“…I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence—both in my life and in the lives of others. I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill.”
—President Obama, Fathers’ Day, 2009
In Dreams from My Father, President Obama recounts many of the positive stories his mom shared about his dad’s dreams and behaviors. When a child cannot be with his or her dad, the images the mom paints of the dad are particularly important.
Item. 1 out of every 3 children in America (over 24 million children) live in father-absent homes. Among African- American children, nearly 2 in 3 (64%) live in father-absent homes.101
Item. Almost 40% of American children are now born out of wedlock102 —usually meaning little or no father involvement.
Single moms often carry an unfair burden—their best mothering is frequently exhausted by the stress of 16-hour-day juggling acts. The stress on single moms was documented by the largest study ever done comparing single moms with single dads. It found that single moms were more likely to feel overwhelmed and depressed combining working outside the home with child- raising, even though they are more likely to receive financial assistance.103 This implies that fathers are an underutilized resource for reducing stress on single moms.
We expect fathers—or the government-as-substitute father—to offer financial support, but no government program is creating incentives for what children without a dad’s involvement need most: a dad’s involvement. In a meta-analysis of 63 studies published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, children’s wellbeing was strongly correlated to how close they were to their non- resident father more than it was to his level of financial support.104
A White House Council on Boys and Men can help redefine the role of the Office of Child Support Enforcement to include ombudsmen who help keep fathers and mothers equally involved—thus redefining child support to include emotional support. It can suggest legal consequences for any denial of parenting time. It can explore ways to inspire dads to emotionally engage. How can the government “inspire”? One example: incorporating in public service campaigns inspirational messages like this “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beaty . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckuAsF05z5w
While the research below makes clear the many ways that children with significant father involvement benefit, what could be clearer is what is due to father involvement per se, and what is due to the correlates of father involvement, such as fully-involved dads being more likely to be older, have more income and be exceptionally motivated. And obviously, the research on the benefits of father involvement does not create a reason to involve a dad—or mom—who is prone toward child endangerment or abuse. A goal of the White House Council is to examine the research with the best answers, and suggest policies with not only the greatest benefit to our sons, but also to mothers and our daughters.105
Item. Kyle Pruett of Yale studied infants living with just their dads and found that in the areas of personal and social skills, they were two to six months ahead of schedule. 107
An Israeli study found that the more frequently a father visited the hospital of an infant who is prematurely born, the more rapidly the infant gained weight and the more quickly the infant was able to leave the hospital.108 More importantly, the more the father visited, the better was the infant’s social-personal development and its ability to adapt.109
In a study of black infants, the more interaction the boy had with the father, the higher his mental competence and psycho-motor functioning by the age of six months.110 By the age of three years, psycho-motor functioning is associated with the development of a higher I.Q.111
Dads tend to encourage children to solve problems on their own. A new longitudinal study of children from infancy to age three discovers that this approach increases children’s’ ability to focus, be attentive and achieve goals; it also helps with impulse control and memory, and enhances the child’s ability to respond effectively to new or ambiguous situations.112 Collectively, these are called “executive functions”—important not only to our sons, but also to our daughters.
What Our Dads Bring to Our Children’s Emotional Stability
Item. The amount of time a father spends with a child is one of the strongest predictors of empathy in adulthood.”113 Probably no quality is more important to social integration—in a marriage, in a neighborhood, in a society—than empathy for those who surround us.”114
Item. The more the father is involved, the more easily the child makes open, receptive, and trusting contact with new people in its life.115
Item. A June 2010 study of more than a million Swedish children aged 6 to 19 finds that both boys and girls were 54% more likely to be on ADHD medication if they were raised by a single parent. Fewer than half the cases could be explained by socioeconomic factors.116
Item. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that a child of unwed or divorced parents who lives only with her or his mother is 375% more likely to need professional treatment for emotional or behavioral problems.117 The child is also more likely to suffer from frequent headaches118 and/or bed-wetting,119 develop a stammer or speech defect,120suffer from anxiety or depression,121 and be diagnosed as hyperactive.122
Item. Elementary school children without fathers were likely to have greater anxiety and more nightmares. They were more likely to be dependent and inattentive.123
Item. When fathers are not involved, girls show signs of being hyperactive, headstrong, and anti-social. Both boys and girls showed signs of over-dependency on the mother.124
Item. Boys who live with their fathers after divorce tend to be warmer, have a higher degree of self-esteem, be more mature, and more independent than boys who do not.125
Item. The most important factor by far in preventing drug use is a close relationship with dad.126
Item. Living in homes without dads is more correlated with suicide among children and teenagers than any other factor—for both sexes.127
Item. Eighty percent of pre-school children admitted as psychiatric patients in two New Orleans hospitals came from homes without fathers.128 Similar percentages emerge among fatherless children in Canada,129 South Africa, and Finland, at ages from pre- school through teenage.130
A White House Council on Boys and Men can identify research that helps us understand whether the increase of problems such as ADHD are due in part to the decreased influence of fathers, or to other factors.
