Life Without a Father
By David Popenoe
Reader’s Digest (Canada) November 1997, page 117
What a man contributes to child rearing may surprise you
THE DECLINE of fatherhood is one of the most unexpected and extraordinary social trends of our time. In just three decades — 1960 to 1990 — the number of children living apart from their biological fathers [that is: natural fathers] nearly doubled. By the turn of the century almost 50 percent of North American children may be going to sleep each evening without being able to say good night to their dads.
There was a time in the past when fatherlessness was far more common than it is today, but death was to blame — not divorce, desertion or out-of-wedlock births. Most of today’s fatherless children have fathers who are perfectly capable of shouldering the responsibilities of fatherhood. Who would ever have thought that so many of them would choose to relinquish those responsibilities?
A surprising suggestion emerging from recent social-science research is that it is decidedly worse to a child to lose a father in the modern, voluntary way than through death. The children of divorced and never-married mothers are less successful by almost every measure than the children of widowed mothers.
Out-of-wedlock births may surpass divorce as a cause of fatherlessness later in the 1990s. They accounted for 32 percent of all U.S. births in 1995; by the year 2000 they may account for 40 percent of the total. And there is reason to believe that having an unmarried father is even worse for a child than having a divorced father.
MEN ARE not biologically attuned to being committed fathers. Left culturally unregulated, men’s sexual behaviour can be promiscuous, their paternity casual, their commitment to families weak. In recognition of this, cultures have used sanctions to bind men to their children, and of course the institution of marriage has been culture’s chief vehicle.
Our experience in late-20th-century society shows what happens when such a sanction breaks down. The decline of fatherhood is a major force behind many of the most disturbing problems that plague us.
In the mid-1950s, only 27 percent of American girls had sexual intercourse by age 18; in 1988, 56 percent of such girls-including a tenth of 15-year-olds-had become sexually active. Fatherlessness is a contributing factor.
Teen suicide has nearly tripled in the United States. Alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers continues at a very high rate. Scholastic Assessment Test scores declined 75 points between 1960 and l990. The absence of fathers seems to be one of the most important causes of these trends.
Few people doubt the fundamental importance of mothers, but what do fathers do? Much of what they contribute is simply the result of being a second adult in the home. Bringing up children is demanding, stressful and exhausting. Two adults can support and spell each other. They can offset each other’s deficiencies and build on each other’s strengths.
Fathers also bring an array of unique qualities. Some are familiar: the father as protector, for example, and role model. Teenage boys without fathers are notoriously prone to trouble. The pathway to adulthood for daughters is somewhat easier, but they still must learn from their fathers, in ways they cannot from their mothers, how to relate to men. They learn from their fathers about heterosexual trust, intimacy and difference. They learn to appreciate their own femininity from the one male who is most special in their lives. Most important, through loving and being loved by their fathers, they learn that they are love-worthy.
Current research gives much deeper — and more surprising — insights into the father’s role in child rearing. One significant overlooked dimension of fathering is play. From their children’s birth through adolescence, fathers tend to emphasize play more than caretaking. The father’s style of play is likely to be both physically stimulating and exciting. With older children it involves more team work, requiring competitive testing of physical and mental skills. It frequently resembles a teaching relationship: Come on, let me show you how.
Mothers play more at the child’s level. They seem willing to let the child direct play.
Kids, at least in the early years, seem to prefer to play with daddy. In one study of 2 ½-year-olds who were given a choice, more than two thirds chose to play with their father.
The way fathers play has effects on everything from the management of emotions to intelligence and academic achievement. It is particularly important in promoting self-control. According to one expert, “children who roughhouse with their fathers quickly learn that biting, kicking and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable.” They learn when to “shut it down.” At play and in other realms, fathers tend to stress competition, challenge, initiative, risk taking and independence. Mothers, as caretakers, stress emotional security and personal safety. On the playground fathers often try to get the child to swing ever higher, while mothers are cautious, worrying about an accident.
We know, too, that fathers’ involvement seems to be linked to improved verbal and problem-solving skills and higher academic achievement. Several studies found that the presence of the father is one of the determinants of girls’ proficiency in mathematics. And one pioneering study showed that along with paternal strictness, the amount of time fathers spent reading with them was a strong predictor of their daughters’ verbal ability.
