pa·ter·nal·is·tic (pe-tur´n´l-is´ti-k), adj. of or characterized by paternalism.

pa·ter·nal·ism (pe-tur´n´l-iz´m),  n. [paternal  +  -ism],  the principle of system of governing or controlling a country, group of employees, etc. in a manner suggesting a father’s relationship with children.

It should be noted (since I haven’t made note of it in awhile) that the dictionary I have been picking from is the Webster’s “New World” of 1955. It’s a lovely dictionary with more character and history than my new paperback edition. However, its age also creates some issues when presented with certain words. The definition of paternalism seemed particularly interesting to me because it seemed to reflect that world and not to carry any of the negative associations that I have come to associate with paternal, paternalistic, patronizing, and so on.

Although paternalistic is not in my 2004 Merriam-Webster, paternalism is:

n:  a system under which an authority treats those under its control paternally (as by regulating their conduct and supplying their needs)

That still doesn’t seem to implicate the nuances of the word that I have come to know. According to these definitions, my father acted paternally when he gave me chores around the house and gave my mom money for groceries. But there is an inherent value judgment, a gendering of roles that is not considered with these definitions of the word. The definitions imply that there is a certain way that a father must act. As in the first definition “in a matter suggesting a father’s relationship with children,” we are left to our own judgments based on stereotypes and socializing messages that have been given to us over the years.

I suppose this works if we give ourselves a very narrow definition of who fathers are. Fathers are providers. They are the disciplinarians. They are the heads of the households. Fathers set expectations for their children. They are loving but stoic. The problem here is that this description no longer suits many fathers. It certainly doesn’t suit mine.

My dad is one of the most sensitive people I know. I mean this as a compliment. I get my sensitivity—my compassion for others and my ability to be easily moved—from him. It was my dad who read me stories every night before bed, who I talked through my issues and problems with as a child and teenager. My dad was the one who was a softie when it came to punishments. I would’ve quicker been fearful of upsetting or angering my mother than my dad. She was stricter and she would stand her ground. With Dad, I knew I could get off easy.

Furthermore, my dad is a therapist. His job is to be a sensitive and compassionate listener so that people can work through their issues. He is part of a circle of men who gather to support one another—to appreciate their masculinity while recognizing the importance of building strong and intimate male friendships, something our culture does not often value and more often discourages outright.

A college English professor of mine, Steve Wright, said this of the word paternalistic: “It should mean being a good father, but it doesn’t. To me, it means the opposite. My job as a father is to empower my son so that he can be a strong individual, completely independent of me in terms of the choices he makes as he decides the best way to live his life and cherish his own values.” Thus in his perception, the definition of “being a good father” as defined by our culture is to impose authority on a child versus his decision to empower his child to be the authority on his own life. But isn’t that also being a good father? Doesn’t it depend what we define as good, what we define as paternal?

I tell my college composition students that all meaning is situated. That a given text or a given string of words inherently does not have meaning without considering the author of the text, the context for it and its audience. I can read the definition of the word paternalistic, that it is “characterized by paternalism.” And “paternalism”: “governing or controlling a system or country…as the relationship of a father to his child.” But I never felt governed or controlled by my dad. I felt loved. I felt cared for. I felt both encouraged and challenged by him.

I think oftentimes when we consider masculine qualities as a culture, we do so without considering the healthy range of these qualities. There is a desire for power but there is also a desire to be an authority/to be in a position of leadership. There is a difference between exerting control and being controlling. There is a healthy sense of confidence and there is a huge ego that makes you ignore others viewpoints and ideas. One can support or one can demand. I think part of our problem in our patriarchal, often paternalistic, culture is when we privilege the more drastic end of the scale. We don’t value the more moderate versions of masculine qualities.

Perhaps we need a new definition for paternalistic, based on a new understanding of fathers—of the range of who they are and qualities they possess. Fathers as sensitive and strong, as loving and demanding, as supportive and challenging. Fathers who teach their daughters how to believe in themselves so they can become the best person they can, so they can become experts at whatever they want to do. Fathers who teach their sons to be gentle on themselves, to value color and arts and to honor their own feelings. Fathers who show their sons how to be good fathers.

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