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Is 'Dad' America's most endangered species?

"Addressing the problem of absent fathers must be a national priority because it impacts the well-being of America's children, families and communities."
--Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

By Alan W. Dowd
[Reprinted with permission of Alan W. Dowd and The American Legion Magazine (c) June 2001]

Hang up the baseball glove and put away the bedtime stories. No need to take that long walk with your daughter or have that long talk with your son. Keep the advice and hugs to yourself, and don't worry about coming home. If you're a father, you're no longer wanted or needed in 21st-century America.

This news may come as a shock with another Father's Day upon us, but it's just some of what Louise Silverstein and Carl Auerback concluded in a jaw-dropping study on fathers and fatherhood aptly titled "Deconstructing the Essential Father." Published in American Psychologist, a journal of the American Psychological Association, the study's radical conclusions further undermine what was once beyond debate--the idea that fathers play a crucial role in the health of families and children. Still sending shockwaves through public-policy circles more than a year after its initial publication, the study is just one of countless indicators that "Dad" is an endangered species.

Dangerous Dads? Chipping away at some of our most basic conceptions of parenting, the APA study declares that fathers are not essential to child well-being; the institution of marriage does not serve broader interests of society; divorce is not necessarily harmful to children; fathers contribute nothing special to child development; and the traditional family unit--headed by a mother and father--is not any better at protecting children than anything else. In other words, fathers are no longer relevant.

America's 25 million fatherless children might disagree. However, as Dr. Timothy Dailey, an analyst with the Family Research Council, uncovered in his cogent response to the APA study, Silverstein and Auerback go beyond merely arguing that fathers are irrelevant: "The authors actually suggest that the traditional father can be harmful in the home," a flabbergasted Dailey explains.

In fact, in their view, "dear old Dad" is downright destructive and dangerous. Taking their counter-initiative argument to the extreme, Silverstein and Auerbach contend that the traditional two-parent model of the family "fails to acknowledge the potential costs of father presence." According to Silverstein and Auerbach, many fathers do little more than waste family resources on gambling, alcohol and other vices.

Of course, fathers guilty of that kind of selfishness are out there, but they are the exception. Even so, it is the model of imperfection which seems to drive Silverstein and Auerbach's research. Given such a brutish and bleak picture of the typical father, it's easy to see why they arrive at their skewed conclusions.

But what would make them draw such a depressing caricature of the American father? A recent study by the National Fatherhood Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the number of children growing up with responsible fathers, has a possible answer: television.

Today's most powerful cultural institution is television [and] children are its most ardent consumers," the NFI study begins. "Given the current scope of fatherlessness, it is no exaggeration to say that for millions of children the primary contact they have with the idea of a father is the time they spend watching a father on television."

Regrettably, what they usually see is similar to the distortion offered by Silverstein and Auerbach. The NFI study found that TV fathers are eight times more likely to be shown in a negative light than TV mothers. "On television," the study concludes, "fathers are less involved, provide less moral guidance, are less competent and place less of a priority on the family than do mothers."

NFI found that fully 65 percent of Hollywood's depictions of fatherhood provide either ambiguous or negative portrayals. In fact, 26 percent of the portrayals are completely negative. "This overabundance of 'bad dads' on television undermines a cultural ideal of responsible fatherhood at a time when that ideal is most needed," according to NFI's researchers.

Grim Numbers. From academia to pop culture, fatherhood is obviously under assault. What's happening to fathers and families is truly sobering. Indeed, the consequences of Dad's disappearance from America's family landscape illustrate how disconnected from reality Siverstein and Auerbach are.

Numbers and statistics sometimes distort the facts, but on rare occasions they truly illuminate. This is such an occasion.

Almost 25 million children live without fathers; 4 million don't even know who their fathers are; and 33 percent of the babies born in America today will be the sole responsibility of unmarried mothers.

Indeed, during the past three decades, fathers have disappeared from America faster than the spotted owl. According to the Family Research Council, 85 percent of all children lived in two-parent families in 1968. In 1980, it was 77 percent. Today, it's just 68 percent and falling. During those 30 years, the number of single-parent families in the United States quadrupled; the number of two-parent families inched up by just 8 percent.

