By Wade F. Horn
As published in Policy Review, July, 1997
The greatest social tragedy of the last 30 years has been the collapse of fatherhood. Propelled by the twin engines of divorce and illegitimacy, the percentage of children growing up in a home without their father nearly tripled between 1960 and the early 1990s. By 1994, 24 million American children were living without their biological fathers. But not to worry, we were increasingly told, all family arrangements were equal and children could do just fine without their fathers. Put simply, the modern family might need a village, but it no longer needed a dad.
Then something remarkable happened. Suddenly and unpredictably, fatherlessness began to be cited as the most disturbing and consequential social trend of our time. Soon, football stadiums were filling with Promise Keepers, busloads of African--American men were arriving in the nation's capital for a "Million Man March," and news stories began to highlight regularly the connection between absent fathers and such social ills as crime, educational failure, and welfare dependency. Some observers were even talking about the birth of a new social movement on behalf of fatherhood.
The retreat from fatherhood began in the 1960s, gained momentum in the 1970s, and hit full stride in the 1980s. Driving this collapse of fatherhood were three ideas about parenting, fathers, and children. Ideas do have consequences, and the cultural and social consequences of these ideas were profound. Moreover, these notions became so entrenched in American culture that, until recently, they obscured the obvious cause of so many social disorders: absentee fathers.
The myth of the androgyny ideal. For much of the history of Western civilization, differences between men and women were widely recognized and even celebrated. As late as the 1950s, social scientists largely accepted that men and women had biological differences that produced behavioral differences. Men and women, it was thought, formed a natural complementarity wherein each sex supported and strengthened the other. This idea was so ingrained that, for much of this century, educators routinely reinforced male and female distinctiveness and sex--role behavior.
But beginning in the 1960s, our recognition of gender distinctiveness gave way to the ideal of androgyny. Out of a concern for greater social equity, androgyny advocates preached that men and women ought not only to be treated exactly the same, but to behave the same as well. Social psychologist Sandra Bem was particularly influential in spreading the gospel of androgyny, arguing that persons freed from traditional sex--role behavior would be better adjusted, more adaptive, and psychologically healthier. By 1980, according to a survey published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72 percent of mental--health professionals described a "healthy, mature, socially competent" adult as androgynous.
The ideal of androgyny found fertile soil in the field of parenting advice. Experts jettisoned the complementary model of childrearing and exhorted mothers and fathers each to parent in exactly the same way. According to many parenting gurus of the 1970s and 1980s, mothers and fathers should parent so that a child would neither know nor care whether it was mom or dad in the room.
Androgyny became the basis of the New Nurturing Father ideal, in which a good father was defined as a man who shares equally in all childrearing activities from the moment of birth. The New Nurturing Father was expected not only to cry at movies, but to change precisely half the diapers and fix his baby's formula as adeptly as he could fix a flat tire.
This view is now deeply ingrained in American culture--especially among social-service providers. At a recent workshop I conducted on restoring fatherhood, I was lectured by a social worker that it is not just incorrect, but dangerous, to use the word "father." The correct term is "parent."
The androgynous father has proven to be an awfully uninspiring model for most men. And no wonder. Essentially, the androgynous message says, "Fathers, you are doing it wrong. To be a good father, you must be more like mother." The result: fatherhood has been feminized, and the father is disappearing from the home.
The myth of the superfluous father. Once androgyny advocates established that most fathers were "doing it wrong," it became relatively easy to argue fathers were not really necessary to the "modern" family. Social scientists began to assert that there was a "nuclear family bias" in past research, and exhorted fellow researchers and practitioners to stop extolling the importance of a father--even a New Nurturing Father--to the well--being of children. By 1982, psychologist Charlotte Patterson of the University of Virginia felt assured enough to state flatly, "Children don't need a father to develop normally."
