Father Facts 4
 
 

Introduction by Wade F. Horn, Ph.D. and Tom Sylvester

Twenty-five years ago, child psychologist Michael Lamb accurately described fathers as the "forgotten contributors to child development." Indeed, for much of the twentieth century, psychologists, childrearing experts, and popular culture largely assumed that when it came to child development, fathers were of secondary importance to mothers, and perhaps even unnecessary. Increased rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing over the past four decades marginalized fathers even further, as unprecedented numbers of children grew up in father-absent homes.Father Facts

Fortunately, fathers today are no longer ignored. In fact, they are the focus of much attention. Over the past decade, burgeoning interest in fatherhood by family scholars has produced a body of research impressive in its size, breadth, and depth. Moreover, interest in fatherhood has not been limited to researchers and academics, but has spread to policymakers, social service providers, politicians, community and religious organizations, social commentators, and others. At no time in American history have so many been paying so much attention to fathers and the institution of fatherhood.

Unfortunately, however, while fathers may no longer be "forgotten contributors," they remain missing contributors in the lives of millions of American children. Twenty-four million children live in homes without their biological fathers. That means that tonight, one out of every three children will go to bed in a home in which their father does not live. For the first time in our nation's history, the average child will spend at least a significant portion of his or her childhood living apart from his or her father.

For our society, and especially for our children, this is a tragedy. Father absence directly contributes to our most pressing social ills. Indeed, much of what the large and growing body of research on fatherhood reveals is that compared to children raised in intact, two-parent homes, children who grow up without their fathers have significantly worse outcomes, on average, on almost every measure of child well-being. Children who grow up in father-absent homes are more likely to suffer from child abuse, poverty, low academic achievement, drug use, emotional and behavioral problems, and suicide. Simply put, father absence is the most consequential social problem we confront.

How Did We Get Here? Trends in Fatherlessness

At its core, the fatherhood crisis in America stems from the physical disappearance of fathers from families. Two major demographic trends contributed to the rise in father absence: the increase in divorce and the increase in unwed childbearing.

The divorce rate more than doubled between 1965 and 1980. Fortunately, divorce rates have declined slightly after peaking at historic highs in the early 1980s, though it remains to be seen if this decline will continue or just level off. Even with this modest drop, divorce rates in the United States remain the highest in the world. An estimated 40 to 50 percent of all marriages end in separation or divorce, affecting approximately one million children each year.

The latter part of the twentieth century also saw a dramatic upsurge in unwed childbearing. After remaining below five percent for decades, the proportion of births that occurred out of wedlock rose 600 percent from 1960 to 2000. Perhaps following the trend in divorce rates, the number and proportion of births to unmarried parents has begun to plateau, albeit at record annual highs of 1.3 million and 33 percent, respectively. Out-of-wedlock childbearing has now overtaken divorce as the primary cause of father absence.

The tough question is: What caused this great upheaval in marriage and fertility patterns? Most explanations factor in many forces, including: the transition to the post-industrial (or "information") economy that resulted in diminished economic opportunities for lower-skilled men, especially in inner cities; greater women's participation in the labor force, weakening their economic dependence upon marriage; the sexual revolution, aided by technological advances in contraception; welfare policies that discouraged marriage; the onset of "no fault" divorce laws; a materialistic consumer culture; and the cultural ascendance of expressive individualism and an emphasis on self-fulfillment over community and family obligations. These causal factors usually fall into one of two categories--economic or cultural--but even these spheres are highly interactive and mutually reinforcing.

In retrospect, many of the broad social changes that contributed to high levels of father absence may have been inevitable. The fact that divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and cohabitation have risen sharply in almost all Western developed nations at roughly the same time suggests deep-seated causes that defy a simple explanation or cure. Also, there are aspects of these changes that may be irreversible; there is no going back to the family order of the 1950s or another era, even if we wanted to. Moreover, the vast majority of Americans don't want to move backwards, and understandably so. Many of the gains in individual freedom and women's opportunities are positive changes.

But must we view widespread father absence as inevitable and irreversible, and a good (or neutral) thing? The answer to the latter part of this question, at least, is clearly an emphatic no. The trend in fatherlessness is not just an innocuous development in American family life. Father Facts is packed with statistics and research that can be summarized in one inarguable statement: fatherlessness is detrimental to the well-being of children in America.

