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The High Calling of Fatherhood

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W. Jesse Gill, Psy.D.   www.facetofacemarriage.com

The single most important thing you can do as a father is to understand and embrace your calling as one who loves and leads your children.  The influence of fathers reaches further into the hearts and minds of our children and grandchildren than we may have ever realized.  Modern neuroscience and Attachment science, the most comprehensive research literature on human love, clearly reveal the impact of parent-child relational patterns on every aspect of a child’s developing mind and body.[1] A father’s relationship shapes his child’s impressionable heart and mind in powerful ways.

For good or for ill, a father’s treatment of his children leaves an indelible imprint on their intellect, physical health, and central nervous system functioning.  A father’s relational pattern with his child will go a long way towards building that child’s sense of self, capacity to trust, ability to empathize with others, and settled confidence in him or herself to engage life on earth.  Dads who demonstrate consistency and faithfulness will also point their children in the direction of their Heavenly Father.

This direct connection was clearly illustrated when Christ taught us to pray to God as “Our Father, who art in Heaven...”   How can children conceive of a benevolent, just, and generous Heavenly Father if their earthly fathers were negative, stingy, or out of control?  Conversely, children whose earthly dads embodied wisdom, tenderness, and strength will be many steps further along in their ability to take steps of faith for their own personal walk and to also share God’s love with others.

Far more than being providers to our children, or even protectors of their lives, our role as dads is one of making internal maps in the hearts and minds of our children.  These maps guide our children in knowing how to trust, whom to trust, how to be vulnerable, and how to be compassionate.  We build these maps through the power of Attachment.

God’s Attachment Design  At the moment of our first breath on the planet we are helpless and in need of care.  God created a bonding process which links us in tenderness, playfulness, and safety to our parents.  This bond is called Attachment, and it ensures that we will be cared for.  The Attachment bond is co-created between a parent and child.  The child cries out for help, and the parent responds.  The parent smiles and warmly soothes, and the child rests in this warmth.  Attachment science shows that our brains and nervous systems are prewired to receive loving responses from our parents.  Parents are also primed to care for their young and to receive profound satisfaction, spiritual enrichment, and emotional growth by doing this.   We are literally created for connection.[2]

Therefore, children who receive the attentive gaze, tender touch, and consistent emotional responses from their parents will be strong emotionally and even have better health.  A settled confidence is forged in the hearts and minds of children who have received those experiences of being consistently seen and known, touched, and accurately responded to in times of need.

This settled confidence is called Secure Attachment, and it has two key ingredients:

  • Safe Haven– Secure children have internalized a sense that they are “not alone”, and so they don’t worry about abandonment. From countless experiences of being seen and attuned to emotionally, they have a confidence to reach for help in times of need from trusted ones in their lives.  They not only ask for help, but they grow to be adults who are accessible to others in need.
  • Secure Base– Secure children have an assurance of the presence of their parents, and so they are confident to branch out and explore the world. They launch out in ever increasing circles, starting with their own nursery and leading to the larger world around them.  From this launch-point they accomplish great things and take important risks vs. shrinking back in fear. Emotionally they are also capable of self-exploration, because a parent took the time to help them know and understand their emotional landscape through mirroring and emotional attunement.

Simply put, securely attached children know that they are loved.  They have tangibly experienced love in ways that reassure, comfort, and strengthen them.  As a result, they are less self-absorbed, more confident, and more capable of empathizing with the needs of others.  From a spiritual standpoint, they are one step closer toward knowing the God of the universe, who sums Himself up in one word, “love”.[3]

Such children are more confident in their souls as well, like a “weaned child”[4] they have found rest.  They will confidently rest in the presence of God.  They will branch out from this place of rest to do all that God has called them to do, motivated by love and secured by the promise,

My presence will go with you and I will give you rest”.[5]

Naturally, the branching out of children extends further when they reach adolescence, but securely attached adolescents still maintain open and trusting communication with their parents as they encounter the broader world.  These teens are also more capable of healthy dating relationships.  Boys who were secure with Dad and witnessed him being kind to mother, will have a map for healthy ways to treat a young woman.  They will have more compassion, versus objectifying women, and will be able to regulate their sexual impulses better as a result.   Girls who received the affection of their fathers will not have an empty space which is susceptible to teenage male advances.  These girls will also have a map for what they will and won’t settle for in a young man.

Dads help Children know God the Father.

Fathers are vital in teaching children about God.  A father who himself knows the abiding presence of God will be confident to release and entrust his children to God’s care.  Dads who are tenderly affectionate to their children will help instill the tangible awareness of both Secure Attachment and the love of our Heavenly Father.  And children who receive consistent emotional support from their fathers, will not only believe that their fathers are accessible, but they will also be ready to believe in a God who cares for them personally.

Fathers who are generous with their children will see powerful fruit in their children’s lives.  As they are generous with their time, attention, and resources, their children will develop a mindset of God’s abundance.  Jesus wanted us to see God the Father in this light.

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”.[6]

Children who regularly experienced their fathers as being attentive to their needs will develop an attitude of hope.  Such children more readily believe that, “My God shall supply all your need, according to His riches in glory,[7]  because they have experienced this from their earthly fathers.