Spurred on by radical feminist rhetoric, exemplified by Gloria Steinem's quip that "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," some even began to assert that children actually did better without fathers. In a 1982 study of father--absent households published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Barbara Cashion claimed that girls growing up without fathers are more independent, have higher IQs, and enjoy higher self--esteem than girls growing up with fathers. This, according to Cashion, is because "[t]he two--parent family is hierarchical with mother and father playing powerful roles and children playing subordinate roles. In the female--headed family there is no such division. Women and children forgo much of the hierarchy and share more in their relationships. . . . There is a general lack of conflict, and decisions are made more easily and quickly."
The advocacy on behalf of this idea of the superfluous father had its intended effect. By 1994, 35 percent of men between 18 and 29 years old, and 62 percent of women in the same age group, agreed with the statement, "One parent can bring up a child as well as two parents." Indeed, by hearing repeatedly that they are at best superfluous and at worst detrimental to the well--being of children, men could now claim they were doing their children a favor by leaving them solely in the hands of the mother.
The myth of resilient children. A final idea that contributed to the decline of fatherhood in America was that children are resilient. For much of human history, children have been seen as requiring tenderness, affection, and protection from the adult world. This view of childhood as a time of innocence and vulnerability led to the prevailing cultural virtue that parents in troubled marriages ought to stay together "for the sake of the kids." This does not mean that divorce is a recent invention; indeed, divorce has been a part of mankind's experience throughout human history. But it did place a natural braking mechanism on impulses to leave one's spouse, which helped to keep divorce rates relatively low.
As pointed out by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in her recent book The Divorce Culture, this view of childhood posed a problem for the divorce advocates in the 1970s. If children were vulnerable to stress and disruption, how does one divorce without feeling guilty? The answer: Children are really more resilient than we think. Divorce, and its consequent father absence, may be painful at first, but the children will get over it. They are, after all, just children.
Some even went further to suggest that divorce can be a self--actualizing experience for children. In their 1974 book The Courage To Divorce, authors Susan Gettleman and Janet Markowitz argued that "divorce can liberate children," and can lead to "greater insight and freedom as adults in deciding whether and when to marry" and to "break away from excessive dependency on their biological parents." Similarly, in his 1973 book Creative Divorce: A New Opportunity for Personal Growth, therapist Mel Krantzler stated that divorce provides "an ambiguous, expanded experience that moves kids to better adjustment in a society that is highly ambiguous and expanded."
The propagation of the "resilient child" myth was extraordinarily successful. By 1977, 80 percent of respondents to a national survey disagreed with the statement, "When there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don't get along." Divorce rates nearly tripled between 1960 and the early 1980s, as adults found a way to avoid their guilt about walking away from unsatisfying marriages. Today, nearly a million children a year experience the "liberating effects" of divorce.
Beginning in the early 1980s, social scientists began to compile evidence that would fundamentally challenge these three myths about parenting, fathers, and children. First, developmental psychologists discovered that mothers and fathers do approach parenting somewhat differently, and that these differences may be beneficial to a child's development. Rather than finding support for the notion that androgynous parenting was the ideal way to raise children, researchers found that some degree of parenting specialization was helpful.
But research increasingly found that physical play with fathers gives children practice in understanding how to regulate their own behavior and helps them learn to recognize the emotional cues of others--two hallmarks of a properly socialized child. Researchers also found that young children need lots of verbal stimulation to develop the language centers of their brains. Hence dads' style of parenting helps children develop self--regulation, while that of moms helps children acquire language skills.
Social scientists also discovered that mothers tend to be stronger comforting figures and fathers stronger disciplinarians. Since research has consistently shown that children do best when reared with a combination of emotional warmth and behavioral control, they depend for their well--being on a combination of mothers' nurturance and fathers' discipline. The complementary nature of two--parent families was making a comeback.
