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As Roles for Father Evolve, Kids Still Want Him to Listen

Ask sixth-grader Jamie Bologna to preview what he will say to his dad on Father's Day. Only sweet words. "Dad, you're the most amazing dad I've ever met," he says, "and I'm glad I don't have a different dad."

As a student at Hampstead Academy, a private school here, Jamie joins millions of sons and daughters everywhere who think their dad is the greatest.

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But look closely. This is not your father's Father's Day.

Society is in the midst of a serious dad and mom correction. Most dads, before and after Sunday's hugs and gifts, are being buffeted by contradictory social and economic trends - just like mothers. The bottom line is that the nature of marriage, parenting, and work in the United States is undergoing an attitudinal change.

Traditional husband and wife roles of the1950s and earlier are virtually gone or have become roles by choice.

"Marriage is a more fragile bond than it was 30 years ago," says Scott Coltrane, associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Riverside. "With so many out-of-wedlock births, fathers' connections to children are also more fragile." On the one hand, because there are many more unwed, divorced, and absent fathers, they obviously spend less time with their children than they did 30 years ago. In fact, according to the Families and Work Institute in New York, between 1950 and l994, the percentage of children in the US living in mother-only households climbed from 6 to 24 percent.

But at the same time, because more marriages include dual-earner couples, many of these fathers, by necessity, are spending more time with children. "Within these marriages the everyday jobs of child rearing that used to fall to women are on the table for negotiation between parents," says Mr. Coltrane.

However parents decide to divide home chores and responsibilities, there is plenty of evidence that the quality of a father's involvement in child rearing is as critical as a mother's. More time spent with the kids is hollow, say the experts, if it isn't supportive and natural. "The key factor is often the father's style of interaction," says James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute. "Does he have a warm style of interaction? Is he a good listener? Is he able to be empathetic to a child? Dad can be in the same room as a child and not really be present at all."

Tyler Maltbie, a sixth grader at Hampstead Academy, says his parents work but he describes them as attentive and encouraging. "Both my parents are really fun to be with," he says. "When I'm a dad, I will definitely talk to my kids and respect their ideas. I'll listen to what they want to do, and take them to Maine or somewhere. Basically I'll do everything my dad does."

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To survive economically, some parents often have two or three jobs. The challenge then can be finding time for family. "My dad is a good, hard-working guy," says Calvin McClure, a high school student in Boston and a youth organizer for a neighborhood program called Teen Empowerment. "But sometimes he'll be gone in the morning before me," he says, "and then gets off work and I'm still away, and we don't spend a lot of time together."

When fathers abandon their responsibility or are absent, the loss can be a contributing factor to youth problems. According to the National Association of Secondary Principals, 71 percent of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes.

For Helen Sostre, a high school junior in Boston and also from Teen Empowerment, Father's Day is an unpleasant reminder. Her father left her mother before Helen was born, but now lives not far away with other children. "I've had a lot of problems in my life," Helen says, "and he was never there. When my father comes around," she says, "he never listens to me. How can people live life without knowing their kids?"

Despite the contradictions growing out of the changes in families, a relatively small but growing number of men are the primary caregiver for their children.

And Coltrane sees only positive outcomes for society from men and children who become closer.

"The social processing starts early," he says. "We socialize boys to be individualistic and fairly aggressive, and girls to be good and caring citizens. As more fathers move into a child-care role, they will learn different tasks, and sons will grow to have more empathetic capacity."

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