Building A Better Dad

Most men today say they are better fathers than their fathers were, caring more and trying harder. Is that true? And is the new, "sensitive' dad what kids really need? HOW DO WE ASSESS A MAN'S LIFE? THE LATE William S. Paley, founder and longtime chairman of CBS, devoted his life to the pursuit of wealth, power, fame and worldly pleasure -- just like me, come to think of it, except he was very much luckier at it. But what I remember best about him is a telling remark in one of his many fulsome obituaries. Paley, said a friend, wasn't the kind of guy to attend his kids' Little League games, but when they needed him, he was there for them. And I thought, gee, how could one of the great visionaries of American industry be such a putz? Little League games are precisely when your kids need you the most. I accept that I will never own a Czanne or sleep with a starlet, but nobody will say anything so dumb about me when I die, because I've been to more goddam ball games in the past eight years than Cal Ripken Jr.

Ha-ha. Just kidding, guys. I love Little League games, the earlier on Saturday morning the better. They remind me that it's always been hard to be a man. That was true even for my father, in the heyday of American malehood, the 1950s, when he would haul his weary suitbound hide off the bus every day at 6 p.m. and, responding to the invariable question, mutter, ""Every day is hard when you're trying to make a living.'' By the standards then in effect, he was a model father, without once taking his kids backpacking, helping them sew costumes for their Kwanzaa pageant or making marinara sauce from scratch for their dinners. These are just a few of the ways in which men of my generation have redefined their roles beyond the business of making a living. Of course, most men still have to make a living, too, so in a single generation, fatherhood (like motherhood) has gotten twice as hard. I don't want to take anything away from Paley's achievements, but as far as I'm concerned, creating CBS would have been a more impressive feat if he'd done it while lugging his kids to the office in a Snugli.

Which he might actually do, if he were alive today. Men today ""have permission to care for their children that they didn't have a generation ago,'' says Betty Thomson of the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin. It's no coincidence that society gave men this permission just when they were needed to watch the kids so their wives could go to law school. By 1991, 20 percent of American fathers were taking care of young children in the home. (Two years later, as the economy improved, that proportion dropped to 16 percent.) But this cultural shift goes deeper than home economics. Baby boomers have transformed paternity, as they have every other institution they have touched, into an all-consuming vocation and never-ending quest for improvement and self-fulfillment. An outpouring of books, tapes, magazines and seminars -- especially notable in the weeks leading up to Father's Day -- both celebrates the pleasures of fatherhood and exhorts men to improve their performance in it.

FAMILY RESPONSIBILITY WAS A MAJOR THEME OF THE Million Man March in Washington last year, as it is of the revival-style meetings of the Promise Keepers, an evangelical group that has been filling stadiums all over the country. Executives quit lucrative jobs to spend more time with their families, a phrase that used to mean ""he couldn't find his way out of the men's room.'' Jeffrey E. Stiefler, the 49-year-old president of American Express, resigned last year to become a consultant and ""watch his sons grow up.'' ""How many presidents of Fortune 500 companies get to do that?''his former wife remarked in The Wall Street Journal. Bill Galston, President Clinton's domestic-policy adviser, quit to return to teaching after his 10-year-old son told him ""baseball's not fun when there's no one there to applaud you.'' I say go for it, Bill -- and don't even think of bringing that laptop to the game Saturday.

Just kidding, Bill; you wouldn't do that. You know that fathering today demands far more concentration and effort than it did when you were growing up in the 1950s, that discredited era of emotionally distant, conformist, workaholic dads. To an astonishing extent, today's fathers define themselves in opposi- tion to the generation that raised them. There is ""a substantial gulf between the boomer generation and their fathers,'' says Don Eberley of the National Fatherhood Initiative. ""There is disappointment, a sense of loss, regret bordering on anger.''

