It was probably easier being a father 60 or 70 years ago. Most men then knew what their role was in the family, and if they weren't sure, our culture spelled it out pretty clearly.
They were to make their sons into "men" and dote on their daughters. They needed to be a bit emotionally detached, perhaps stern, always with a firm word of guidance or advice at the ready. Just watch a few reruns of "Father Knows Best" if you've forgotten what I mean.
In the 21st century, we dads don't have quite as clear a role model, unless, perhaps, you count Homer Simpson. In fact, Homer may be the model -- played out again and again in sitcoms and movies. Dads, from this perspective, are self-absorbed, not too bright and pretty clueless about things in general, especially their kids.
Of course we had the "sensitive dad" of the '70s and '80s, a view of fatherhood that revolved around the idea that dads were not all that different from moms, and that the more that dads could be like moms the better we'd all be.
Some men went along with this idea. Others responded by going off into the woods and banging on drums, which I don't think helped them be all that much better fathers, but who knows.
I won't say we've come full circle (though there is something really comforting about those old "Father Knows Best" episodes), but there has been some recognition of what I think is the reality that mothers and fathers both play crucial, yet different roles, in the lives of their children.
It is now clear that fathers are important sources of emotional connection and affection for their children. Fathers, however, do not have the physical bond with children that mothers enjoy from carrying their babies in their wombs and, often, breast-feeding.
The father-child relationship, then, is usually the first that young children will have in which love is freely given and received. It can be in some ways a model for developing such loving relationships throughout life.
Similarly, a father's approval is somewhat different from that of a mother. Whether it is a matter of biology or culture, men are generally more oriented toward their children's behavior.
Fathers, then, offer not only unconditional approval for who their children are (and fathers do need to offer such unconditional approval), but also approval for how children live out who they are through their actions.
Fathers also seem to play more of a role in helping children learn how to live with the "real" world, the world in which unconditional love is a rare commodity. Theirs is often the voice of "that's the way it is," especially when "that's the way it is" in the world at large is different from the way it is in the (hopefully) more safe and secure world of the family.
And though "that's the way it is" may not be a particularly welcome message, it is a necessary one for children to hear before they are let loose as adults.
Finally, fathers (as do mothers) also act as role models. For sons they model how to be adult men in our culture. For daughters, fathers provide a measuring stick by which these daughters will evaluate their own future male friends and mates. (Obviously, some fathers do a lot better job of being role models than others.)
Now, I am not letting fathers off the hook. All of us dads struggle with what it means to be a father in this day and age. Some of us do an absolutely dismal job of it. And a few of us -- those who abuse, neglect or abandon our children -- are guilty of a real crime.
Yet I remain hopeful for fathers. I see a new generation of men coming up who are finding a way to live out all the best of being a father, and whose children are benefiting greatly from their fathers' presence and involvement.
God bless fathers.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."