April 24th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Islamic militants threaten to derail Iraq hand-over

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Defence reserves crisis looms

FAMILY: AFA report shoots hole in lower fertility theory

National superannuation (letter)

Whither farming? (letter)

True samurais (letter)

UNITED NATIONS: Kofi Annan and the Rwanda genocide

FAMILY: The solution to today's fatherhood crisis

FEEDING TUBES: Pope condemns 'euthanasia by omission'

BOOKS: The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A.J. Conyers

COVER STORY: Federal inquiry puts brakes on river flow plans

COVER STORY 2: Report vindicates farmers over Murray-Darling Basin

EDITORIAL: Family Congress confronts new challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Budget - next test for Federal Government

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Pumpernickel politics / Latham's folly / George Carey

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The solution to today's fatherhood crisis

by Dr Wade Horn

News Weekly, April 24, 2004
Dr Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the US Department of Health and Human Services, gave an outstanding presentation to the Australian Family Association at the Thomas More Centre in Melbourne on the vital, but neglected, role of fathers in families. This is an edited version of his talk.

I must confess that the introduction may have exaggerated my importance just a bit. You see in Washington there's this rule - perhaps you have a similar rule here in Australia - that your influence is inversely related to the length of your title.

That's why we call the President, "The President." He's got a short title, but a big job. That's why we call the Secretary, "The Secretary." Short title, big job. And my title is "Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, Administration for Children and Families, at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

But there is one title that I do have that is short and that carries a lot of weight. And that title is "Dad." I will argue that there is no more consequential social trend in America, and in the world, than children who grow up without their fathers.

Absent fathers

In 1960, the total number of children living in father-absent families in the U.S. was less than 10 million. Today, that number stands at nearly 24 million.

This means that nearly four out of every 10 children in America will, this very night, go to bed in a home absent of their father.

And things are getting worse, not better. By some estimates, the number of children who will live a significant portion of their childhoods in father-absent homes will increase to 60 per cent of children born in the 1990s.

For the first time in America's history, the average child can expect to live some significant portion of their lives in a home without a father present.

Unfortunately, fatherlessness is not just an American problem. Increasingly, fatherlessness is becoming an international problem as well.

For example, half of all children born in Sweden today are fathered by men out of wedlock, as are almost half of Danish children and more than a third of Canadian children.

In addition, 42 per cent of recent marriages in Switzerland and 75 per cent of marriages in Cuba are now expected to end in divorce. Roughly 20 per cent of all families with children in Britain, Canada, Australia, and Norway are growing up in father-absent homes.

The increase in the number of father-absent households is not restricted to industrialised nations. Similar trends can be seen in developing nations as well.

Single-parent households account for nearly one-third of households in Trinidad and Tobago and almost one-fifth in Cameroon, in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to the physical absence of fathers from the home, it is also apparent that many physically present fathers are nonetheless psychologically absent from the lives of their children. Overall, American parents today spend roughly 40 per cent less time with their children than did parents a generation ago.

One study found that almost 20 per cent of 6th- through 12th graders had not had a good conversation lasting for at least 10 minutes with at least one of their parents in more than a month.

Social consequences of father absence

What are the consequences of this increased amount of father absence?

Almost 75 per cent of American children living in single-parent families will experience poverty before they turn 11-years-old, compared to only 20 per cent of children in two-parent families;

Violent criminals in the U.S. are overwhelmingly males who grew up without fathers, including up to 60 per cent of rapists, 75 per cent of adolescents charged with murderers, and 70 per cent of long-term prison inmates.

Children living in a father-absent home are also more likely to:

  • be suspended or expelled from school, or to drop out;
  • have been treated for an emotional or behavioural problem;
  • commit suicide as adolescents; and
  • be victims of child abuse or neglect.

Studies show that the consequences of fatherlessness encountered in the United States are the same as those encountered in other countries.

A study of Dutch adolescents found that children growing up in single-parent households had higher levels of psychological problems, including suicide, than those who grew up with both a mum and a dad.

A Swedish study found that children who did not live with their married mother and father did poorer academically.

A study in Finland found that children fathered out of wedlock are more than twice as likely to engage in criminal conduct compared to those born into a married family, even after taking into account social and economic factors.

In Canada, researchers found a connection between suicidal thoughts and living without a biological father. And here in Australia, a study found that 64 per cent of father-absent families live in poverty.

Why does father absence cause such difficulty for children? Put another way, why are fathers important?

There appear to be several reasons. First, mothers and fathers tend to parent differently - and these differences are found not only in the U.S. and Western nations, but across cultures and throughout the historical record - almost as if such differences are part of an innate script, written in human nature.

