The Effects of Fatherlessness

This Father’s Day, more than one quarter of all children in the United States will live in homes without fathers. Even this statistic masks the epidemic of fatherless children in America, however, since many children in two-parent households live with stepfathers instead of their own. Who’s responsible for the burgeoning rate of fatherless families? It’s been popular in recent years to blame negligent men for abandoning their children, but a recent federally funded report by Child Trends suggests that women may be more of the problem than men.

Most Americans agree that children are better off being raised in two-parent families — and with good reason. Children raised in single-mother households are more likely to do poorly in school and are twice as likely to drop out of school or become parents themselves while teenagers. Nonetheless, significantly more women than men believe that one parent can raise a child successfully, according to the Child Trends report. Overall, 42 percent of women, but only 26 percent of men, said that “one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together.” A far greater number of black women said that single parents were as good as two parents in raising children — 64 percent. Not surprisingly, this is roughly the same percentage of the black population that is now born to single mothers.

Women also appear less likely to stay married “for the sake of the children” than men. While attitudes toward divorce have become increasingly tolerant since the 1960s — along with skyrocketing divorce rates over the same period — fewer women than men believe “when there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don’t get along,” according to the study. Only 12 percent of women, compared with 20 percent of men, said they agreed with the statement, while nearly half of both men and women said that “Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems.”

Of course divorce doesn’t always mean a loss of contact between parent and child, but, statistically, contact between non-custodial parents (85 percent of whom are fathers) and their children remains quite limited. Sixty percent of children see their non-custodial parent at least occasionally, but that leaves 40 percent who have no contact with the nonresident parent. Non-custodial parents have contact with their children only 70 days out of the year, on average, and sometimes only for a few minutes. The situation is worse for poor and minority children. Barely more than one out of two black, nonresident fathers (51 percent) saw their children even one time during the previous year, while only 48 percent of Hispanic, non-custodial parents maintained any contact with their children, and 47 percent of non-custodial parents living in extreme poverty did so.

Father’s Day should be more than an excuse to buy new barbecue grills and power tools. The holiday began when a Spokane, Wash., woman — who was raised by her father after her mother’s death — set out to get national recognition for the roles fathers play in the family. Sonora Smart Dodd’s campaign to honor fathers became a national phenomenon in 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first Father’s Day, and it became a permanent holiday in 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson declared the third Sunday in June for its celebration.

As Mrs. Dodd understood, fathers play crucial roles in their children’s lives. Ideally, they teach them love, respect and discipline. A father’s relationship with his daughter is often the best predictor of whether she will grow up to have a lasting, fulfilling relationship with her own spouse. A father’s relationship with his son is critically important to the development of self-discipline and a healthy, respectful attitude toward women.

Like Mother’s Day, however, Father’s Day has become more a tribute to Madison Avenue than a true celebration of parenting these days. Instead of using the day to consume more material goods, wouldn’t it be better to spend the time reflecting on the meaning of fatherhood?