Although a baby will at first bond with mother, within a few months the infant discovers the other key person in its life. For the baby and toddler at home all day with mum, dad's appearance on the scene is an exciting novelty and he comes to represent the outside world.
From an early age, while mum delivers the sustenance, nurturing and emotional reassurance, dad is a figure of action. He's the one who plays the rough and tumble games and develops a little one's confidence and sense of adventure.
When we were living in the bush, Andrew would prop our six-month-old son in a rickety old wheelbarrow and charge down to the wood pile in a hair-raising ride, as the baby squealed and giggled with delight. Who else but a dad would do such a crazy thing!
Little girls rely on dad for their sense of attractiveness; flirting outrageously with daddy and competing with mummy for his attention. When I was about five, I would ballet dance in front of the old black and white telly, blocking the family's view of The Sunny Side Up Show. Convinced I was as pretty as those grown-up dancers, I desperately sought daddy's smile of approval. A little girl's relationship with her dad will determine her future relationships with men.
Little boys role model like mad on their hero dads. It is vitally important for father and son to DO things together. Their relationship is not based on talk but on learning how to function in the world; learning skills and gaining a sense of competence.
Fixing things around the house, playing sport, going on camping and fishing trips ... these are the age-old activities through which a healthy father-son bond is formed.
Yet with the onset of adolescence, the boy will need to break away from dad and confront and challenge him in order to establish his independence and manhood.
While tribal rituals celebrate the passage into manhood, the break-away is often painful in our western culture, maybe even marked by a vicious argument.
In therapy groups, adults exploring their childhoods often discover it is not so much what father does as what he fails to do which affects them in later life. The absent father can deeply scar the psyche of children who spend their adult lives driven by the need for the approval, acknowledgement, attention and affection they didn't get from dad.
The workaholic dad who believes he is doing the right thing for his family is bewildered when the kids grow up and accuse him of neglect. He has been cheated by society's lie about a father's role.
Thankfully the Absent Father Syndrome is changing as devoted dads take an active role. Every morning, just as many dads as mums take their turn at dropping off their toddlers at childcare. It is a delight to see stocky tradesmen in stubbies juggle dolls and lunchboxes as they fuss over their little treasures.
The positive trend is for fathers to broaden their self-image and realise that to be affectionate, involved and available to their children is not emasculating. It enriches their experience of being a man.