Parents: Fatherly advice may strike some as old-fashioned, but men still believe they have a message to share.

June 18, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Whatever happened to fatherly advice?

A generation ago, it was a cultural staple. TV programs like "Father Knows Best," "My Three Sons," and "The Andy Griffith Show" were based upon it.

Sheriff Taylor having a talk with Opie, or maybe Jim Anderson dispensing his living room wisdom to Kitten, Betty or Bud -- this was what fathers did. They came home with a paycheck, sat in a comfy chair and solved family crises.

Today, popular culture more often makes fathers the butt of jokes than the font of wisdom.

As a society, our very concept of fatherhood has been dramatically redefined over the past quarter-century. No longer is it about being the family breadwinner. And often, Dad is not even around his children much -- an every-other-weekend visit, perhaps, in the post-divorce family.

Meanwhile, a burgeoning fatherhood movement seeks to encourage dads to be more involved with their children. But even its agenda challenges rather than touts traditional roles.

It is the era of "feeling your pain," not fireside chats.

So this Father's Day, it's only natural to re-examine fatherly advice and its role in the 21st-century family.

As Jim Anderson might say: "Pull up a chair, Bud. I think we have some things to talk about."

Picture of devotion

Tom Nappi is about as devoted as fathers get.

He loves his two daughters, Michelle, 6, and Megan, 12, and marvels at their development. He's a photographer and graphic designer for the Maryland Department of Human Resources and talks about them all the time with his colleagues.

But when it comes to actually giving his kids advice? Well, it can be an awkward moment. He recognizes the obligation (he grew up watching the same TV, too), but in the age of irony, a heartfelt talk can seem very unhip, very uncool.

"There are times when I sit there thinking I'm actually imparting fatherly advice here -- I just don't think I'm doing it very articulately," says Nappi, 40, of Pasadena.

Suzanne Braun Levine, author of "Father Courage -- What Happens When Men Put Family First," (Harcourt Inc., $24) is well aware of the modern paradox. Fathers want desperately to be involved, but they are uncomfortable using their own fathers as role models, she says.

"It used to be that children knew they could sleep at night and that everything's right with the world, because Dad has got it figured out," says Levine, a former Ms. magazine editor. "As a culture, we've moved beyond that. But there's still a longing for surety."

A recent survey of men between the ages of 20 and 39 found men ranked having a job that allows for family time as their top career priority -- above money, power or prestige -- which is about the same response the Radcliffe Public Policy Center tabulated for working women.

But how can a father give advice when also rejecting the male authoritarian model? Levine says the alternative has to involve more conversation and less lecture.

"Every father I talked to said they felt like they got important advice from their fathers. But they also felt their fathers were too far away emotionally," she says. "It is an interesting crusade for the men who want to step down from the pedestal."

Geoffrey Greif, associate dean at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work, thinks it's a mistake to equate fatherly advice with parental advice. Men simply have a different "take on the world" than women, he says.

"As a group, fathers are less relationship-oriented. We're more interested in the bottom line of conflict and not so worried about process," says Greif, who has taught family therapy, written books on fatherhood, and helped raise two daughters.

Roles evolving

And while the nature of fatherhood has changed, so has the nature of childhood. And that means the model of either parent sitting down and lecturing a child is no longer workable -- not in the age of TV and the Internet.

"The institution of fatherly advice is still alive and well and probably more important than ever," he says.

Maybe it's the word "advice" that needs to be updated. Some fathers are more comfortable leading by example than by words.

Jim Perdue, CEO of Perdue Farms, Inc. in Salisbury and a father of three, ages 16, 19 and 21, says he suspects his children are "much more informed than I was" at their age. Sitting them down and telling them how to live doesn't appeal to him.

"It's more a matter of being there for them," he says. "You can't keep them from being exposed to things. You just hope they have a value system so that when they're exposed to these things, they'll be able to make the right decision."

In a new book, "Great Dads" (Adams Media, $10.95), Perdue recalls his famous father Frank's words of advice: Balance work and family, and, perhaps most important: "You have to enjoy what you do in life. Otherwise, you will not be able to reach your full potential."

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