Are current levels of father absence inevitable and irreversible? Here, the answer is less obvious. Some may concede that father absence may disadvantage children, but that it is here to stay, an unchangeable fact of contemporary family life. Therefore, instead of bemoaning the loss of committed, responsible fatherhood, we need to find ways to replace the contributions of fathers through other means.

Unfortunately, this approach will not work for America's children. Fathers make unique and irreplaceable contributions to the lives of their kids. Unique means that they provide something different from mothers; they are not just part-time mommy substitutes. Irreplaceable means that when they are absent, children suffer. The contributions of fathers to child well-being cannot be replaced simply by ensuring better child support enforcement, by designing better income transfer programs, or even by providing well-intentioned mentoring programs. The fact is children need their fathers.

Furthermore, while achieving behavioral change is difficult, a fatalistic acceptance of high levels of fatherlessness will only serve to exacerbate the problem. If we are to succeed at delivering more fathers to children, promoting responsible fatherhood must remain at the forefront of our public agenda. Indeed, new research indicates that recent efforts to decrease father absence and increase father involvement have begun to bear fruit.

Where Are We Going?
Recent Trends in Fatherhood and Family Life

As in earlier editions, the fourth edition of Father Facts is replete with disturbing data about the consequences of father absence for children. This edition, however, also contains new research findings that are truly encouraging and important: the decades-long rise in father absence has stopped. From 1960 to 1996, the number of children who lived in homes without a father or a stepfather rose steadily from 7 million to nearly 20 million. Since the mid-1990s, though, the number and proportion of children in father-absent homes has leveled off. And the percentage of children living with both parents has remained fairly steady during the past decade.

Nobody knows for sure why this change has occurred, but the fatherhood movement surely deserves some credit. Since 1994, the National Fatherhood Initiative and other groups have been working to raise awareness that fathers make unique and irreplaceable contributions to the lives of their children. With the help of NFI, a near consensus has been reached on the negative effects of father absence on children and communities. Now it appears that this consensus may have begun to manifest itself in behavioral change. Other major contributing factors include welfare reform, a strong economy, and better child-support enforcement. Additionally, delayed sexual activity and increased contraceptive use have reduced teen birth rates over the 1990s.

Of course, there will be little reason to celebrate if fatherlessness merely levels off at historically high levels. Much work needs to be done to reverse the trend and bring fathers back into the lives of their children. But, after going in the wrong direction for over thirty years, the tide may be starting to turn. Also heartening are recent findings suggesting that fathers in two-parent families are spending more time with their children than fathers did two decades ago. Additionally, these fathers seem to be playing a more active, nurturing role in childrearing.

Thus, for fatherhood, it seems to be both the best of times and the worst of times. Fathers living with their children are more likely than before to play an involved and nurturing role in raising their children. Yet at the same time, millions of children have fathers missing from their lives. Of course, physically absent fathers can be emotionally present in the lives of their children; many are. Likewise, in-the-home fathers can be emotionally absent. Nevertheless, the root of the fatherhood crisis in America is the physical disappearance of fathers from families. As such, the future of fatherhood is inextricably tied to the future of marriage.

Why the tie to marriage? Does a man need to be married to the mother of his children to be a responsible, committed, and involved father? Of course not. Many divorced and unmarried dads have positive, meaningful relationships with their children. But marriage does make involved fatherhood more likely. All available evidence suggests that marriage is the most effective pathway to involved, committed, and responsible fatherhood. Research consistently documents that non-resident fathers tend, over time, to become disconnected, both financially and psychologically, from their children.

This does not mean we should abandon efforts to increase the involvement of nonresident fathers in the lives of their children. Nor is the fatherhood movement synonymous with the marriage movement. Still, while recognizing the need to keep nonresident fathers involved with their children and the fact that marriage is not always possible or even desirable, all of the available evidence suggests that the future of fatherhood is highly dependent upon the future of marriage.

As such, the significant rise in cohabitation has significant implications not only for marriage, but for fatherhood as well. As noted in this volume, the number of unmarried-couple households with children has doubled over the past decade, and quadrupled since 1980, from 431,000 to 1.7 million. Research clearly shows that cohabitation is distinctly worse for children than marriage. First, cohabiting couples are more likely to split up than married couples, meaning that children with cohabiting parents are more likely to endure parental conflict and the destabilizing effects of family disruption. Second, compared to children with married biological parents, children living with a biological parent and the parent's cohabiting partner are significantly more likely to exhibit negative outcomes on many measures of well-being, including academic performance and emotional and behavioral problems. Indeed, some research suggests that living with a cohabiting parent is worse for children than living with a single parent.

