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When father knew best -- and after

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The fashion in American fathers is changing. It always is changing, in theory at least.

The new model is gentle, caring, studiously non-macho. The old model was mostly absentee, appearing only to ''bring home the bacon.'' The new model cooks the bacon, and even washes the frying pan afterwards. In theory.

The old model was in business as provider-and-protector. He could not afford to be soft. His relationship with his son consisted of putting on boxing gloves as soon as the latter could toddle in order to teach him self-defense. It was a jungle out there, the father kept saying. His relationship with his daughter, permanently known as ''Baby,'' was practically nonexistent.

The new model of father starts off by being present at birth. His voice is patient, if not tentative, as he practices democracy with his offspring from the age of six months on up. He is forever proving, not his ''manhood'' but his ''sensitivity.''

The new father would not dream of pulling rank. ''Because I say so'' -- the operative phrase of family fascism -- will never pass his lips. He makes a career of disclaiming authority.

All models of father are, of course, just that -- stereotypes, leaving out a great deal in the interest of neatness.

There is a profound, timeless struggle going on within every parent between love and power, and it is dangerous to simplify that struggle, in life or in literature.

The new model father -- or at least somebody halfway in between the old and the new -- has been showing up with some regularity in American novels and short stories, making right-angle turns from the old orthodoxies. He is conspicuously not decisive - read John Updike, whose short stories have made Hamlet a 20 th-century father. He is conspicuously not practical -- read John Irving, whose fathers go in for dancing bears. He is conspicuously not a moralizer -- read Saul Bellow, whose rascally father in the short story ''A Silver Dish'' has to be kept in order by his shocked son.

Role reversal -- immature father, mature children -- is a convenient new pattern for literary fathers whose children are heading for business school.


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