By David Alton
For many of the estimated 800,000 British children who have no contact with their fathers, a loving relationship with the man who fathered them would be the best present they could receive. The picture of the holy family in Bethlehem would not be complete without the strong presence of Joseph, the man who stood by Mary and who accepted responsibility for a child who was not his. Where are the Josephs of today?
The absence of men in the lives of their children and the lack of closeness between fathers and their children is doing incaculable damage. Fatherhood is in acute crisis – never before have so many men been missing from the lives of their children. Some men are missing because they simply are not there from the start. The role of men has been reduced or demeaned. For instance, by the payment of money to young men for their sperm so that artificial insemination techniques can be used to create their child in an anonymous woman’s womb. The young man has been paid for sex and surrendered his child. In the famous Oxford student case the young man who wanted to have some say over whether his girlfriend aborted their baby was told it had nothing to do with him. The judge found against him although his girlfriend was sufficiently impressed by his integrity that she allowed the child to be born and he has brought up his child. But it was no thanks to the law.
Pope John Paul II has said we should mediate especially on the figure of God as Father. Over Christmas we could also meditate on the role of Joseph – not least as he protects the baby from Herod’s slaughter.
As an adult Jesus gives us the words to address God as a Father in the Lord’s Prayer. Through the parable of the prodigal son He teaches us how to respond to a son even when we have strayed away. He teaches us that there will be a welcome from he Father when we return: that we will be reconciled.
Today’s prodigal fathers and prodigal sons need to be put back together again – and fathers need to tell their sons and their daughters that they love them. Following Our Lord’s own baptism God the Father was not abashed about proclaiming his love for His son: “And suddenly there was a voice from heaven, “this is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on Him.” (Matt 3:17)
So many of our own children – especially those who have been abandoned – would give anything to hear such powerful words addressed to them. Even those of us who are there for our children and love them deeply often suffer from our very British reserve and innate shyness – which makes us so reluctant to express how we feel.
Rob Parsons, of the Christian group, CARE, wrote a book called The Sixty Minute Father – where he details the tiny amounts of time which fathers spend with their children. By contrast, many children in Britain spend an average of two hours a day watching TV – some as much as five hours – and much of the content is extremely violent in nature. They frequently watch the TV alone, without any parent around. Computer games absorb children for an average of 45 minutes a day. The amount of time spent watching television in Britain is nearly 50% more than we spend in work – and phenomenally more than we spend in time with our children. A survey by Care for The Family found that:
- Over half of fathers say they spend five minutes or less on an average weekday with their child on a one to one basis;
- Nearly half of all fathers had not had any discussion with their child in the previous four weeks about behaviour, sex, relationships, religion, current affairs, or rights and wrongs in life.
- Nearly half of fathers would like to have changed in some way the upbringing of their child;
- The most common changes fathers said they would make were spending more time with their child particularly in the early years, talking with him or her more and sending him or her to a different school.
A common realisation amongst many men is that they are pressurised and deprived of the time, which they know in their hearts they need for their relationships. I do not like the phrase “quality time” because it implies that small pockets of time will be set aside and duty will be done.
This week many people will give expensive pieces of equipment, electronic gadgets and toys to a child. This can so easily become a substitute for giving yourself. Someone wisely remarked that you can be so busy giving your child what you didn’t have that you fail to give them what you did have. Do we express our love through our presence or through the materialism of an expensive present? Just like Joseph in Bethlehem we need to be there for the child.