Beginning at the birth of a child, for example, mothers tend to be more verbal with their children, whereas fathers are more physical. The play of fathers also tends to be more unpredictable and surprising, whereas mothers tend to stick with calm, familiar routines.

Babies notice the difference: when two-month-old babies see their dad approaching, they tend to scrunch up their shoulders, open their eyes wide, and breathe more quickly, anticipating excitement. When they seen their mum approach, they tend to relax their shoulders and lower their eyelids.

But play is not the only area where moms and dads differ.

Mothers also tend to encourage caution, whereas fathers are more challenging of achievement and independence.

But gender differences in parental behavior do not need to be minimised for parents to raise well-adjusted and well-socialised children.

Indeed, in many, if not most, cultures, mothers and fathers seem to form a natural complementarity to each other, with each making unique contributions to their children's development.

Second, children - and boys in particular - learn to keep their aggressive impulses in check through interaction with and observation of a male figure in the home who consistently and regularly controls himself.

Daughters also benefit from their physical interaction with their fathers. Research shows that daughters whose fathers engaged them in the same type of "rough and tumble play" have higher self-esteem, do better in school, and are more self-confident, because their dads treated them as fully capable human beings, not as breakable porcelain dolls.

Third, fathers help to teach their children how men and women should treat each other.

If the father treats the mother with respect and dignity, than it is likely that his son will grow up to treat women with dignity and respect. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If the father treats the mother with disdain and cruelty, then his son is likely to grow up to do the same.

Daughters also learn what to expect from men from their fathers. If her father loves her, a daughter will grow up feeling worthy of love, and seek out boyfriends and a husband who will love, support and encourage her like her father did.

In contrast, when a daughter grows up without a father, she is more likely to be unsure as to what to expect from men. That's one reason why girls who grow up without a father are more likely to engage in sexual activity, and become pregnant outside marriage.

Finally, fathers are important in helping children learn about the world outside the family.

Once their babies are old enough, for example, dads like to carry their infants facing outward. Later, dads tend to emphasise the importance of learning life's "hard lessons," believing those lessons will help their children be successful once they leave the family - moms tend to focus on smoothing their child's feelings.

Dads are especially critical for boys whose transition from boyhood to manhood requires that they be affirmed as "man enough".

This role has historically been provided by their father and/or social rituals (often organised and run by the community of fathers).

If not, boys will search for affirmation that they are "man enough" through the accumulation of sexual conquests, wealth, or power.

Given that children do best when they grow up with the love and devotion of both a mother and a father, what can be done to increase the number of children growing up with both a mom and a dad?

The solution

First, we need to send a more compelling message to men as to the critical role they play in the lives of their children.

Though changing, fathers are still too often seen as "nice to have around" and as a source of economic support, but do not contribute much that is particularly unique or irreplaceable to the well-being of their children.

To help to counter this rather limited view of the importance of fathers, our culture must begin telling men the critical role they play - as nurturers, as disciplinarians, as teachers, and as role models - in the healthy development of their children.

Second, we need to encourage every important mediating structure of our society - churches, synagogues, schools, and civic organisations - to encourage, support and honor responsible and committed fatherhood by sponsoring outreach and skill building programs for fathers - and especially new fathers

Third, while promoting fatherhood, we can not forget the importance of supporting children who are growing up in father-absent households.

In order to meet the unique needs of these children, President Bush proposed $US450 million in new programs to provide mentors to children in need.

Finally, we need to talk more openly about the importance of marriage.

This is the much harder part. While men (and women) nearly universally expect that someday they will have children and get married, there is a decreasing belief that there needs to be an order to these two events.

But the evidence is clear that marriage is - on average - good for children, adults and communities. To summarise:

  • children are less at risk for a host of negative outcomes;
  • adults are happier, healthier and wealthier; and
  • communities are less violent.

How, then, do we promote marriage despite these challenges?

We need to be clear that what we are promoting are healthy marriages - marriages characterised by love, support for each other, and nurturing parenting.

Toward the end of the movie The Princess Bride, a character named Inigo Montoya confronts a six-fingered man who had killed his father some 20 years before. He has the six-fingered man at sword point, and says in words he has long rehearsed: "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

The six-fingered man begins to plead for mercy, and Inigo Montoya says: "Offer me money." The six-fingered man says: "Yes, yes money. I shall give you all that you want." Montoya says: "And power too. Promise me that." "All that I have and more," replies the six-fingered man.

"Offer me everything I ask for," says Montoya. "Anything ... anything you want I shall give to you," replies the six-fingered man. To which Inigo Montoya replies: "I want my father back."

Like Inigo Montoya, what our nation's children want is not money ... or power. What our children really want is for us to find a way to bring back their fathers.

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