The distinct role and impact of a father

Written by dr. Rineé Pretorius

“Never before has one generation of teenagers been less healthy, less cared for 

or less prepared for life.”

The above quote, although it used to conclude a report on American children in the 1990’s is quite fitting to our situation in South Africa, the situation here is just much, much worse. 

For context, let us just again remember the statistics for in beloved country: in South Africa, only about a third of children have daily contact with their biological fathers. In 2018, only 36% of children in South Africa lived with their biological fathers in the same household and even then involvement and quality caregiving is not guaranteed. 


The implication of this is that, in short, roughly 57% of South African children are raised without fathers (TWNAF, 2022). Let that sink in for a while…


This means that the majority of little boys and girls born in South Africa today will never know their fathers and therefor will never taste a droplet of what it means to be loved by their fathers. And with mothers often not home either due to the economic pressure to sustain the family, these children are also most probably left home alone for prolonged periods of time.


Logic ought to set off the alarm bells in our minds in terms of the trouble signaled by these statistics.

In our previous article we concluded that, in our South African context, people in different contexts will understand the meaning of fatherhood, and therefor also fatherlessness, differently. 


Yet, the importance of fatherhood remains and is crucial to a healthy society.

In general, most researchers concur that the primary role of a father encompasses the emotional, psychological and behavioural aspects of the relationship between an adult male and their child (McKeown, Makeig, Brown, Jung, Kinderman, Bell & Sejnowski, 1998: 5; Ferguson & Hogan, 2004: 161; Marsiglio & Pleck, 2005: 249 2017:2 as quoted by Londt:2017:2). 


In order to enable researchers to measure the behavioral aspect of the role of a father, Lamb (1987: 111) developed a three-part definition: engagement, (the father’s direct contact with the child, through caretaking, playing, or any other shared activity),  accessibility (a father’s availability for engagement, for example, being around in close proximity, without interacting directly with the child) and responsibility (the choices, decisions and actions of a father, concerning the best interest of the child).

This means that being an involved father implies being actively involved in almost every single aspect of their child’s life – from direct interaction (play) and responsibility for childcare, to being truly accessible to the child (Marsiglio, Amato, Day & Lamb, 2000: 296 & Londt, 2017:2).

The question then is, why are fathers essential?  

mothers and other family members from the extended family play the exact same role?  Aren’t mothers and fathers the same? Does it really make a difference whether children grow up with both or any one of their parents around?

Contrary to what mainstream media sometimes portray and many people might believe – it does matter. A lot. 

It has been shown throughout history that when families unravel in a specific culture it has a detrimental effect on all spheres of society, from the effectiveness of government to the overall welfare of society (Dobson, 2002:64).

In the absence of stable families, thousands of children are caught up in the chaos. What will the world look like in the future if we bring up children, especially boys, in this chaos? We need to understand that children are the bridges to the future.

Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, the author of “Fatherneed” explains that fathers are just as important as mothers, but in a very different way (Dobson, 2002:66). 

The following points are crucial in understanding that influence of a present and involved father cannot be overemphasized (Dobson, 2002:67):

  • Societies that honor their fathers’ role in the lives of their families are safer to live in, last longer, honor culture and are less abusive toward women (Pruett, 2016); 
  • When parents break up, it has a devastating effect on specially boys, with the main problem being the lack of discipline and supervision due to the father’s absence and his unavailability to teach what it means to be a man;
  • Fathers model and teach boys how to manage emotions, and the result of a lack of guidance, can be seen around us in the form of the frustration of boys which manifests in various types of violence and antisocial behavior;
  • In previous decades it was believed that poverty and discrimination were primarily the reasons for juvenile crime. Now researchers agree that family disruption is mainly to blame;
  • A golden thread with troubled boys, is distant, uninvolved fathers and then, in turn, the children’s mothers who then take on additional responsibility to fill this hole;
  • Importantly – men are increasingly becoming more like big kids, because many of them spend the majority of their time with women, and therefor don’t know how to act as men when they get older.

In conclusion: we live in a society plagued by the consequences of a (for the most part) fatherless society. When we look at the world around us, one needs no convincing that the above points are true, especially in light of the South African statistics around rape, abuse and murder of our woman and children.

We at Action Society feel strongly about the fact that it is our generation’s role draw attention to the fatherless phenomenon, to ensure an increased awareness among fathers of their crucial role and responsibility to take responsibility. Our generation ought to invest in the next generation to somehow counter the influences mentioned in this article. It will not be an easy task, but these children, especially the boys, need to be healed, to develop character, self-discipline, responsibility, respect for authority and eventually, to understand their roles as men, and eventually, as fathers.

Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, phrased it well when she said:It is the primary task of every society to teach men how to father”.


Dobson, J. 2002. Bringing up boys. Tyndale House Publishers. P287.

Lamb, M.E.,   2010.   The role of the father in child development. 5th ed.,   John Wiley Inc. p656.


Londt, M.P., Kock, M., John-Langba, J.   2017.   The effects of biological fathers’ incarceration on adolescent children and the challenges of absentee biological fathers, Acta Criminologica: Southern African Journal of Criminology 30 (4) Special Edition: Corretions:Sites of harm reduction, rehabilitation and professionalism.

Pruett, K. 2014. [Date of access: 2022 02 25]

Pruett, K. 2016. [Date of access: 2022 03 01].

The World Needs a Father. 2022. [Date of access: 2022 03 02]

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