Robert D. Sutherland



Answers to a questionnaire on “being a father” for Mary Blick’s Sociology course on FAMILY.  (March, 1994)

Question:  You and your wife Marilyn have two sons, now thirty and thirty-two years of age. What did you see as your responsibilities as a father?
Answer:  To provide an example of integrity, courage, creative intelligence, humor, and ethical conduct; to be supportive of the children’s emotional needs and to encourage them in developing their interests, curiosity, social awareness, and skills; to help them learn to become independent, self-actualizing, creative people sensitive to the needs of others but imbued with survival skills and capable of standing on their own.

Q:  What did you see as the responsibilities of the mother?
A:  The same as the responsibilities of the father. (For Marilyn and me, parenting was a collaborative, joint process; mother and father shared the same aims and methods.)

Q:  Who made most of the decisions regarding the children?
A:  The children participated in most decisions affecting them; mother and father worked jointly on others.

Q:  What forms of discipline did you use?
A:  Forms of discipline varied with the age of the children. Very early, serious infractions of rules (such as running out into the street, or one child refusing to respect the rights of the other)  could result in spanking (but always moderate, and never in anger). Later, consistent expectations sufficed, the establishment of basic “house rules” which everyone followed. We always observed consistency of follow-up—If we said ”there will be consequences”, there were. Consistency was observed between mother and father also, so that one parent could not be played off against the other. Expectations were reasonable, clearly defined and articulated. The children had freedom and self-determination within the boundaries. When a prohibition was established, reasons for it were explained, and the child was given the chance to express his views. Family discussions were important.

Q:  Did your children come to you with problems?
A:  Yes.

Q:  If ‘yes’, what was your response?
A:  We always listened to the children carefully and tried to understand their feelings. Through asking the children leading questions, we tried to get them to analyze the nature of the problem and to articulate for themselves the options available for resolving it. We tended to ask questions rather than give advice. I would sometimes draw an analogy with a similar problem I’d had and how I’d addressed it—but only for illustration. In order to help the children develop problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and powers of analysis, we tried to share insights rather than prescribe what to do.

Q:  Have you and the children’s mother significantly disagreed on a parenting method?
A:  No. We discussed things carefully, strategized in advance, saw the need for consistency and for ‘backing each other up’, and tried to remain sensitive to the children’s needs.

Q:  What have you done differently from your father?
A:  I’ve spent more time with the children than my father was able to spend with me. (My academic teaching career enabled me to work a great deal at home.) I consciously tried to provide a variety of experiences—family travel, camping out, sharing music, films, and Monty Python with them; tried to provide opportunities for intellectual and artistic stimulation; read aloud to them a bedtime, provided books, music lessons, art materials, and information; critiqued their projects at their request, encouraged them in their pursuits, supported their creative outlets, and saw to it they had space to work and play.

Q:  What is the most significant effect that fatherhood has had on your life?
A:  Fatherhood has enriched my life by helping me to understand myself and other people better and to feel creatively fulfilled through having participated in the development of two fine human beings. As grown men, my two sons are among my very closest friends.

Q:  Do you have other comments about being a father?
A:  I think that parenting can be, and ought to be, one of the most creative endeavors that a person will ever have the opportunity to undertake. With each child, it will be an eighteen to twenty-year unremitting effort requiring personal growth, long-range planning, flexible responses to rapidly changing circumstances, capacity to see points of view other than one’s own, awareness of potential consequences, and the desire to love and nurture. One should forgive oneself for one’s own mistakes and apologize to the child when necessary. A parent must have an active, well-developed sense of humor. And, in deciding how to deal with problems that may arise, it’s always useful in assessing priorities to ask the question, “If I do (or don’t do) this, what will it matter in twelve months’ time?” Some things won’t matter a whit; some things will matter a very great deal indeed.


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