In addition to unmarried-couple households, single-father households are another family form on the rise, up from 393,000 in 1970 to 2 million in 2000. The fatherhood movement would be remiss to ignore the needs of single fathers, yet misguided if it embraces the increase in single fathers as a welcome trend. While the increase in single fathers may reflect greater social acceptance of the childrearing abilities of fathers and the willingness of courts to award custody to fathers, it is also a direct result of non-marital childbearing and divorce. While not much research has been done on single-father families, what has been done suggests that children in single-father households score significantly lower on indicators of child well-being than their peers in intact, two-parent families.

As researchers are paying more attention to fathers, they are moving beyond a simple deficit model of fatherhood, i.e., only looking at father absence. New research is not only studying nonresident fathers and their children more closely, but also looking at fathers who live with their children. These studies show that father presence and involvement promotes child well-being, and this edition of Father Facts features an expanded section on the benefits of father involvement.

The Future of Fatherhood

Admittedly, when looking at the macro level, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of fatherhood. One sees entrenched trends toward individual autonomy over social connectedness, the weakening of marriage as a lifelong institution, and a growing disconnect between childbearing and marriage. Along with strong family bonds, also diminished are religious traditions and voluntary associations of civil society that, as political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville famously argued, mitigate the unrelenting pull of individualism in democratic societies. Such individualism is at odds with responsible fatherhood, a role that requires great sacrifice on the behalf of others. Perhaps, as sociologist Alan Wolfe maintains, we are experiencing the ascendancy of moral freedom, the "final freedom" that proclaims that individuals should be free to live as they choose, and which is every bit as inevitable and irrevocable as earlier expansions in economic and political freedom. Indeed, one outgrowth of this "moral freedom" is family relativism-the notion that all family arrangements are morally and socially equivalent, and all equally good for children. Welcome to the postmodern family, where good fathers are nice, but optional.

And yet. The evidence is compelling that Americans are now recognizing the importance of fatherhood. Given this increased acknowledgment by the public that fathers are far from superfluous, widespread fatherlessness may not be permanent or irreversible after all. While there is no rewind button, a society can adjust its direction; cultural norms and behavior can change. In the words of philosopher Francis Fukuyama, "our innate human capacities for reconstructing social order" can turn things around. Nowhere else is this change more needed than in the realm of fatherhood and family life. Whether or not we are witnessing a new "moral freedom," the fact remains that children want and need their fathers.

And there is hope. These are exciting times for the fatherhood movement. Consciousness has been raised. Father absence is now widely recognized as a serious social problem. Fatherhood programs have sprung up in communities across the country, and their numbers continue to grow. Politicians and policymakers are searching for ways to promote responsible, involved fatherhood. In national surveys, young men are placing fatherhood and family time at the top of their list of priorities. Actions speak louder than words, but attitudes aren't irrelevant, especially if reinforced by a supportive economic and cultural framework. And, with the trend in father absence leveling off, we may be starting to see actual behavioral change on a large-scale level.

The fundamental task of the fatherhood movement is to reconstruct, revitalize, and mainstream the cultural model of committed, involved, and responsible fatherhood. We must reconnect fathers to their families and their children. We need to recognize that we live in a world of trade-offs. Individual freedom and choice are valuable social goods. Yet so are community, family, responsibility, and sacrifice. Since we can't have it all, we, as a society, need to examine where we are, look where we're headed, and decide what is truly important. As writer Stanley Kurtz notes, "Our capacity for social atomization is limited, above all, by the nature of human childhood." The well-being of our children requires that, within a modern understanding of the choices and rights of women, the cultural pendulum swing back toward the virtues and values that promote stable marriages and responsible, committed fatherhood.

Concretely, policies that govern workplaces, tax codes, and welfare programs must support involved fatherhood and healthy marriages. Fathers must join mothers in asking, "How can I balance work and family?" We need greater education on marriage and divorce in schools, and more premarital and divorce counseling for couples. The future of fatherhood depends on all sectors of society--including business, religion, philanthropy, government, social service providers, and the civic community--each doing its part to promote responsible, involved fatherhood. We cannot just sit around and wait for future editions of Father Facts to see if positive change is occurring. We must go out there and create it.

Wade F. Horn, Ph.D.
Tom Sylvester

 

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