For sons, the results have been equally striking. Studies uncovered a strong relationship between fathers’ involvement and the mathematical abilities of their sons. Other studies found a relationship between paternal nurturing and boys’ verbal intelligence.
We don’t often think of fathers in connection with the teaching of empathy, a character trait essential to an ordered society of law-abiding, co-operative and compassionate adults. But at the end of a 26-year study, a trio of re-
[A graph was inserted here in the original article. The graph, called
CANADIAN CHILDREN LIVING
APART FROM THEIR FATHERS,
shows the following data
Source: Statistics Canada, 93 312; and Census of Canada]
searchers at Harvard University reached a “quite astonishing” conclusion: Of those they examined, the most important childhood factor in developing empathy was paternal involvement in child care.
It is not clear why fathers are so important in instilling this quality. Perhaps merely by being with their children they provide a model for compassion. Perhaps it has to do with their style of play or mode of reasoning. Whatever the cause, it is hard to think of a more important contribution that fathers can make to their children.
The benefits of active fatherhood do not all flow to the child. Child rearing encourages men to develop those habits of character — including prudence, cooperativeness, honesty, trust and self-sacrifice — that can lead to achievement as an economic provider. Having children typically impresses on men the importance of setting a good example. Who has not heard at least one man say that he gave up an irresponsible way of life when he married and had children?
On the face of it, there would seem to be at least one potentially positive side to fatherlessness: Without a man around the house, the incidence of child abuse might be expected to drop. Unfortunately, reports of child neglect and abuse have skyrocketed since the mid ’70s. One of the greatest risk factors in child abuse, investigations found, is family disruption, especially living in a female-headed, single-parent household.
Why does living in a fatherless household pose such hazards for children? Explanations include poverty and the fact that children receive less supervision and protection from men their mothers bring home. Children are also more emotionally deprived, which leaves them “vulnerable to sexual abusers, who commonly entrap them by offering affection, attention and friendship,” wrote David Finkelhor, an expert on child abuse.
Another group that has suffered in the new age of fatherlessness is, of course, women. In this new era the oft-quoted quip that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle no longer seems quite so funny. There is no doubt that many women get along very well without men in their lives, and that having the wrong men in their lives can be disastrous. But just as it seems to play a role in assaults on children, fatherlessness appears to be a factor in generating more violence against women.
Partly this is a matter of arithmetic. As the number of unattached males in the population goes up, so does the incidence of violence towards women.
IN ORDER to reinstate fathers in the lives of their children, we must undo the cultural shift of the last few decades towards radical individualism. Marriage must be re-established as a strong social institution.
Many practical steps can be taken. Employers, for example, can provide generous parental leave and experiment with more flexible work hours. Religious leaders can reclaim moral ground from the culture of divorce and non-marriage by resisting the temptation to equate “committed relationships” with marriage. Marriage counsellors can begin with a bias in favour of marriage, stressing the needs of the family at least as much as the needs of the client. As for the entertainment industry, pressure already is being brought to curtail the glamorization of unwed motherhood, marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity.
We should consider a two-tier system of divorce law: Marriages without minor children would be relatively easy to dissolve, but marriages with children would be subject to stricter guidelines. Longer waiting periods for divorcing couples with children might be called for, combined with mandatory marriage counselling.
If we are to progress towards a more just and humane society, we must reverse the tide that is pulling fathers apart from their families. Nothing is more important for our children or for our future as a society.
How important do you think fathers are to family life? We welcome your views. Write to Readers Reply at the address on page 8 or post your comments on our web site at http://www.readersdigest.ca. Your views may be included in a future issue.
215, Redfern Ave.
Note: I checked their website but could not find a specific e-mail address that seemed appropriate. I suppose that some of the ones shown will do, if the recipient will forward the message to the appropriate party. –WHS]
FROM LIFE WITHOUT FATHER. COPYRIGHT © 1996 BY DAVID POPENOE PUBLISHED BY THE FREE PRESS A DIVISION OF SIMON & SCHUSTER, INC., NEW YORK, N.Y., AND DlSTRIBUTED IN CANADA AT $34 BY DISTICAN INC, 35 FULTON WAY, RlCHMOND HILL, ONT. L4B 2N4 PHOTO: [not shown] © RICHARD LEE
DAVID POPENOE is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
===<end of article>===
In response to the article, I sent the following message to Reader’s Digest:
Dear Reader’s Digest,
Re: Life Without Father, November 1997
Thank you for publishing the outstanding article by David Popenoe. It is too bad that the article contained two paragraphs that didn’t ring quite true in the context, although they are in line with the “politically correct” view that men are to be blamed for everything bad that has befallen us over the last thirty year and before that.