This, of course, was the seminal kvetch of the men's movement: the alienation of fathers from their families, dating from the Industrial Revolution, which separated the worlds of work and home. A son who feels let down by his father carries a lifelong grievance. How could he have been so blind, so indifferent to my needs, so absorbed in the stupid newspaper? At the age of 49, Robert Blumenfeld, a San Francisco businessman, recalls exactly how many times his father played ball with him (once) and what his father said when he graduated from high school cum laude: that some other 18-year-old had just signed with a baseball team for $100,000. Dan Koenigshofer, a 46-year-old engineer in Chapel Hill, N.C., ""can't ever recall that my dad said he loved me'' (although he's sure that he did love him, in his taciturn 1950s way). David Weinstein, a Harvard economist, even knows where his father was when he was born, 32 years ago. He was in his office. Back then, the next day was soon enough for a new father to visit his son; Weinstein's dad was presumably in no hurry to learn how to change a diaper, since most men in those years didn't expect they would ever need to know.

Something changed in the culture when these men grew up, and sociologists are still trying to figure out exactly what it was. Somehow, out of the poignancy of memories such as these, men forged a determination to do better. There was new research: around 1980 psychologists discovered that attachment to the father -- previously assumed to commence around the time a child began drawing a weekly allowance -- actually forms at the same time as the maternal bond, six to eight months. Weinstein, taking no chances, made sure that he was the very first thing his son, Jeremy, saw when he poked his head into the world almost two years ago. But the most profound changes didn't grow out of a laboratory. Koenigshofer tells his kids -- ages 4 and 1 -- he loves them ""a dozen times a day.'' ""You no longer see families where the dad says, upon finding that a kid has a dirty diaper, "Go find your mother','' says Michael Lamb, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health and a leading authority on American family structure. ""But it was universal 20 years ago.'' A NEWSWEEK Poll found that seven out of 10 American fathers spend more time with their children than their own fathers did; nearly half think they are doing a better job and only 3 percent think they're worse. What other area of American life has shown such improvement in just a generation?

OF COURSE, NEWSWEEK DIDN'T POLL THE KIDS. Their wives, for what it's worth, tended to agree with them. But proving that men are actually being better fathers -- as opposed to talking and writing books about it -- is one of the great unsolved problems of contemporary sociology. ""We all think there's been a change,'' says Thomson, ""but I haven't seen any data that convinces me it's true.'' Part of the problem is that the same quest for self-realization that has led men to seek fulfillment in nurturing and sacrifice has also led them in increasing numbers to pursue their destiny with a sexy divorce from their aerobics class. More than half of all American children born in the 1970s and 1980s are expected to spend part of their childhoods with just their mothers. A Census Bureau study found that 16.3 million American children were living with just a mother in 1994 -- and 40 percent of those hadn't seen their father in at least a year. It would take an awful lot of millionaire executives quitting the rat race to offset that statistic. ""Men today are better fathers when they're around -- and worse when they're not,'' says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who studies American families.

True, some studies have shown that fathers today are more involved with their children. But even those researchers admit that the demonstrable changes are small compared with what you'd expect from watching Donahue over the years. Studies of different nations show that American fathers are about average in parental involvement, spending on average 45 minutes a day caring for their children by themselves; American mothers, by the way, spend the most among women of any nation studied, more than 10 hours daily. (The least-involved fathers: Japanese, averaging three minutes a day.) ""Women are still doing twice as much [child care] as men, although 20 years ago they were doing three times as much,'' says James A. Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project of the Families and Work Institute. ""Progress has been slow, and it will continue to be slow.''

Levine's assumption, clearly, is that it is desirable -- for children, for society and for fathers themselves -- for men to spend more time with their children. This seems obvious at first glance, although advocacy groups for fatherhood can also summon up reams of statistics to demonstrate it. ""What reduces crime, child poverty, teen pregnancy AND requires no new taxes?'' asks a handout from the National Fatherhood Initiative. The answer, of course, is responsible fatherhood (although like many panaceas, this one is vulnerable to the counterexample: if fathers can prevent all these social ills, how has Japan escaped them?). This organization was founded in 1994 to ""reinstate fatherhood as a national priority,'' and it focuses mostly on public-policy issues related to divorce, abandonment and unwed motherhood. Its materials are thick with sound-bite-size statistics asserting, for instance, that ""Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school'' or that ""Seventy percent of the juveniles in state reform institutions grew up in single-or no-parent institutions.'' The National Center for Fathering, by contrast, has a more evangelical approach, exhorting individual fathers to greater ""commitment'' and to enhancement of their fathering ""skills.'' Levine's organization promotes the compatibility of family life and work for men who may still feel guilty about sneaking out on, say, a half-written magazine story on the remote chance that this will be the day someone hits a ball right to where their kids are standing in right field.

