Involvement in faith communities helps support and encourage healthy fatherhood and family life, writes Cardus Family program director Peter Jon Mitchell. And our culture's veering away from these spaces is a risk.
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Dads once were considered the forgotten contributor to their children’s development as noted psychologist Michael Lamb observed in the mid-1970s.
In the past, fathers were portrayed as the ones grilling red meat on the barbecue, teaching kids to ride a bike, or peeking out from behind the afternoon paper to scold us, all the while mom was really holding down the household. All of that is changing.
Today, socially conscious marketers encourage caring fatherhood as integral in redefining the modern man. While marketing may be compelling, it takes a community to foster strong fatherhood and family life. Faith communities play a significant role in strengthening and supporting fathers and are associated with marital quality and father involvement. We allow those faith communities to whither at our peril.
Of course, men don’t need to be religious to be great dads. Still, faith communities are an important social institution that cultivates cultural support for family involvement. Their social networks support activities and practices that encourage paternal investment in family life. It’s one of the places where men will see other men involved in parenting. Faith communities provide space and time for families to be together.
Family involvement is also a value imbedded in many faith traditions. It’s one reason why fertility rates are higher among Canadian religious couples. Faith communities transmit values, norms and expectations that support parenting and marital relationships. These communities often attach spiritual significance to the role of spouse and father. In short, religious communities signal the importance of family involvement and help focus men’s attention towards spouses, children, and family life.
Faith communities can also pair accountability with expectations. There are few spaces conducive for men to speak candidly about their roles within the family. Religious institutions often provide resources and support for struggling families.
This connection will seem suspect to some observers. Doubtless, some associate religion with traditional gender roles and family life from a bygone era. At their worst, some religious communities have ignored or even perpetuated abuse within families. This history can’t be dismissed.
Healthy religious communities, however, work to strengthen families. Highly religious Canadian couples are more likely to experience higher quality partnerships when compared to secular couples and couples with less or mixed levels of religious commitment. That’s a key Canadian finding in the 2019 World Family Map, which explores the connection between religion and family outcomes globally.
Other studies have found associations between men’s religious attendance and relationship quality with their children, including displays of affection and time engaged in youth-related activities. Other literature describes varying degrees of positive association between religious attendance and fatherhood involvement.
Religious institutions within local communities may be able to support men and families beyond their own membership. In fact, many do reach out beyond their own walls. Religious communities certainly are not the only space where fatherhood is valued, modeled and discussed. But the current cultural mood is to continue to drift away from these spaces.
That drift will be costly for fathers and families.
Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam noted in his book Bowling Alone that we are becoming more disconnected from friends, relatives and neighbours, while fewer of us hold membership in community clubs and organizations. These spaces need not be religious. Still, Putnam’s work prompts us to ask where and how we might create community where fatherhood is discussed, encouraged, and modeled.
Ultimately children are the most significant beneficiary of involved fathers. Esteemed sociologist Paul Amato has argued that fathers are about as important as mothers in long-term child outcomes. Father involvement is associated with emotional well-being, social competence, as well as economic and educational outcomes.
It’s easy to dismiss the association between religion and marital or parental relationship quality. But families are a social institution that benefits from the support of other social institutions. Faith communities transmit expectations around fatherhood and encourage men in their roles as fathers. Public messaging on father involvement is important, but spaces like religious communities where fatherhood is valued and promoted remain a valuable resource for the modern father.
Losing those communities benefits no one.
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