In his second paragraph David Popenoe stated:
“There was a time in the past when fatherlessness was far more common than it is today, but death was to blame — not divorce, desertion or out-of-wedlock births. Most of today’s fatherless children have fathers who are perfectly capable of shouldering the responsibilities of fatherhood. Who would ever have thought that so many of them would choose to relinquish those responsibilities?”
A number of things are not right with that.
Never in modern history has fatherlessness been more common than it is now, not even as a result of the massive numbers of casualties during the First World War, and never before in the history of mankind was fatherlessness pandemic at anything approaching today’s rates in the whole world, especially not in all of western civilization.
One statistic might serve to provide some clarification in that regard. In my home-town (Duesseldorf, Germany, pop 540,000 before W.W.II and 350,000 at end of W.W.II) immediately after the end of W.W.II, “Almost 10% of the children had lost their fathers, the fathers of 4.5% of the children were missing in action and of 7.8% in prison of war camps;” [Source: In Schutt und Asche, page 100 (Volker Zimmermann, Grupello Verlag, ISBN 3-928234-28-5, (my translation) –WHS]. I’m certain that other people will be able to provide far more comprehensive statistics pertaining to historical levels of fatherlessness.
There is nothing wrong with the statement contained in the second sentence in the paragraph. It clearly illustrates the insanity of today’s society in substituting fathers with government care, by pushing fathers out of their children’s life. I’m glad that Prof. Popenoe makes an excellent case for the wrongfulness of that policy in the rest of his article. However, the last sentence in the paragraph is an outrageous insult to all fathers who are fighting a hopeless battle for the right of their children to have a father in their lives. Those fathers are being emotionally and financially devastated by our bureaucracies in the process of that battle. After all, it is not mostly fathers who walk out of their children’s lives that causes our epidemic of fatherlessness. In three out of four cases it is the mother who pushes the father out of the children’s lives and files for divorce — most often in the mistaken belief that a life without a provider and protector in the family will provide greater freedom and more income.
What Prof. Popenoe should have clarified instead in that paragraph is that never in the history of mankind have men been vilified to the extent that they are being vilified today, and that as a result of that vilification a constant stream of anti-father and anti-family legislation is being produced that increasingly makes it impossible for far too many fathers to play an active role in their children’s lives.
Let’s hope that Prof. Popenoe will also write an article on single motherhood and the problems faced by children who grow up in the care of single mothers together with their half-siblings who are often the children of two or more different men. That might compensate for the impact that his fourth paragraph has on his readers. He stated there:
“MEN ARE not biologically attuned to being committed fathers. Left culturally unregulated, men’s sexual behaviour can be promiscuous, their paternity casual, their commitment to families weak. In recognition of this, cultures have used sanctions to bind men to their children, and of course the institution of marriage has been culture’s chief vehicle.”
Why did Prof. Popenoe find it necessary to single out men for their tendency to be promiscuous? Is it not true that the need for “sanctions to bind men to their children” within the institution of marriage applies just the same to women? Else, why is it that women have children out of wedlock and by men not part of their marriage, or have children by many different men? Promiscuity it not an exclusive male domain. The effect of promiscuity on children is just as devastating if the mother is promiscuous without having her sexuality regulated by marriage. Men and women are as equally likely to be promiscuous as they are equally likely to be violent. Both men and women are members of the same species. It took the institution of marriage to bring about the civilizing of the human race. That brought order into chaos. Will the reverse not happen if our families are being destroyed? It seems to me that Prof. Popenoe made a very good case for the family. Let’s hope that we will hear more of his views, but, let’s hope also that he’ll hold back a bit on the male-bashing.
Walter H. Schneider
P.O. Box 62
Bruderheim, Alberta, Canada
Tel: (780) 796-2306