I'm always interested when I experience something that I recognize as evolutionarily built into my brain. Whether I'm scared of an insect I know to be harmless, or spending time babysitting on the lookout for a charging rhinoceros, knowing that the instinctual feeling isn't relevant, or particularly helpful, doesn't do much to change it.
However, even more than my fear of spiders, sharks and zombies, this particular instinct feels almost completely obsolete. In fact, the more I've thought about it, the more I realize that the desire to keep a small child safe from physical harm through the use of protective violence is almost certainly harmful. The protector might be a very natural role for fathers in a more primal, evolutionary setting, but that role is far less clear in a modern world.
First, it's not available as a demonstration of love. Parental love appears to be a fairly important piece of childhood development.* I'm sure that most parents want their children to always know how much they love them, I'm sure I will. Yet, we are all aware of the image of a stoic, seemingly unemotional father figure, who loves his children with all his heart. That male is the centerpiece of many classic TV shows. In such stories this love might be demonstrated in a moment of sacrifice, or in the father's brave efforts to keep his family safe. Clearly culture plays a huge role in creating this particular father role, but I think it's also instinctual and desirable for many men. But, in the real world the opportunities to demonstrate your love for your child by protecting them from harm are few and far between. But, the desire, the fantasy, is going to live strong. I wonder if this creates a certain distance between some men and their children as the men struggle to demonstrate, or even understand, their love of their child and their role, and no opportunities to show this love through action arise.
Second, I could see this protectionism instinct as creating more actively harmful results. Most notably guns in the house. I think we can see the cultural and instinctual role of father as the protector when we imagine approaching a father and saying: "You need a gun in the house in order to protect your family from harm." In fact, it seems that certain advertising takes that exact tactic. Certainly, there are many men who scoff at such a statement, but I'd guess that even many liberals, even many Europeans (outside the gun culture) would balk just a bit. But, we all know that having a gun in the home creates more danger for children, not less. The reality is that when faced with danger in today's world it is almost universally better to contact the authorities than to react with violence. The desire to react with violence, or a bottling up of this protective instinct seems to have a great deal of potential for serious harm.
In all of this I don't mean to create a biological excuse for distant or overly protective fathers. Despite my willingness to do battle with a pack of wild hyenas every time I pass a playground, I don't plan on keeping a gun in the house. Also, I'm sure that women have similar feelings of protectionism around small children. I mostly point this out because these feelings have been unexpected and interesting. There are certainly 'fatherhood' groups out there that seem to be based on the idea that fathers are disenfranchised in today's society. I wonder if some of this feeling doesn't come from a feeling of uselessness regarding their most primal instincts.
I would suggest that we men need to understand that the modern world requires of us actions that are far different, and almost certainly far more rewarding, than the actions of a standoffish protector.
*I don't mean to suggest that source of this love has to be parents.