We can see other ways that this hopeful expectation can align with faith, the kind of faith that Jesus desired for us.  In Luke, He told us a parable so that we “should always pray, and not give up”.[8] This was the story of the persistent widow who basically nagged the “unjust judge” until he gave her what she petitioned for.  We are challenged to bring our petitions before our Heavenly Father through this parable.  We might also chuckle when we think about ways that our own children persistently nag us for things, and we can utter the words of Christ to one who was petitioning Him, “great is thy faith!”. [9]

Of course, there are many times that we must set limits on our children, and this includes times when they are nagging us.  But it is interesting to think about ways that our response to our children’s petitions will influence their faith, their confident expectation of fulfillment from God.

The Blessing of a Father’s Gaze     Children who receive the face to face attention and gaze of their fathers will deeply know their worth.  We only gaze tenderly upon those who are precious to us.  Our look of delight lets our kids know that they are valued and protected; that they are the “apple of my eye”.[10]  We do this through laughter and playfulness.  We share stories, and lessons, even something as simple as asking them to tell us about their days.

My oldest child gets the greatest joy out of making me laugh, and my youngest is jubilant about being able to play a game with me.  So, take time to play with your child.  It can be something as simple as playing catch or having a tea party.  Affirm them for their efforts and tell them how much you enjoy spending time just with them.

We all know people who spent their whole lives wishing to hear that their fathers were proud of them.  It is a tragedy to go a lifetime without this.  You might be one of those people.  God knows, and He sees.  His great desire for you is that you would no longer feel “deserted”, and you name will no longer be called “desolate” or neglected; “for the Lord will take delight in you”.[11]

Hope for You and the Next Generation         Perhaps you are reading this, and the concept of God delighting in you seems completely foreign.  You may have been deprived of the experience of a father’s blessing.  Worse, you may have been horribly mistreated by your dad.

This makes it harder to be securely attached and to pass along the benefits of Secure Attachment to your children, but it is still possible to do.  Research literature describes people who have grieved for the losses they experienced as children, made a coherent narrative of their experiences, and forgive the parent(s) who harmed them.  These people were not raised with Secure Attachment, but they have worked hard to develop an “Earned-Secure Attachment” style. [12] Accordingly, they break the cycle of passing insecurity along to their own children, through the power of their own courage and compassion.

I have been privileged to work with many clients who accomplished this and were able to give their children the emotional safety they never had.  Attachment is God’s design and provision for us this side of heaven.  I believe that He desires to partner with those who wish to heal and forgive.  The very process of healing can also draw us closer to Him, as we come to Him with our pain and need.  The psalmist knew this to be true:

Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close.

I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living.[13]

If you long for God to reveal this to you, I urge you to take a step of faith toward Him.

Father God, I need you to make it real to me how deeply you love me.  Settle me in your secure love for me.  Just like I want to show this kind of love to my child, I need to know it deep down inside of me.  I can’t do it alone.  I boldly ask you to give this to me, first for myself, and so I can give it to my child.”

I believe that God will honor this prayer.  He wants to show us His love, first for ourselves, and so we can give it away to our families. What a glorious testimony this is!  We can break cycles of insecurity that we were subjected to, and we can see God’s goodness in our lifetimes.  By faith we embark upon the transmission of security in our children and in our children’s children.

One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts.

            They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—and I will meditate on your

            wonderful works.[14]

I know that my dream for my children is that my “ceiling” for love, ministry, and accomplishments would be the foundation from which they launch.  I also know that I can’t do it in my own strength.  I don’t have what it takes to be a good husband, or a good father.  But I lean back into the One whose strength is made “perfect in my weakness”.[15]

Strength for the Journey of FatherhoodIf you are weary in the journey of fatherhood, don’t give up.  Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”[16]

He longs to be your Safe Haven, your resting place.  “He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks…. he increases might. Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will mount up with wings as eagles. They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not faint”. [17]

It is only by going to Him repeatedly that you learn to be attached; that you become attached to him. Attachment takes sustained relationship … on earth and in heaven!  As you come vulnerably and confidently before the Lord with your needs, you will grow deeper in faith and foster a deeper love in your home.  It has been my professional and my own personal experience that God ordained marriage as a key means by which men grow in Secure Attachment with God and with their families.  This is just one of the reasons I wrote the marriage book listed in the references below.

As you are growing in Secure Attachment, for yourself, and for your children, remember that your wife longs to support you.  Reach out and share with her.  She’s probably been waiting for years to hear more of your inner workings.  God can use her love for you to be another tangible expression of secure love as you grow in this process.  As you lead these acts of confident and vulnerable reaching out, you will create a deeply loving family environment which nourishes your children, your marriage, and you.

————–

Dr Jesse Gill is a clinical psychologist who practices in Hershey PA.  He may be reached through his website  www.facetofacemarriage.com  

 

[1] Johnson, S.M. (2019).  Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families.  The Guilford Press, New York, NY.

[2] Gill, J. (2015).  Face to Face: Seven Keys to a Secure Marriage.  Westbow Press: A division of Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, Bloomington, IN.

[3] John 4:8

[4] Psalm 131:2

[5] Exodus 33:14; NIV

[6] Matthew 7:9-11; NIV

[7] Philippians 4:19

[8] Luke 18:1 (NIV)

[9] Matthew 15:28a, KJV

[10] Zechariah 2:8

[11] Isaiah 62:4; NIV

[12] Roisman, G.I., Padron, E., Sroufe, L.A., & Egeland, B. (2002).  Earned-secure attachment status in retrospect and prospect.  Child Development, July/August, Vol. 73(4), 12-4-1219.

[13] Psalm 27:10, 13 (NLT)

[14] Psalm 145:4,5; NIV

[15] II Corinthians 12:9

[16] Matthew 11:28, 29; NASB

[17] Isaiah 40:28-31; NIV

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