At the same time that developmental psychologists were rediscovering the uniqueness of fathers, social demographers and family--policy analysts were re--discovering their importance. Over the past decade, a voluminous body of data has documented the ill effects of growing up without a father. Fatherless children, for example, were found to be three times more likely to fail at school, two to three times more likely to experience emotional or behavioral problems requiring psychiatric treatment, and three times more likely to commit suicide as adolescents. Fatherless children were also five times more likely to be poor. But poverty alone failed to explain the increased risk of poor outcomes associated with growing up without fathers. Even after controlling for income, children with absent fathers fared worse than those who grew up with both a mom and a dad.
As fathers were found to be more vital than previously thought, children were also discovered to be more vulnerable. Beginning with the groundbreaking work of psychologist Judith Wallerstein, clinical researchers began to document that divorce or abandonment inflicts upon children not just temporary strain, but long--term emotional and behavioral harm. Far from being resilient, children were found to suffer forever when they don't live in forever families.
By the early 1990s, these research findings found their way into the conclusions and recommendations of several widely disseminated and influential studies of family policy. One of the earliest of these was "Putting Children First: A Progressive Family Policy for the 1990s," published in 1990 by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council. Authored by Elaine C. Kamarck and William A. Galston, both of whom later took high--ranking positions within the Clinton administration, the report argued that the most consequential factor in the decline of children's well--being was the collapse of the American family. The report identified father absence as a primary culprit and recommended ways to bolster the two--parent family by strengthening marriage and making divorce less common.
The following year, the National Commission on Children released its final report, "Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families." Relying heavily upon Kamarck and Galston, this report asserted that "[c]hildren do best when they have the personal involvement and material support of a father and a mother and when both parents fulfill their responsibility to be loving providers." Even more remarkably, the report concluded that "[t]here can be little doubt that having both parents living and working together in a stable marriage can shield children from a variety of risk. Rising rates of divorce, out--of--wedlock childbearing, and absent parents are not just manifestations of alternative lifestyles, they are patterns of adult behavior that increase children's risk of negative consequences."
Despite this accumulating evidence, nothing remotely resembling a fatherhood movement, or even a "fatherhood consciousness," had yet appeared. This changed dramatically as a result of 39 words uttered by a public figure widely perceived at the time to be an intellectual lightweight: Vice President Dan Quayle.
On May 19, 1992, while campaigning for re--election, Quayle made a speech at the Commonwealth Club of California, in San Francisco, during which he said, "It doesn't help matters when prime--time TV has Murphy Brown--a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman--mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'"
Quayle may not have intended to inspire a national fatherhood movement, but his speech and the reaction that followed galvanized others to defend his larger point: that fathers matter to the well--being of children and that society experiments with father absence at its peril. The first of these spirited defenses was an extraordinarily influential article published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine by social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. In "Dan Quayle Was Right," Whitehead laments that "every time the issue of family structure has been raised, the response has been first controversy, then retreat, and finally silence." Undaunted, she continues: "How do we begin to reconcile our long--standing belief in equality and diversity with an impressive body of evidence that suggests that not all family structures produce equal outcomes for children?. . . How do we uphold the freedom of adults to pursue individual happiness in their private relationships and at the same time respond to the needs of children for stability, security, and permanence in their family lives?"
The themes laid out in Whitehead's article were further refined and expanded in a series of compelling articles and books, including Life Without Father, by David Popenoe; New Expectations: Community Strategies for Responsible Fatherhood, by James Levine and Edward Pitt; FatherLove, by Richard Louv; and especially Fatherless America, by David Blankenhorn. Particularly influential was a Wall Street Journal article by Charles Murray entitled "The Coming White Underclass." Murray dramatically and compellingly broadened the perception of father absence from merely a "black family problem" to one that was quickly encompassing all of American society.
