An involved father brings a sense of equilibrium to his children’s lives. Thinkstock

It is often said that there’s nothing like a mother’s love. But when it comes to raising happy, healthy and faithful children, there really is nothing quite like a father’s love, either.

While mothers undoubtedly play a critical role in the lives of their children, research has continually shown that there is no substitute for having two actively engaged parents in a child’s life. In a wide range of areas, from academic success to social behavior to practicing the Faith, children who are raised with loving, committed fathers in their lives clearly benefit from having a close relationship with their dads.

“Moms and dads are both very important,” said Dr. Gregory Popcak, a marriage and family counselor and executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. “Yet they both bring very different gifts to the parenting table.”

Model of faith

For Catholic families, Popcak told Our Sunday Visitor, one of the greatest benefits of having a father who is committed to his faith is that it often makes a significant difference in how his children will come to view the Church.

The benefits of having an engaged father last well into adulthood. Thinkstock

“It is really the father’s role in his children’s faith formation that tends to determine whether the kids are going to grow up to be faithful Christians or not,” he said. “When the fathers take the lead in the Faith and character formation of their children, the children are more likely to grow up to continue their parents’ faith than if only the mother takes the lead.”

This important role was addressed by Blessed John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the role of the family in the modern world. “In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family,” Pope John Paul wrote. One of the ways for a father to do this, he said, is “by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church” (No. 25).

Popcak agrees that fathers often become a manifestation of God within their family. Though it is of course important for both parents to remain active in their faith life, as either parent not doing so could send the message to kids that faith is optional or unimportant, children tend to look to their father as a model of Christ in the home.

“A lot of our images of God are fatherly or paternal, and that turns our children’s hearts toward their father to see what does dad make of this or what does he do about that,” Popcak said. “So when dads are able to be those strong spiritual leaders in their household, it helps add more of a personal, emotional dimension to that idea of a God who is loving and caring and present.”

Unmatched influence

The benefits of a committed father are not just confined to his own family. Research has shown that the involvement of engaged fathers can have lasting effects that benefit children into adulthood and influence the way they interact with the world.

A 2008 study by Swedish researchers using data from 24 papers published between 1987 and 2007 found myriad benefits for children whose fathers are actively involved in their lives, including enhanced cognitive skills and fewer behavioral issues. Studies also have linked better academic performance, improved social skills and psychological health with the presence of an engaged father.

During his years as a youth minister, Steve Wood, founder and director of Family Life Center International, saw firsthand the differences between children who have involved fathers and those who do not. “That’s where I saw in a very obvious sense how disturbing it was for kids who, for one reason or another, had a father who was absent,” he told OSV. “It was so hard to bring an equilibrium to that child’s life.”

Wood continued to study the importance of fatherhood and learned that numerous societal issues — violent crime, high incarceration rates and out-of-wedlock births, to name a few — could all be tied to the lack of an involved father. That led Wood to begin St. Joseph’s Covenant Keepers, a network of Christian men devoted to strengthening fatherhood and promoting healthy family life.

“A mother and child are very closely bonded together, but a father is the first other person in a child’s life,” Wood said. “So we take a lot of cues from dads, and they are looked at as kind of a bridge to the outside world. And if that is lacking, there will be all kinds of compensation that a child, and later an adult, will be trying to make.”

But being a good influence doesn’t mean being perfect or even being an expert on parenting. Dads can have a profound positive impact on their children just by spending time with them, Wood said. And rather than being authoritative in telling kids what to do and what not to do, a father can make a big difference just by setting the right example for his kids — something Wood learned from his own experience as a parent.

“One of the things my own kids told me is that they learned the importance of doing certain things through imitating their father,” he said. “I tried to be a winsome and fun dad along with that, and it sets a positive way for kids to follow.”

Fathers know best

Some fathers, however, may still doubt their ability to steer their kids down the right path, especially when children are exposed to so many other cultural and societal voices. Chris Stefanick, a veteran youth minister and noted chastity speaker, told OSV that it is common for fathers to underestimate just how influential they can be in a child’s life.

A father who is committed to his faith influences how his children view the Church. Thinkstock

“Dads have to know their power,” said Stefanick, himself a father of six children ages 1 to 14. “Our voice feels small and quiet next to the culture at large, but a shallow stream is very loud and the Mississippi is very quiet. I think the voice of a dad in the life of a child is like the Mississippi — it has a very powerful pull, even if it is quiet.”

Stefanick, who travels the country speaking to 50,000 teens each year about chastity, said that studies have found it is the presence of an active father that is most likely to prevent teens, especially girls, from having premarital sex.

And despite his expertise, Stefanick admits to struggling when it comes to talking to his own kids about sex.

“It is awkward; you blush and you stutter,” he said. “But even though it is awkward I know that I have to do it. Even if it doesn’t come out right, what I say has more power over their hearts and minds than what anybody else could say.”

Stefanick also knows that the messages he gives to youth in his talks can never be as impactful as what those teens hear from their own dads. Though fathers may struggle to put the words together or doubt that they are capable, he added, it is essential for them to lend their voice and guidance to their children.

“A family when a dad is not being a spiritual leader is like a church without a bishop or a parish without a priest,” said Stefanick. “Yes, it can still go on somehow, but it is not as strong as it could be.”

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.

Resources For Catholic Dads
Unsure of how to handle the challenges of being a Catholic father? Curious about the best ways to pass on the Faith to your kids? Want to connect with other Catholic dads who are living with the same joys and challenges? Plenty of great resources are available to support faithful fatherhood:
The National Center for Fathering (fathers.com): Offers tips and resources on being a more involved, committed father.