About 25 million children in the United States today do not live with their biological fathers. There are two chief causes for this: high divorce rates and low marriage rates. One might conclude that fatherhood is a cheap commodity today. But there can be no doubt that the cost of fatherlessness is swelling by the hour. On this father's day, Americans should think seriously about how to reverse those trends.
There are at least three culprits responsible for the sorry state of fatherhood: elite liberal opinion (pick a celebrity) that waves off the usefulness of fathers in raising children; past government welfare programs that discouraged men and women from marrying; and divorce laws that let those who do get married abandon their commitments more easily.
Over the last decade or so, we've started to acknowledge the consequences of life without father. Study after study shows that children who live in single-parent homes tend to have more problems — emotional, educational, and physical — than children living with both parents.
This is true for boys and girls alike, although boys fare quite a bit worse. Boys make up a majority of youthful substance abusers, the majority of homeless children, the majority of children in foster care. They are most neglected and institutionalized. Fully 70% of all prison and reform school inmates come from fatherless homes. A boy living in a single-parent home is twice as likely to be incarcerated as his peer living with mother and father, regardless of the parents' race, income or education level.
None of this should surprise us. Fathers are models for manhood. What happens to a boy whose father has never been or is no longer present? What will form a boy's understanding of who he should be and how he should act? When the popular culture no longer recognizes what it means to be a man and has to a large degree denigrated manhood, some people may actually start to believe it.
What about girls? A girl spends much of her adolescence trying to figure out how to relate to boys. Where does she learn what it means to be a responsible man if not from her father? Where does she develop her expectations of male-female relationships if not from the father-mother relationship? Girls need their fathers and their father's guidance and knowledge about boys and men. Look at teenaged girls whose fathers are mostly absent from their lives, and the importance of fathers becomes clear. Teen childbearing occurs more often with girls who come from single-parent, female-headed households.
Fathers serve the role of household protector. Mothers who are not married to the fathers of their children seldom abstain from male company. There are often men in the house — a new boyfriend or husband. These new relationships can be dangerous. Children in single-parent households are 77% more likely to be physically abused and had a 165% greater chance of experiencing physical neglect, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study. More likely than not, the abuser is the mother's liaison, not the child's natural father.
Children have become the casualty of adult pursuit of pleasure. What, then, is to be done? Part of it involves changing peoples' minds. Elite opinion in America believes that having children outside marriage is just another lifestyle choice.
As social morals have changed, the marriage rate among women has dropped — from 73 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women in 1960 to 49 per 1,000 in 1996, according to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University and U.S. Census data. Although the divorce rate has declined a bit in recent years, it remains higher than it was in 1970.
Some of this may be attributed to unrealistic expectations of marriage. Traditionally, of course, marriage was the means of making sure that fathers took responsibility for their offspring. Powerful social pressure was brought to bear to ensure men and women got married and stayed married for the children.
But liberalized, "no fault" divorce laws and an expanding view of individual rights, entitlements and happiness encouraged more women to make a go of it alone. In doing so, they push men and fathers away. In pursuing liberation, women gave men the freedom to leave.
Americans needs to promote and support marriage, especially when children are involved. We have to find ways to model marriage for newly married couples.
Young couples who did not grow up in a two-parent family may need "marriage mentors." A few states, such as Georgia and Louisiana, are experimenting with the idea of covenant marriages and requiring pre-marital counseling. And many states have tried to introduce marriage-friendly policies to welfare programs to encourage fathers to return to poor welfare families.
This Father's Day, we celebrate those fathers who have managed to stay connected and committed to their children. In many ways, they've beat the odds. They have overcome all that the culture has brought to bear — the policies that encourage them to leave, the laws that make it difficult for men to be men. These fathers are truly the unsung heroes, the model men of society. We need more like them. How strange, and yet how fitting, to honor them for doing the right thing.