Modern fatherhood can be at once exciting and overwhelming. Family scholars are questioning old assumptions about how dads should interact with their kids, and dozens of advice-filled articles, blogs and social media posts seem to appear daily.
"You start to agonize a little bit, asking yourself 'Who am I?' … You have to be a little more thoughtful and less passive about the roles you play," said Richard Clark, the online managing editor for Christianity Today and father to 1-year-old Atticus.
But even as ideas about fatherhood evolve, certain conclusions about how fathers can pass on their faith remain stable. Studies on family life and religion highlight the value of emotional vulnerability, modeling religious behaviors and taking seriously the idea that kids partially learn who God is through their dad's actions.
"Your kids are watching you through the corner of their eyes. They're absorbing all kinds of interactions — parents with each other, parents with visitors, parents in supermarkets — all of the time," said Ross Parke, author of "Future Families: Diverse Forms, Rich Possibilities." "These (observations) are of central importance in terms of the passage of normals, mores and lessons."
Clark, a 33-year-old Southern Baptist, said he's sometimes intimidated by the influence he'll have on his son's relationship to God and religion.
"How long do I force him to be in church? That's a scary question to ask, especially if he starts pushing back," he said.
However, Clark draws confidence and inspiration from the relationship he had with his own father, who, although he wasn't active in a faith community, taught him valuable lessons about how to live a good life.
"There's a lot of common grace that I experienced through my dad," he said.
Dads in previous centuries had defined religion-related responsibilities, noted Parke, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.
"Fathers were the moral arbiters of the family. They engaged in moral teaching and religious instruction," he said.
Early settlers in America gathered together for worship services, but a large part of religious instruction took place in the home. Families read from the Bible together, and dads offered lessons on how to live a righteous life, Parke said.
As decades passed, religious institutions took on a more prominent role in society, he added. Lessons on faith were outsourced, in a sense, to pastors and youth leaders, but dads continued to influence their kids' religious outlook through word and action — whether the parent was aware of it, or not.
Contemporary research has shown that a father's behavior influences how his children understand God, especially in faiths where God is presented as male, noted David Dollahite, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University.
"If one's own father was a relatively positive presence in their lives, you are more likely to have a positive relationship with God. On the other hand, if a person's own father was absent or abusive or otherwise fairly dysfunctional, it is more likely that a person will struggle to have a healthy relationship with God," he wrote in an email.
Even dads who aren't very religious themselves can alter the course of their kids' faith lives, according to Clark, who describes his father as agnostic or atheist.
His grandpa walked him to church and his youth pastor served as a spiritual mentor, but his dad helped him understand how to be true to himself. He modeled love and thoughtfulness in everyday moments, Clark said.
"I remember that when he would spank me, he would sit me down after and tell me, 'I still love you and this is just me trying to teach you something,'" he said. "He would have those hard, awkward conversations with me in a way that was in my best interest."
In the traditional stereotype of family life, the mom is warm and affirming, while the dad is distant and reserved. These assumptions never applied to all families, but, for many years, they were the lens through which people studied family relationships, said Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University.
Moms were the parent who built close bonds with their kids, praying with them before bedtime and discussing problems at school. Dads provided financial support and took on leadership roles in the community and at church.
However, family structures are "affected by larger cultural shifts," Gerson said. Increasingly, Americans focus on emotional well-being, and all parents are expected to build strong connections with their kids.
Fathers today "likely feel more pressure to be involved and also more freedom" to be fully present with their families, she added.
This push to be more emotionally available is also an opportunity for modern dads, noted Vern Bengtson, author of "Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations."
His multi-decade research on families showed that fathers who have a close relationship with their children are more likely than distant dads to see their kids carry on the family's religious practices. Fifty-six percent of fathers and kids with close relationships share the same level of religious participation, compared to 36 percent of fathers and kids with a weaker connection.
Additionally, father-child closeness matters more than mother-child closeness, Bengtson said. Compared to the 20 percentage point gap between close fathers and children and not close fathers and children on the measure of religious participation, mother and child pairs of each variety are only five percentage points apart (51 percent v. 46 percent.)
"It didn't surprise me that warmth … is important, but it did surprise me that it's more important in fathers than in mothers," Bengtson said.
Rabbi Avremi Zippel, the youth and family program director at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, credits his close relationship with his dad for steering him into ministry.
"Growing up, the life that we knew from our dad and that we continue to know is one of service to others. That was our father. That is our father," he said.
Rabbi Zippel spent most of his teenage years in Chicago and London, in order to attend a Chabad high school and then receive rabbinical training. But his father, who is also a rabbi, stayed close to his son, speaking with his teachers about his progress and sharing lessons drawn from his own career.
"My dad always made an effort every year to come and visit me in the academic setting, in addition to having me come home for holidays," Rabbi Zippel said. "He would make sure I was taken care of physically, academically and emotionally."
Rabbi Zippel became a dad last July and, like Clark, he will help his young son learn to embrace God and faith.
"The best method I can use to bring Menny into my faith is to provide a living model of religious life, of a passionate and caring life, that he will feel comfortable in," he said, noting that it's what his dad did for him.
Best laid plans …
The Zippel family story is a best case scenario for dads concerned with raising their kids to be religious. The offices for the two Rabbi Zippels at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah actually share a wall, and they plan lessons together for the congregation.
Most dads who seek to have a good influence on their children's spiritual habits should prepare for some surprising twists and turns along a kid's road to religion, Gerson said.
"There's no question that fathers are important (in a child's religious development,) but how they matter can depend on other factors in a child's context," she said. "It's very hard to predict based simply on whether the father behaves a certain way, how it's going to go."
Rather than single-mindedly steering a child toward their faith, dads can embrace everyday opportunities to strengthen their connection with their kids and talk about deep questions. They can make themselves available and be willing to be vulnerable.
Bengtson credits his dad, who was an Army chaplain during WWII and an evangelical pastor, with shaping him into the believer he is today, noting that it didn't take extraordinary effort or forcefulness. That was his mom's tactic, and it didn't convince him to remain active in the evangelical faith she held dear.
"My dad wasn't a believer that there's one way to God," Bengtson said, noting his own path took him from evangelical Christianity to agnosticism to the Episcopalian Church.
Fathers provide a foundation for their children's religious practices, but young people create their own roadmap, Dollahite noted.
"Fathers who engage in regular positive religious conversation with their youth encourage them to further explore their own religious and spiritual growth," he said.
Meaningful conversation is what stands out most for Clark when he thinks about his father, who died three years ago.
He remembers his dad sitting him down to talk about the "Left Behind" book series, which explored what would happen when Jesus came back to earth. His dad had seen how other teenagers interested in those books had stopped caring about their current relationships and actions, because they were so focused on future promises.
"He saw the problems with that and wanted to speak about his concerns and keep the conversation going," Clark said.
He added that his father never took anything for granted and allowed him to explain his faith in his own terms.
"I think I learned from that to actively have these conversations with my son. I'm not making assumptions when I'm helping him think through the implications of belief," Clark said.
And like his dad, Clark wants to model grace for his son. In this effort, he'll benefit by the modern vision of emotive dads.
"I'm trying to laugh with him as much as possible and enjoy him," he said. "I think a lot about (how fathers represent) God as a heavenly father. That's a big responsibility, and it's in my mind a lot."
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