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Being a Good Father

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 31, 2014 | In Reviews

When I look back on the roughly thirty-five years my wife and I spent raising our six children, I tend to remember my own deficiencies as a father more than anything else. Some parents have a wonderful capacity to remember all the good times in extraordinary detail, but the specific moments which stay with me most are those in which my particular failures as a father emerged with each of my children in different ways.

Fortunately, all of my children are still part of my life, and I of theirs. We are bonded by love and, perhaps more to the point, I am fairly certain that we all know we are bonded by love. I enjoy the incomparable blessing of six young men and women, four of whom are married with children of their own, who are deeply committed to the Catholic Faith, and are striving through all the personal and familial struggles to grow in the life of Christ they find at the heart of the Church. My own job is not done, of course; I still pray very hard each day for all of my children and their families.

Even when my children were young, I certainly tried to be a good father. It was very high on my priority list. Where I failed it was either because there was some aspect of fatherhood I did not yet understand, or because I did not succeed in overcoming my own weaknesses. Family life is a continuous growth not only for children but for parents. It is also important to recognize that no parent is perfectly matched to the personality and needs of any child, and the disparity is greater with some than with others. Even without considering our own imperfections (which are legion), we are foolish to expect that we can fulfill all of our children’s needs, particularly emotional and psychic and spiritual needs. This is just one more reason why prayer must be at the very heart of parenthood.

Of course family life is not all spiritual. There are important natural goods which must be developed within the family. Part of parenting is to understand when natural interventions are called for. We are not Christian Scientists. There can be financial, environmental, social, physical, medical, emotional and psychological issues which must be addressed in natural ways, though never without prayer and spiritual discernment. Not every problem is specifically Christian. The special wisdom of Catholicism is that grace neither destroys nor supplants nature; it perfects it and builds upon it.

Having said all this, let us suppose for a moment that I could distill everything I have learned about Christian fatherhood into a single book. Let us further suppose this would be a book much younger men could read (and reread) so that they might reach and exceed at a much earlier age the understanding I have attained only at age 66—after a lifetime of prayer, learning from my own experience and the example of other families, and even seeing the beauty of family life in my children’s homes. What sort of book would I write?

Fatherhood: The Book

The answer is that I would not write a book at all, because the right book was already published by Our Sunday Visitor Press in 1990, published again in a revised edition in 2002 by Sophia Institute Press as Head of the Family, and has just been released again by Sophia under the original title: The Father of the Family: A Christian Perspective by Clayton C. Barbeau.

Barbeau brings a wealth of personal and professional experience to his task. The father of four boys and four girls, his wife died when his oldest was in his early twenties and the youngest had not quite reached his teens. He wrote the book about a decade after this loss, and it is safe to assume that it prompted new reflections on what it means to be a father. In addition, Barbeau has had a long career as a family therapist, running a private practice, writing extensively on the subject, and speaking throughout the United States and twenty-six foreign countries.

I have been focusing on fatherhood here as if under a microscope, and I would not want readers to forget that being a good father is intimately connected with being a good husband. Barbeau certainly never forgets this, and it is a strong theme in his first two chapters, “The Father as Creator” and “The Father as Lover”. It remains important to the remaining five chapters which unfold the full meaning of fatherhood, covering “The Father as” Christ, Priest, Teacher, Breadwinner and Saint. Sometimes fathers must, sadly, raise children alone (and more often mothers), but there can be no question that our grasp of fatherhood is immeasurably enriched by the dedicated union of husband and wife.

Rather than summarizing each chapter or quoting extensively from the author’s very readable prose, let me try to capture the range of insights in this book from the subtitles in just one of the chapters. I could have chosen a chapter at random to illustrate the point, and in fact that is exactly what I have done, flipping the book open and landing in “The Father as Teacher”. Here are the section headings:

  • Fathers must compete with false heroes
  • To form children, we must let Christ form us
  • If fathers don’t model manhood, the culture will
  • Make the home a haven
  • Father-heroes instruct by example
  • Be honest and positive about the mysteries of the Faith
  • Exercise authority as does God the Father
  • Discipline means affirmation, too
  • Allow children to make some decisions for themselves
  • Good training pays off in later years
  • Sex education: the parents’ right and duty
  • Instill a positive view of God’s creation
  • Education for this world and the next
  • Give children a sense of history
  • Give your children a sense of wonder
  • Children can be our heroes, too

Finally, let me emphasize that humility is also indispensable to fatherhood. Fathers will find themselves in the wrong at times, and must adjust accordingly. Barbeau captures this, among other places, in the closing paragraph of this chapter:

If we are, in fact, images of the world and of God to our children, they should be for us images of what we are to become if we wish to enter the kingdom of Heaven. The teacher who has not the humility to learn from his pupils is not a teacher at all.

I know I have learned invaluable lessons from each of my children, and sometimes the hard way. So my advice on this is very simple: If you are a father or wish to become one, read this book.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 03, 2014 2:42 PM ET USA

    "Make the home a haven." I say again: "Make the home a haven."

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 01, 2014 10:49 PM ET USA

    And that's why we call priests "father..."