A wealth of research confirms that fathers play a unique and important role in their children's lives. Nevertheless, powerful forces in our society try to marginalize fathers. Unfortunately, these misguided individuals can be difficult to educate. With Father's Day upon us, it's worth another try.
The rates of the four major youth pathologies--teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, school dropouts and juvenile crime--are tightly correlated with fatherlessness, often more so than with any other socioeconomic factor.
For example, according to a long-term study conducted in the United States and in New Zealand and published in Child Development, a father's absence greatly increases the risk of teen pregnancy. The study found that it mattered little whether the child was rich or poor, black or white, born to a teen mother or an adult mother, or raised by parents with functional or dysfunctional marriages. What mattered was dad.
A Journal of Marriage and Family study found that the presence of a father was five times more important in predicting teen drug use than any other sociological factor, including income and race. A published Harvard review of four major studies found that, accounting for all major socioeconomic factors, children without a father in the home are twice as likely to drop out of high school or repeat a grade as children who live with their fathers. A Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency study concluded that fatherlessness is so predictive of juvenile crime that, as long as there was a father in the home, children of poor and wealthy families had similar juvenile crime rates.
Adult children of divorce realize dads are important. A published Arizona State University study found that more than two-thirds believed that, after divorce, "living equal amounts of time with each parent is the best arrangement for children."
Nevertheless, fathers are often under attack by misguided women's advocates. While fatherlessness is almost always blamed on irresponsible males, these advocates' powerful influence over family law is also at fault. All family law and legislative battles over child custody issues involve the same fight--fathers want more time with their children, and their opponents fight to limit their role.
For example, several major branches of the National Organization for Women, including New York and Michigan, have recently issued Action Alerts against Shared Parenting bills. These Alerts rallied NOW's supporters against moderate legislative attempts to help dads remain a part of their children's lives after divorce or separation. NOW's playbook is simple-portray divorced dads as a threat to their children's well-being.
In this there is great irony-according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' new report Child Maltreatment 2004, when one parent is acting without the involvement of the other parent, mothers are almost three times as likely to kill their children as fathers are, and are more than twice as likely to abuse them. Nevertheless, in both New York and Michigan NOW's scare tactics succeeded.
The media's fascination with cutting down dads is another part of the problem. For example, last fall former Stanford University gender scholar Peggy Drexler was acclaimed in many circles for her highly-publicized book Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men. Drexler asserts that father-absent homes are often the best environments for boys.
Through her interviews with single mother and lesbian families Drexler concludes there's no need to fear fatherlessness, because fatherless boys play sports and scrape their knees like other boys, and don't turn out to be effeminate or gay. On that she's probably correct. However, fatherless boys do often turn out to be juvenile delinquents, drug abusers and school dropouts. Yet few hailing Drexler's research looked close enough to see that her assurances that fatherless boys "do fine" was based on the ludicrous notion that all that really concerns us is that these boys might turn out to be sissies.
Our society spends billions of dollars attempting to combat crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and dropouts, without meaningfully addressing fatherlessness, which plays a central role in creating them. There is no easy solution to these problems. There is also no solution possible without dads.
This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle (6/18/06).
Mike McCormick is the Executive Director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, the world's largest shared parenting organization.
Glenn Sacks' columns on men's and fathers' issues have appeared in dozens of America's largest newspapers. Glenn can be reached via his website at http://www.glennsacks.com.