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The 'sensitive male' learns fathering

We have never known how to rate ourself on anything. But hardly a week goes by without one self-awareness poll or another being thrust under our nose. ''How do you rate yourself on good looks?'' ''How do you rate yourself on physical coordination?'' ''How do you rate yourself on rating?''

On a scale of 1 to 10.

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Of all the subejcts we are at a loss to rate ourself on, fatherhood - or fathering, as it is now known - heads the list.

Yet the lesson we grasped from this past Father's Day is that fathering has become the most self-aware industry around.

''The new ball game of the '80s,'' as one father put it, is to be a nurturing father.

Fathering, it seems, is the last stronghold left to the Sensitive Male, that invention of the '70s who was going to gun down John Wayne at high noon with nothing more than Dustin Hoffman's sweet smile.

In the current Esquire a cartoon strip, by a woman, features an offstage woman's voice speaking impatiently to ''The Sensitive Male,'' as the cartoon is titled. The little drama reaches its comic climax when the woman tells the Sensitive Male, ''Listen, I want you to make all of the decisions tonight.'' To which he replies, ''Whatever you say, dear.''

If the term ''sensitive male'' seems to have rapidly deteriorated into the term ''wimp'' where man-woman relationships are concerned, nobody really wants to go back to ''macho.'' For the moment, it's literally no man's land.

Ah, but fathering. There the sensitivity business is still alive and well.

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Now were're not against sensitivity. We're not against fatherhood. We rank it as high on man's list of achievements as any other form of achieving. We were a stay-at-home father ourself during the formative years - and they certainly formed us. For the better we hope.

But what bothers us is that ''fathering'' now seems to have become the latest technique to master, as sex used to be.

There are Fatherhood Forums. There are Fatherhood Projects. The director of one fatherhood project says the idea is ''to teach men empathetic skills the same way you would teach someone to play tennis.''

We don't care for the analogy. Emotions are not cross-court backhands; life, when it touches the heart, is not a matter of playing games.

Somehow all this reminds us of our grandfather. Perhaps it is because all the New Fathers pose for the camera exactly as the insensitive old fathers used to pose - holding slightly bewildered children on their knees.

Grandfather never wore anything more playful than stiff-collar shirts and three-piece suits, but when he felt the mood upon him, he too would dandle us children on his knee. He was a first-rate dandler, with a great gentleness to him as he sang, ''Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross.''

When he had had enough, he would give us a wet, vaguely misplaced kiss. Then he would rustle his newspaper and go back to being himself. We children never felt rejected. The fact is, he timed it about right. We might not have wanted much more either. We were left feeling warmed and valued. Love is a series of such symbols and gestures.

Grandfather had not read any books on ''How to Communicate With Children.'' He had taken no seminars on ''The Technique of Grandfathering.''

He had been a kind and, furthermore, witty father, according to our mother.

Grandfather was simply an affectionate human being - a good man.

Good men make good fathers. No seminars can teach that.

At any rate, as a grandfather, we score him 8. No, make that 9.

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