fathers in Chinese culture: from stern disciplinarians to involved parents, from last year. They both have similar points: the incredible changes in Chinese society over the last half century have also affected fatherhood. Both articles mention how it’s impossible to generalize about one stereotypical “Chinese dad” because parenting in China differs between economic groups and regions, as well as urban versus rural fathers. But they agree that the traditional Confucian-infused emphasis on total subservience to daddy (filial piety) has mellowed to a more nuanced fatherhood. Some studies commented on the increasing amount of dads (and moms) who take on roles as friends with their child, partly due to the one child policy. Also, many homes are now a nuclear family of two parents and one child, and no longer the traditional three generations living together (san dai tong tang), which may lead to more father-child intimacy. One Shanghai study from 2003 revealed how the more educated fathers were more involved with domestic chores and playing with their children.
So is there a “better” way of fathering, gleaned from an East-West comparison? Actually no, I can’t really say that there is an obvious difference now — not anymore. But what does seem clear from the literature is that the old-fashioned fatherhood approaches from both cultures — distant and stern, provider and not nurturer — wasn’t the best way. A 2006 review from the U.S. Children’s Bureau makes clear the large body of evidence which shows how more emotionally involved and affectionate fathers, especially at younger ages, raise children who develop a higher IQ, better social connections, better grades and fewer behavior problems.
So I will continue to practice my own quirky fatherhood style, and I personally much prefer the more modern authoritative style versus the older authoritarian model based on Confucian principles. I agree with Confucius that “the father guides the son” — but let’s not forget about daughters, of course. I also agree when he says, “as a father, he rests in kindness.” There’s another famous Confucian quote, “in filial piety, there is nothing greater than reverential awe of one’s father.” Well, I can immediately think of at least a handful of things that are greater than that: growing up self confident; having a core of integrity; showing automatic respect and politeness to all others — I could easily go on.
Do I want my son to lovingly gaze on his hero-dad for eternity? Of course I do. But I’ll settle for respect, honest conversations and warm affection into his teen years and adulthood. I suppose ending phone calls always with an “I love you, dad” also would be really cool. I can’t control that, but I certainly will always be telling him I love him, at any age, no matter how uncomfortable it makes him, and no matter what he’s done.
I already know I will have a perfect Fathers Day 2014, with Alex at 16 months. We will do our usual routine of me holding him in the baby carrier while I make breakfast, then we all walk along the tree-lined streets to our child development center where he will joyfully play, tumble and laugh with half a dozen other toddlers. Afterwards, we will all take well-deserved afternoon siestas. I can’t think of a better way to spend that or any other Sunday. Well, actually I can — I wish his grandpa were here, in person and not just in spirit.
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