Another innovative fatherhood program that soon garnered national attention was MADDADS. Headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, this program began one spring evening in 1989 when the 20--year--old son of John L. Foster staggered home, badly beaten, blood streaming down his face. When Foster, a 45--year--old African American, found out his son had been beaten by a gang of teenagers, he loaded his .357 magnum and took to the streets looking for the culprits. Luckily, he didn't find the gang of kids that had beaten his son, but that night he did have an epiphany: "I was literally a mad dad and I knew I wanted to organize strong black men who were willing to stand up and fight this thing." The first man he recruited was Eddie Staton, and the two of them decided that they had had enough of drug dealers, crack addicts, and prostitutes in their neighborhood. Soon they had organized a group of nearly 100 black men who began "father street patrols" to remove graffiti and rid their neighborhood of lowlifes. Today, MADDADS claims 30,000 members in 49 chapters in 14 states, and its mission has been expanded to include outreach to young fathers and mentoring of fatherless children.
Another, and by far the largest, fatherhood promotion effort is Promise Keepers. Begun in 1990 by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, Promise Keepers seeks to inspire men to be faithful husbands and responsible fathers within a servant--leader model of marriage. The message is clearly striking a responsive chord. The first gathering in 1991 drew 4,000 men; the next year 22,000 attended. By 1996, nearly 1.1 million men were attending Promise Keepers events at 22 stadiums around the country. Promise Keepers headquarters now has a full--time staff of more than 400, and an annual budget of nearly $100 million. In 1995, a similar mass gathering of fathers, the Million Man March, brought nearly three--quarters of a million black men together to celebrate their obligations to family (although it appears not to have enjoyed the lasting influence of Promise Keepers).
In addition to these individual efforts to reinvigorate fatherhood, there emerged an increasing interest on the part of fatherhood advocates, researchers, analysts, and programmers to come together and seek common cause. These reformers first united under a single fatherhood banner at the National Summit on Fatherhood in Dallas, Texas, in October 1994. Hosted by the newly formed National Fatherhood Initiative, this gathering attracted more than 200 fatherhood advocates, researchers and public--policy analysts, education and skill building experts, advocates for low--income fathers, and religious leaders. Other gatherings followed, including an Interfaith Summit on Fatherhood, several state--wide, governor--sponsored conferences, and a meeting in October 1996 in Minneapolis at which participants endorsed a statement of principle for the fatherhood movement, entitled "A Call to Fatherhood."
Today, there are literally dozens of national groups advocating on behalf of fatherhood and hundreds more providing local support, encouragement, and skill--building programs targeted at fathers. The National Fatherhood Initiative, for example, conducts national and state--wide public education programs building awareness of the irreplaceable contributions that fathers make to the well--being of children; organizes local fatherhood forums; and operates a National Clearinghouse and Resource Center, which provides training and technical assistance to local organizations to implement a fatherhood program.
The National Center for Fathering, headquartered in Kansas City, conducts seminars for men on how to be more effective dads and provides training to help social--service agencies meet the needs of fathers. The National Centers on Fathers and Families, based at the University of Pennsylvania, conducts research on programs that encourage the effective involvement of fathers. And the Fatherhood Project of the Families and Work Institute, located in New York City, provides information to employers on how they can make their workplaces more father--friendly.
There are signs that this new "fatherhood movement" is starting to have an impact. Surveys indicate that increasing numbers of Americans are getting the fatherhood message. A 1996 Gallup Poll found that 79 percent of Americans believe "the most significant family or social problem facing America is the physical absence of the father from the home," up from 69 percent in 1992. Another recent survey found that 84 percent of men in their 30s and 40s agree that the definition of success is being a good father.
There is even evidence that this shift in attitudes is beginning to translate into behavioral change. Since the mid--1980s, the divorce rate has been decreasing. And last year, for the first time in two decades, the percentage of children born out of wedlock actually declined by half a percentage point. Families once again are making room for daddy.
Still, challenges remain. Tonight, nearly 40 percent of all children in America will go to bed in a home without their father available to read them a bedtime story, bring them a glass of water, and give them a goodnight kiss. Many millions more live with disconnected, neglectful, and sometimes even abusive, fathers.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that, even after accepting the importance of fathers, we will head in the right direction. Many observers, while agreeing that fathers are important, say that we must accept the realities of out--of--wedlock childbearing and divorce, and work instead to ensure that children receive financial support from their nonresident fathers. Their solution is that we become more efficient at establishing paternity and help nonresident fathers find employment so that they can meet their child--support obligations.
