By Joe Smydo/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was in good company when he announced that he wouldn’t sign a so-called religious freedom bill opposed by his son.
American politicians as independent-minded as Benjamin Franklin, as hard-charging as Theodore Roosevelt and as ascendant as Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio have been influenced politically by their sons.
And research suggests daughters are influential, too.
Fathers aren’t “static” people, said Abigail Weitzman, who has studied father-child relationships as a doctoral student in New York University’s sociology department.
Sure, fathers influence their children. “But the reverse is also likely to be true,” Ms. Weitzman said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Hutchinson, a Republican, said he would not sign a so-called religious freedom bill, which critics fear will invite discrimination against gay people. He called on lawmakers to rework the measure, the concept of which he initially supported. He did not say he reversed course because of his son, Seth, but noted that the 31-year-old had signed a petition urging him to veto the bill.
Mr. Hutchinson’s announcement came as the state of Indiana continued to wrestle with the fallout from its own religious freedom bill, signed March 26 by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. On Tuesday, Pat Haden, athletic director at the University of Southern California, said he would not attend the NCAA College Football Playoff meetings in Indianapolis this week out of respect for his gay son. Because of the law, others are boycotting the Final Four and related events in Indianapolis this weekend.
Chris Hickey, who has a doctorate in leadership and change from Antioch University and wrote his dissertation on son-father relationships, said Mr. Hutchinson’s decision was “illuminating but not surprising.”
When a son brings his father a problem or dilemma, Mr. Hickey said, the father may put himself in the son’s shoes, recall his own vulnerabilities as a son, and act as he would have wanted his father to act. In an extreme case, the dad may act improperly, he said, noting Los Angeles authorities recently arrested a man for helping his fugitive son, a former police officer, flee to Mexico.
While the son does not always influence the father, “I think that dynamic is always there,” said Mr. Hickey, of Los Angeles, who is writing a book about the qualities and behaviors of admired men.
Fathers who are open to change may act either on clues or direct appeals from their children.
“Sometimes, the child will say to the father something like, ‘Dad, you’re out of line.’ And if the dad doesn’t get too defensive, he can actually learn something and see himself more clearly,” said Michael J. Diamond, a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist and the author of “My Father Before Me.”
From an early age, Mr. Diamond said, a child can elicit empathy and selflessness from a father. “The young father starts to move away from the position of thinking of himself as the hero in his own life and puts his son in that position.”
Ben Franklin is said to have become an outspoken proponent of smallpox vaccination after his son died of the disease, and Theodore Roosevelt reportedly demanded safety measures in college sports after his son’s football injury.
In 2013, Mr. Portman did an about-face and announced his support of marriage equality after his son, Will, told him he is gay.
“As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way,” Mr. Portman said in an op-ed article in The Columbus Dispatch.
“Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love. …”
In January, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, changed position and began supporting abortion rights. The change of heart, he said in the Akron Beacon Journal, followed the birth of his son, Brady, and the realization that “some couples are unprepared to become parents at that moment.”
Daughters are influential, too. In a 2006 study, Ebonya Washington, an economist at Yale, showed a correlation between members of Congress with daughters and a tendency to “vote liberally on reproductive rights.”
Daniel Puhlman, assistant professor of child development and family studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said fathers have become more nurturing and involved in their children’s lives over the past two or three decades, partly because women’s roles also have changed. He said it follows that dads have become more responsive to the needs of growing, and grown, children, too.