MOST MARRIED PARENTS WOULD AGREE THAT one grown-up is not enough to raise a child, although if pressed they would probably admit that two grown-ups aren't nearly enough either. But when sociologists began studying the long-term effects of fathers' involvement, they didn't find what they'd expected. A few studies, mostly with highly educated and motivated fathers who displayed a superhuman threshold of boredom, did indeed show a correspondence between the time fathers spent with their children and such desirable traits as ""increased cognitive competence'' and ""a more internal locus of control.'' But in an influential review of the research Lamb concluded dolefully that in general ""there is little evidence and no coherent reason to expect that increased paternal involvement in itself has any clear-cut or direct effects.'' So tell your coach Daddy had to work really, really hard this week and he's too tired to pitch batting practice Saturday, OK?

Just kidding. This is so counterintuitive, so potentially dangerous and subversive, that not even the experts want to believe it. Instead, they're trying to prove that what counts is the quality of the father's involvement. To do this requires a statistically useful standard for judging fathers. Lamb's collaborator, Joseph Pleck of the University of Illinois, describes ""positive paternal involvement'' as being ""high in interaction, accessibility and responsibility, and within the engagement component, performing positive activities and possessing positive stylistic characteristics.'' Before you get too worked up about this discovery, though, Pleck cautions that ""to date, no research has directly tested this perhaps obvious prediction.''

There is, however, one undisputed benefit to ""paternal involvement,'' according to psychologists: it's better for the fathers. The effects of taking care of one's children include enhanced self-esteem, increased marital happiness and the quality psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called ""generativity,'' referring to the ability to sacrifice and take responsibility for others. There are other ways to achieve this, such as devoting one's life to the betterment of humanity. But fatherhood is by far the most common test of selflessness, and in some ways the most exacting.

That's right: all those high-powered executives who are dropping out so they never have to miss another Little League game are in for a shock: their new career requires just as much intensity, focus and mastery of technique as business or war. That is the message of Ken Canfield, an educator who founded the National Center for Fathering in 1990. ""There are rising expectations for fathers,'' warns Canfield, whose column in Today's Father magazine is ominously titled ""In the Trenches.'' In the 1950s, good fathers paid the bills and handed out discipline. Now, he says, ""you have to be sensitive, you have to be emotionally involved, you have to forgo job advancement to be a good dad.'' Books like Canfield's ""Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers'' or ""The Five Key Habits of Smart Dads,'' by Paul Lewis, bring to bear on fatherhood the same management-by-objective insight that has inspired 10,000 business best sellers. (""Effective fathers have a task orientation toward fathering'' . . . ""Without some simple guidelines to help them win at being dads, most men lack the confidence that breeds success.'') Other books focus on developing specific skills, like making a popping sound with your finger in your mouth. (""Keep your cheek taut and your forefinger stiff and hooked,'' advise John Boswell and Ron Barrett in ""How to Dad.'') ""Men want things summarized,'' says Canfield. ""They want orientation. They want to know: "What should I be doing?'''

And dads are doing it! Dads like Blumenfeld, who gets up every morning at 6:30 to make breakfast for his 13-year-old son, Bryan. Blumenfeld craftily sets the sports section next to Bryan's cereal bowl, and in that way, he says, ""I guess I trick him into doing 20 more minutes of reading before school.'' How's that for task orientation? Or Robert Jones, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer, who came into four tickets to a baseball game, and told his then 10-year-old son to invite two friends. When Jones got home, there were three friends instead of two, so Jones taught his son a lesson; he left him home and took the other boys to the game. That's how you win at being a dad -- especially if, like Jones, you then demonstrate your sensitivity by getting all teary at the game and bringing everyone home after the first inning.

The analogy between fathering and managing a corporation breaks down, though, at one critical point. The return on investment is outside your control. The limits of possible success are set, more or less arbitrarily, at the moment of conception. You can do everything the books say and your kid still won't develop enough ""increased cognitive competence'' to get into Harvard.

And, naturally, you don't get paid for being a father -- quite the contrary, as everyone knows -- which explains the persistence of the myth that it's actually tremendous fun. There is a whole literature of fathers' lush, almost sensuous tributes to their own kids, the smell of their scalps after their baths, the secret pleasure of tiptoeing into their rooms to watch them sleep. People who have experienced only romantic love may find it hard to believe that the parental kind can turn one's brain to mush just as readily.

