woman staring
Photo: Fredrik Broden
I was six years old when I found out the guy on the dime wasn't my father. (Turned out it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, whoever the hell he was.) I knew he couldn't be as impressive as my dad, who was so big (5'7", 130 pounds soaking wet), so smart (he did have an off-the-charts IQ, but he also frequently lost the family car), and so rich (a college professor with eight kids, he never stopped worrying about money).  

I'm hardly the only person to put my dad on a pedestal. Culture, psychology, and perhaps even biology give fathers special powers in their children's eyes. Even if you never knew your male parent, he—or his absence—probably occupies a central place in your identity. The icon of Father that you developed in childhood may be exactly what you need to inspire you to live your best life. Or maybe it's an "anti-icon," a father whose vices, rather than virtues, fill the universe.  

Most fathers—perhaps even yours—are simply human: They have strengths and weaknesses, admirable and awful moments. Realizing this is part of growing up. It requires a willingness to tear down the psychological myth of the all-powerful father. Because our dads occupy such an important place in our hearts, minds, and lives, this is immensely freeing. It allows us to emulate our fathers' best qualities while using even their worst errors to create a positive difference in our lives and the world.

The God-Father

Sociobiologists hypothesize that the intense link between fathers and children makes evolutionary sense: Fathers who claim, protect, and provide for their offspring are more likely to have surviving heirs, so nature "selects for" paternal attachment. If you don't like cold evolutionary logic, you might prefer a religious approach. Christianity, the world's most widespread religious tradition, calls God the father; other religions and cultural traditions, from Judaism to Islam to Confucianism, support social systems that are heavily patriarchal.

This is true not only in the macrocosm of culture but in the microcosm of the mind. Children of good men often start out with an almost naive sense of a just universe. Those fathered by bad men may live in a world ruled by evil, where they can never feel safe. Absent, deceased, or unknown dads become huge question marks, bequeathing to their children a lifetime of wondering and imagining.

Our fathers give us half our DNA but more than half of many identifying characteristics—things as basic as a surname or as complex as social status. Despite a half-century of skyrocketing single parenthood (a trend that has only just started to reverse) and increasing gender equality, many of us lived in homes where fathers—or at least father figures—made the rules. Fathers usually have supreme power to permit and forbid, meaning they not only dominate but create our reality. They establish the way things are, or in other words father rules.

Father Rules

Many father rules are explicitly stated: Clean your room; be respectful; don't do drugs. But fathers also set rules by example. We are likely to allow ourselves to do what Dad did, and to keep ourselves from doing what Dad didn't.

In the spaces below, write some ways you feel enabled or disabled because of your father's instructions and example.

(If you never knew your dad, list the things you've felt free to do because he was absent and the things you've felt you couldn't do because he wasn't there.)
  • Because of my father's rules and example, I feel I can...
  • Because of my father's rules and example, I feel I can't...
This is a rough sketch of the way you probably operate in day-to-day life (even if you consciously pattern your behavior after your mother, most cultures give disproportionate power to fathers). So what do you think of your father rules? Do you agree with them? Always? Do any of them hold you back or propel you to make bad decisions?

If you customarily follow father rules that cause pain or problems, you're serving an intact icon, an image that has never been examined and probably doesn't exactly match your right life. The same is true if you're obsessed with breaking your father's rules, no matter what the consequences. Choosing to defy or to deify Papa puts him squarely at the center of your universe.