This destabilizing trend of single-parenthood is continuing as we enter the 21st century. According to the Forum on Child and Family Statistics, a research arm of the federal government, birth rates have increased sharply for unmarried women in every age group during the past 20 years. And there's no evidence that what some have called "the epidemic of fatherlessness" will end.

Counting the Costs. This explosive increase in fatherless homes may seem irrelevant to traditional families or those who have already raised their children, but it isn't. In fact, it should send chills down their spines. Like a scythe, fatherlessness is cutting a swath of destruction through our nation that touches every American. Indeed, to look at these numbers is to look at the root cause of America's most intractable problems.

An ancient proverb warns, "When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry." The children of absentee fathers are now paying back their parents and society for what they have been given--and deprived of--during the past 30 years. Their pain and anger are wreaking havoc with our country. And if we are not moved by their plight, we should at least be moved by self-interest. The longer the epidemic continues, the more profound and costly the consequences for every American.

According to Robert Maginnis, a specialist on fatherhood and family, fatherless kids are two times more likely to quit high school than those from two-parent families. They are 70 percent more likely to be kicked out of school, and 10 times more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs.

The Forum on Child and Family Statistics found that children in one-parent households "are substantially more likely" to live in poverty. To be exact, they are five times more likely to live in poverty when compared to children lucky enough to be living with a mother and a father.

But the consequences of Dad's disappearance aren't limited to economics or education. In most cases, the legacy of an absentee father is criminal behavior in his children.

"The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father," Maginnis said. No less than 72 percent of teen-age murderers grow up without a dad. And according to Cato Institute research, a 1-percent increase in births to single mothers triggers a 1.7-percent increase in violent crime. In fact, the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization has found that children from fatherless homes are 20 times more likely to end up in prisons as their two-parent counterparts.

This should not be misunderstood as an attack on single mothers. Single moms are among the most creative today. Working two and three jobs outside the home, they face the toughest job on earth inside the home alone. Many of their children grow up to be productive members of society. But the odds are against them. Most of their children will be forever scarred by Dad's absence and will pass the cycle of brokenness on to another generation. The old saying "like father, like son" is all too true.

Nor is this an endorsement of the misguided notion that any father--regardless of his behavior--is preferable to no father at all. The health and safety of a child or mother should never be sacrificed for the sake of a marriage. Indeed, it's better for some fathers to leave, but today one-third of them are walking away. That's far too many. Children grow up best when Mom and Dad raise them together. Ninety percent of single moms agree, and so do their kids, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Turning Point. Thankfully, a handful of people and organizations are fighting for America's fathers and families. Were it not for them, there would be fewer of both.

Groups such as NFI, the Family Research Council, the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization, and hundreds of other nonprofits are partnering with churches and public agencies to promote fatherhood and thereby protect mothers and their children from the long odds faced by fatherless homes. And their influence is being felt beyond the family room. After decades of indifference and outright contempt for fathers, the federal government is finally realizing the necessity of fathers and the value of two-parent families.

The examples abound--from the Department of Health and Human Services' Fatherhood Initiative to stronger child-support laws, from high-tech, interstate tracking of deadbeat dads to a wide array of pro-fatherhood legislation in Congress.

As Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., recently observed, "Addressing the problem of absent fathers must be a national priority because it impacts the well-being of America's children, families and communities." And since families are the building blocks of society, the epidemic of fatherlessness impacts the well-being of America itself.

Bayh's Responsible Fatherhood Act of 2000, which he co-wrote with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., sought to develop an information clearinghouse to help states and agencies promote responsible fatherhood. The bill also would have reworked key aspects of the federal-state welfare system "to encourage the formulation and maintenance of two-parent families." However, the measure died in the Senate Finance Committee last year.

The Fathers Count Act proposed by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., would have provided grants to promote marriage and assist struggling fathers in job training. The bill also sought to ease some of the eligibility criteria on the Welfare-to-Work program. The bill passed the House with 328 votes. But it succumbed to the same fate as the Bayh-Dominici bill.

Congress clearly has plenty of ground to make up. Even so, perhaps the nation has reached a critical turning point. As NFI president Wade Horn notes, "Virtually everyone now agrees: Fathers matter."

Everyone, that is, except Hollywood and the APA.

[Alan W. Dowd is a freelance writer and a former associate editor of The American Legion Magazine.]


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