Establishing paternity and enforcing child support are, of course, not without merit. And a just and good society ought to do all it can to increase job opportunities in low--income communities. But an emphasis on child support ignores the many noneconomic contributions that fathers make to the well--being of their children. Indeed, emphasizing fatherhood in largely economic terms has helped to contribute to its demise. After all, if a father is little more than a paycheck to his children, he can easily be replaced by a welfare payment.
If we want fathers to be more than just money machines, we will need a culture that supports their work as nurturers, disciplinarians, mentors, moral instructors, and skill coaches, and not just as economic providers. To do otherwise is to effectively downgrade fathers to, in the words of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "paper dads."
Others suggest cohabitation as the solution to fatherlessness. In part driven by the younger generation's simultaneous desire for intimacy and fear of divorce, cohabitation as a form of "trial marriage" is one of the fastest--growing family forms. Among 25-- to 34--year--olds, the percentage of cohabiting couples in which children are present increased from 34 percent in 1980 to 47 percent in 1993. Overall, 2.2 million children (roughly one in seven) currently reside in cohabiting families.
children until after they have established a committed
and enduring marriage.
Cohabitation is also unlikely to produce lifetime dads for children. Although a quarter of nonmarital births occur to cohabiting couples, six out of 10 cohabiting couples never go on to marry, and those who do are more likely to get divorced than those couples who bear children within marriage. For many children of cohabiting couples, dads are likely to become--at best--only occasional visitors.
Although it is becoming increasingly popular to speak of the importance of fathers to the well--being of children, it is still out of fashion to speak of the importance of marriage to the well--being of fatherhood. Yet research has consistently found that unmarried fathers, whether through divorce or out--of--wedlock fathering, tend over time to become disconnected, both financially and psychologically, from their children. About 40 percent of children in father--absent homes have not seen their father in at least a year. Of the remaining 60 percent, only one in five sleeps even one night per month in the father's home. Overall, only one in six sees their father an average of once or more per week. More than half of all children who don't live with their fathers have never even been in their father's home.
Consequently, there is a growing chorus of voices within the fatherhood movement singing the praises of marriage as the solution to the fatherhood problem. The National Fatherhood Initiative in particular advocates the promotion of marriage as a means of promoting fatherhood. For example, together with the Hudson Institute we recently published a report on fathers and welfare reform, which argued that low--income men are unlikely to be responsible fathers unless state policies make low--income men more attractive marital partners. States can do this by admitting them to job--placement programs and granting preference to married couples in the distribution of certain welfare benefits in limited supply, such as slots in public housing and Head Start. The National Fatherhood Initiative will soon implement a national monitoring project to find out what states and local communities are doing to promote marriage and fatherhood within the context of welfare reform.
This does not mean that all marriages are made in heaven; it does not even mean that nonresident fathers cannot be good dads. But based on the evidence, the inescapable conclusion is this: If we want to increase the number of children growing up with involved and committed fathers, we will have to convince men to delay fathering children until after they have established a committed and enduring marriage.
The good news is our culture is re--awakening to the idea that fathers are important to the well--being of their children. Men are increasingly likely to aspire to be loving, committed, and responsible fathers. And there does seem to be a fatherhood movement emerging in America. But, at the same time, millions of children still live without their fathers or with dads who are all but absent. And too many men persist in believing that marriage and involved fatherhood have little to do with each other.
The battle for fatherhood, therefore, while encouraging, is far from over. In 1942, after the allies had won the battle for North Africa, Winston Churchill cautioned his countrymen, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." So it may be with fatherhood in America.
Wade F. Horn is the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, based in Gaithersburg, Maryland.