Recently a survey of six-year-olds was conducted in an effort to determine which they would miss more, their fathers or their TV. The fathers came out on top by just four percent. The interest of the poll is not in the statistics themselves but in our willingness to accept those statistics as reflecting something long suspected about family relationships. For fathers to inveigh glumly about insufficient sampling is to miss the sociological point. The truth is, most fathers don't spend much time with their children. They are not ''around'' much. For many children fathers are still just dim figures on the edges of outer space.
There are books like Nancy Friday's My Mother, My Self, suggesting the strong effect of a mother's relationship with her children, but there are few books about fathers. Psychologists every day complain about the lack of a male role model in split-up families and the problems this causes children, but they have little to say about the role itself. The latest Ford Foundation brochure on ''Grants in Humanistic Perspectives'' encourages applicants to write about ''The Condition of Women and the Family,'' but there is no topic having anything to do with fathers. This last item suggests that current assumptions about father-child relationships have gone far beyond predictable limits. Apparently there is nothing to be said about them. Why upset a healthy remoteness?
The present situation is far different from the attention paid to the role of the father historically. Xenophon reports that to make a happy home was the end and aim of all of Socrates' learning. In Antigone, Creon's son Haimon states the Greek position unequivocally: ''You are my father. You make things clear for me.'' Such was the understanding that obtained during the golden age of Athens. In Renaissance London things were not much different. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, Prospero spends much time making things clear to his daughter Miranda and her friend Ferdinand, explaining such things as the importance of service in love and control over enthusiasm and wonder at the ''brave new world'' before them.
It would seem that today both fathers and children are the unwary victims of symbols and assumptions. Fathers tend to translate family responsibility into the terms they are most familiar with: making a decent living, making enough money to send their children to college, providing their families with the material amenities of life. Because of this role reduction they begin to operate among private symbols, most of which are inaccessible to the young. Soon symbolic activities take up all their time and nothing seems more important than cutting the lawn. Saturdays and Sundays are spent fixing things around the house. There is a restless urge to provide images of attentiveness. They become quieter and quieter as their lives are swept with symbols.
Meanwhile children are off talking with their friends and come home only now and then, mostly to drink milk. It is assumed that eventually the family will sit down to talk. There is no rush. Little by little things are run according to unexamined assumptions which may or may not square with real concerns and which the young may often translate as ''do what you want but stay out of trouble.'' Not really knowing what is expected of them, not knowing where they stand, adolescents begin to bluster and dream. They cook up fantasies about the way life might be and the way they can somehow fit into it. They are left without clarity.
With the Greeks it was different. But if Haimon said that his father made things clear for him, what was it that he made clear? Fortunately it is still in the record. What was important was the love of the good, the true, and the beautiful. That was the focus, nor did it narrow down simply to the rapt contemplation of those absolutes. Both Plato and Aristotle emphasized that the good life had to do not with just thinking aright but with acting aright. The Greeks were not interested in mind-sets, or social and psychological acquirements. How different this is from America's present concern with being ''laid back'' or ''up-tight'' and its long dalliance with the popular, the plausible, and the chic.
But there may be hope yet. With mothers working so much more these days, we may be witnessing not the breakdown but possibly the reemergence of the family. A hint of such a possibility has occurred just recently in the life of one of our singing stars. John Lennon spent his last years exultantly playing with his son. It was all he wanted to talk about when interviewed. After all Lennon's acclaim from the world, he found his final occupation the most rewarding. He gave up making a big living for the chance to live a little in his own family. He started paying attention to what, in the end, he found to be most real. Thus all Lennon's songs and all Socrates' questions came down to just a simple domestic thing, making life clear for someone else.