Rarely has the nation's debate shifted with such breathtaking speed. Polls continue to show a significant shift in concern from fiscal to social deficits. In spite of its economic greatness, America is increasingly embarrassed in the eyes of the world for its social conditions. It is humbling for the world's richest industrial nation to have a poverty rate twice that of any other industrial nation and to be singled out by international agencies as a world leader in child poverty and youth homicides.
At the risk of oversimplifying complex social problems, evidence continues to mount that father absence is the chief cause of most of our costly social maladies: poverty, educational failure, teen suicide, drug abuse, illegitimacy and violence. While growing numbers now agree that fatherhood has been devalued and are prepared to accept that it has some social utility, few are clear on the actual scale of father absence, why fatherhood really matters, or why its restoration is so central to American progress.
To appreciate the scope of father absence, consider that 40%–nearly four of every ten–now goes to bed in a household where the biological father is absent, and that one in every two children will spend at least some time before the age of 18 with one parent. Father-absence is already competing with father presence for the norm, and the trend is expected to worsen by the turn of the century. If out-of-wedlock births is a harbinger of the future, a visit to almost any maternity ward in America, urban or rural, presents a portrait of a fatherless and Dickensonian America in the year 2010.
Free societies can endure a lot of challenges–dramatic economic dislocation and a decline in educational achievement, public health and competitiveness. With the right mix of sound policy and collective resolve, many of these problems can at least be ameliorated. What free societies cannot survive is widespread crime and disorder, and the fear that violence generates.
Who is it that is responsible for the mayhem, and who is it that we fear precisely? It is males, and predominantly fatherless males who have not been properly socialized. Sixty percent of America's rapists, 72% of adolescent murderers, and 70% of long term prison inmates grew up without fathers.
James Q. Wilson reminds us that human progress depends upon the socialization of males, a simple fact that was recognized throughout all recorded human history and only forgotten recently.
Neither child well-being, nor societal well-being is likely to be significantly improved until fathers are recognized as unique and irreplaceable. Reconnecting them to children would do more to restore a happy and healthy childhood to every child, and dramatically reduce our nation's most costly problems, than all of the pending legislation in America combined
So What Do We Do?
For starters, recognize the danger of putting too much stock in national policy agendas. While policy changes are welcome, their effects are ultimately marginal. If greater prosperity and broader income distribution were the sole answer to America's social problems, America would be on the verge of a renaissance.
The chief ingredients in America's social regression involve factors that are less susceptible to fiscal and programmatic adjustments. America's new frontiers lie in the realm of social change. A good many social problems are explained predominantly by a shift in social norms, norms which can change again. We have seen profound changes in recent decades in social attitudes on gender, race, physical fitness, smoking and our treatment of the environment.
Americans are more prone than ever to sanction behaviors that are protective of the natural ecology. By contrast, in the realm of social ecology, our language turns to personal choice and expressive individualism. When it comes to human conduct that is most injurious to child well-being, America practices an unfettered Laisse Faire.
Fatherhood is predominantly a cultural, not biological, institution, which means its functioning requires social support; its dysfunction only needs social opprobrium. To suggest, as we have, that it's all negotiable, will only ensure its demise.
Fathers must be reconnected to their children by rediscovering historically masculine traits of strong male nurturance. As author Richard Louv has said, "Men will not move back into the family until our culture reconnects masculinity and fatherhood, until young men come to see fatherhood, not just paternity, as the fullest expression of manhood."
Restoring fatherhood and reversing the decline in child well-being will require social change, promoted predominantly through the value-shaping institutions in the civic sector: churches, charities, and civic organizations.
A new social movement must be launched to strengthen parenting, particularly to restore the necessary social norms of responsible fatherhood. Without moral overkill, without vilifying good single mothers or decent men who have been less than perfect fathers, a new ideal for fatherhood must be resewn into the social fabric.
American's public and private institutions should be called upon to reinforce a simple and consistent message that is heard by all, beginning at an early age: becoming a parent is important business and it requires responsibility, respect and readiness for the care of children. It is the well-being of children, after all, that must again be our highest priority.
Adapted from Author, “Restoring Fatherhood: The Key to Social Renewal“ Modern Reformation, March/April 1995. Used by permission.