In praise of our fathers, from Atticus Finch to Homer Simpson

Ian Cameron was 'amazing', but whatever kind of father you have, his influence is huge, says Tim Lott

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David Cameron's pride in his father, who died last week, was touching and heartfelt. He described Ian Cameron, who was disabled, as "an amazingly brave man". Cameron was lucky to have a parent who was such a positive role model, but he was not unusual – most modern prime ministers seem to have been in thrall to their fathers.

Margaret Thatcher idolised her father Alfred, as did Tony Blair his father Leo. Gordon Brown seized on the values and unshakeable will power of his Presbyterian minister father, and John Major adored his gnome-making, circus-performing dad. To look at these examples alone – a statistically small sample, I grant you – it appears that when the male parent presents a strong role model, it can act as a powerful impetus towards achievement.

There is another aspect to the forward thrust that those in thrall to their fathers are likely to experience – not just the wish to carry on the father's life project, but the need for paternal approval. The desire for the father's praise and admiration is strong among all children, and perhaps especially so among boys. This can continue long after a father has died. Whether affirmation or the spurring, critical voice inside the head, whether kind counsel or the stern glare of judge behind the bench – for some, it never goes away.

The emphasis on the role of the father in the development of a child's potential has, historically, waxed and waned. Traditionally, the stern patriarch was considered by far the most crucial figure in a child's development. There was the Hebrew God the Father – and before that, Zeus. As Adrienne Burgess points out in her book Fatherhood Reclaimed, in 18th-century England, the father was so much the dominant parental figure that the words parent and father were interchangeable.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud offered the template of the Oedipus myth – the symbolic desire to kill the father – as the crucial stage in male childhood development, while Carl Jung saw the father as a universal archetype: "Behind the father stands the archetype of the father and in this ... lies the secret of the father's power."

As the century wore on, and in the post-war years, the mother became more identified as the key figure in children's development, and that is pretty much where we still stand. Nowadays, the best-known representation of the father is not so much Zeus as Homer Simpson. There is no "secret of the father's power" any more, because that power appears to have dissipated. Even as the father became more and more involved in child rearing and family duties, the less impact he was perceived to have. No longer a figure of authority, the father is more commonly perceived as a figure of fun.

But outside of the more dismissive cultural representations, there is still widespread recognition that the need for the father's approval remains a strong motivating factor – one way or the other – in the lives of children, even after they are grown.

I have just finished writing a novel in which two estranged brothers go in search of their missing father. In the course of my research, I watched every film about brothers I could find. I was surprised to find that practically every one of them – from The Godfather, to Coup de Ville, Brodre, The Indian Runner and many more – focused on the relationship with the father rather than the mother, who was absent or marginal. This may be coincidence – or it may reflect a real phenomenon among sons.

Fathers also feature prominently, and positively, in modern children's films such as Finding Nemo (father fish embarks on a heroic journey to find son fish), Mr Incredible in The Incredibles, Neptune in Disney's Little Mermaid and many more. These cartoon fathers are always flawed, but trying to do their best. In these, along with other fictional forms, there appear to be no equivalents of Atticus Finch any more – that perfect example of a fair, loving, noble father in To Kill a Mockingbird has pretty much expired in modern representations – but not all are condemned to the uselessness and redundancy of Homer.

This reflects the real world. The need, particularly for sons, to find a meaningful connection with their father remains powerful and widespread, perhaps universal. It is well established that boys who lack a paternal role model are more likely to indulge in anti-social behaviour. And research shows that the more time a father spends with his children, the more positive influence it has – even if that time is not spent interacting.

I wrote my novel Rumours of a Hurricane partly because I was fascinated about how the father and son dynamic operated in my own family. This is not new territory – Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Germaine Greer's Daddy, We Hardly Knew You explored it, Edmund Gosse's Father and Son and J R Ackerley's My Father and Myself preceded them.

My own father, Jack, was fairly typical of his generation. He wasn't around much – he worked too hard – and when he was, he wasn't a great one for building Meccano and kicking a football about. Disapproval came far easier to him than praise. In fact praise was seen – typically for fathers in the immediate post-war world – as "spoiling" the child.

I find David Cameron's father-template almost unimaginable – his father was chairman of White's Club and a stockbroker, whereas mine worked in a greengrocer's. Aspiration held a very different meaning – Cameron would always be running to keep up with his father, whereas I was trying to run away. Class gives a very different inflection to the meaning of fatherhood.

Jack, for instance, claimed that he made me work in his shop on Saturdays not so that I could learn important lessons about industry and hard work, but so that I could learn that manual labour was grim and that I should do everything I could to escape it. It worked – I was determined to somehow avoid my father's destiny. You might call it the reverse-role model in action.

Now 85, he is still alive and I have always loved and respected him. I am proud of him. But, I don't recall him ever saying that he was proud of me, and he certainly never did when I was a child. How much this taciturnity led to a life of restless seeking for approval and ambition, I can never know – certainly my two brothers had no complaints, but I think such a mindset among those who suffered a rationing of praise from their fathers is not unusual.

There is, incidentally, a less generous explanation of why fathers are reluctant to praise their children than social fashion. The psychologist Dorothy Rowe suggests that fathers are essentially in competition with their sons, and as the sons grow into adults they threaten their power. To acknowledge that power – by praising them – is to subtract from the father's own power.

If this were true, I would probably find it hard to admit to myself, since sons also have a tendency to idealise their fathers, rather than see them in the round as flawed adults. This is a part of an attempt to hold on to their childhood – a refusal to grow up. An "ideal" father, however flawed in reality, is at least nominally there to protect you – or more accurately, idealisation is a way of ensuring that the hope that he will protect you endures.

Fathers of more recent generations have learnt very different lessons. It is widely accepted that they should spend far more time with their children than their own fathers did, and that they should praise them more than they should blame them. This is a positive development, and I'm sure that many children will have a happier childhood and adulthood as a result. But whether they are happy or unhappy, there is no doubt that fathers, whether present or absent, good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, will have a huge impact on life outcomes.

Whatever the surviving negative aspects of fatherhood – and I'm sure that aggression, distance and competitiveness have not expired entirely – the death of Cameron's "amazingly brave" father suggests to me that it is a day to praise fathers. They have come a long way since the role of the distant patriarch – now they have the potential more than ever before to inspire their children not simply through fear, but through example and support.

This may be a double-edged sword – the desperate need of the rejected child to win the praise of the distant father, even after the father is dead, has probably, historically, generated a great deal of energy and creativity. Mozart's wish to please his father was legendary, and probably partly behind his creative intensity.

But on the whole, fathers are definitely going in the right direction in terms of adding to the sum total of human happiness. David Cameron's father was doubtless a shining example, but fathers in general are probably better role models than they have ever been. And I can assure you that the fact that I happen to be a father of four upstanding, clever and virtuous children has not influenced that judgement in the slightest.

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