Boston TV producer Michael Greene likes to put some Aretha Franklin on the stereo, crank it up real high, and dance with his 5-year-old daughter, an experience that moves him to unparsable rhapsodies about ""getting connected back to some basic essence of my life.'' Sitting quietly late at night with his infant son dreamily gumming a bottle was ""like falling in love again,'' says Weinstein. In ""Father's Day: Notes From a New Dad in the Real World,'' Bill McCoy, an editor of Parents magazine, describes how during softball games his mind would wander to ""the way my daughter pushes me over when I'm sitting cross-legged on the carpet, then tumbles into my arms as I fall.'' His solution was to give up softball. Art Perlman, a writer and lyricist who works from his New York apartment, looks after 6-year-old Jason while his wife puts in long days in her law office. Father and son fill their afternoons discussing topics Perlman lists as ""colonial history, U.S. presidents, dinosaurs, space and science and animals in general.'' I don't think I'd given dinosaurs more than five minutes' thought in the year before my first son was born -- and then, suddenly, my life opened up to a menagerie of fascinating, exotic creatures that I wish had stayed buried for another 200 million years.

Just kidding. I love dinosaurs, Barney especially. I don't want to sound like my own father, who frankly disdained them -- a typical attitude of 1950s-era dads. Yet I detect a paradox in this frantic rejection of the values of the Eisenhower era. At the time, the postwar years in America were actually regarded as a remarkable experiment in family togetherness. Much of the iconography of American domestic life -- the Saturday Little League games, the Sunday barbecues, the backyard birthday parties -- dates from just that despised era. Parents, after all, moved to the suburbs for their children, not in order to work late at the office or eat out more often. And, as David Blankenhorn pointedly observes in ""Fatherless America,'' fathers of the 1950s overwhelmingly stayed married and supported their families with their paychecks -- an example that seems lost on all too many of their offspring.

And for me, Lord, if I can do no more, at least help me do no less: to come home to my family each night, to take care of them to the best of my ability, to raise my children with the certainty that no matter how much they screw up the rest of their lives, one person loved them unconditionally. Like millions of other men, I have made my choice. We will never know what greatness might have lain within our reach, not to mention starlets. And we will find satisfaction in knowing we did what was right, without expecting any gratitude for it.

Just kidding.

Today's dads think they're pretty hot stuff, better than their fathers in many ways. In this NEWSWEEK Poll, they say they care more and try harder--and today's moms seem to agree.

55% of fathers say being a parent is more important to them than it was to their own fathers.

61% say they understand their children better.

49% of fathers rate themselves better parents than their fathers. 20%, especially the younger dads, say they are much better.

70% say they spend more time with their children than their fathers spent with them. 52% say they punish their children less severely.

86% of the mothers who shared parenting said their mates did either a very good (52%) or good (34%) parenting job.

For this special NEWSWEEK poll, Princeton Survey Research Associates telephoned 803 parents of children aged 17 and under May 4-11, 1995. The margin of error is +/-4 percentage points. The NEWSWEEK Poll @1996 by NEWSWEEK, INC. Here's a short list of the experts' best fatherly tips:

Pregnant Dads: Gestation is not a spectator sport, advises Henry Biller in ""The Father Factor.'' Talk to the fetus through a rolled-up newspaper, he suggests, so Baby gets used to your sounds. Studies show some in utero learning takes place in the latter weeks.

Paternal Instinct: Infants who develop secure attachments to both parents thrive best. Dads offer lower voices, different smells and scratchy cheeks -- all useful learning stimuli for the infant.

Working Fathers: New York's Families and Work Institute found that nearly half the working dads experience conflicts between the job and home -- a number similar to working moms. Yet only 2 percent of men eligible for paternity leave ask for it. And men are far less likely than women to seek flexible hours or time to work from home.

Hello? Try turning off the TV when your child talks to you, says Ken Canfield from the National Center for Fathering. Leave your phone number in your kid's pocket when you travel. Get to know the names of your daughter's dolls, your son's friends. You can't father well if you don't know their quirks ... and their dreams.