Emotional problems become academic problems.
What Our Dads Bring to Our Children’s Academic Achievement
Item. A U.S. Department of Education study finds that after controlling for parents’ resources, (home computers, etc.) “In two-parent families, fathers’ involvement…is associated with an increased likelihood that children in the 1st through 5th grades get mostly A’s.” A father’s impact remains significant through the 12th grade.131
Item. A study of boys from similar backgrounds revealed that by the third grade, the boys with fathers present scored higher on every achievement test and received higher grades.132
Item. Elementary school children living without their dads did worse on eight out of nine academic measures.133 Students coming from father-present families score higher in math and science even when they go to weaker schools.134
Item. The more years children spend with no or minimal father involvement, the fewer years of school they complete.135
What Our Dads Bring to Our Children’s Social Maturity
Item. Girls raised in father-absent homes tend to go to extremes in their relationships with males — being overly aggressive and flirtatious, or very withdrawn.136 Both extremes seem to come from a lack of comfort with men.
Item. Elementary school children without fathers were likely to be less popular with peers, and more hostile to adults.137
Item. Elementary school children living with their dads did better on 21 of 27 social competence measures in comparison to those living without dads.138 And, perhaps as a result, they also had more playmates.139
What Our Dads Bring to Our Children’s Safety
Item. A community’s prevalence of single-parent households is a better predictor of its rate of violent crime and burglary than its poverty level.140
Item. Children from single-parent homes have 220% of the risk of endangerment from some type of child abuse.141
Item. Children living with their fathers were much less likely to experience feeling like victims—such as a victim of a bully.142
Item. Most gang members come from homes without dads.143 When Perry Crouch, a gang intervention specialist in South-Central Los Angeles, was asked how many of the gang members he deals with are living with their dads, he replied, “About half of one percent.” 144
What Our Dads Bring to Our Children’s Children
Item. In a study of inner-city Baltimore women who were teenage mothers, one-third of their daughters also became teenage mothers. But not one daughter or son who had a good relationship with her or his biological father became a parent before the age of nineteen. 145
Item. Daughters who live with only their mothers are 92% more likely to divorce than daughters of two-parent families.”146
Why None of this Implies Men are Better Fathers than Women are Mothers
None of this implies that men are better as dads than women are as moms. Why? A man who successfully challenges the traditional male role has to be highly motivated; he is to the 21st Century what a female doctor or lawyer was to the mid-20th century. He is also more likely to be older, and have more income and education.147 But if it is precisely these dads who are succeeding with their children, we need to support and encourage them to do so, in addition to their traditional role as breadwinners.
The most recent research now makes clear, though, that children benefit most from living with dad a significant portion of the time—not just visiting the dad.148 No one knows exactly why children do so much better with significant father involvement. But we do know two possibilities:
Item. Recent research documents the harmful effects of parental conflict on children. 149 When children live with only their moms, the parents are nine times as likely to have conflict as when children live primarily with their dads.150
Item. Children living with their dads felt positively about moms; children living with moms were more likely to think negatively of dads.151
A White House Council for Boys and Men can explore programs such as Dads for Life152 or the Family Wellness Court in Santa Clara, California153 that have been proven to work effectively with divorced parents to reduce conflict.
MBA programs and military academies such as West Point attempt to discern what creates a good leader and then train them to be the best warrior they can be. A White House Council on Boys and Men can discern what traditional contributions of a mom and dad result in the best outcome for children, and then encourage parenting programs that help single parents learn from the best of the other gender’s contributions. Just as it takes the checks and balances of two parties to govern a nation, it takes the checks and balances of moms and dads to govern a family.
The Crime behind Crime
The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency reports that the more absent the father, the
higher the rates of violent crime.154
Were these associations with crime due to poverty? No. When the children in homes without fathers with more income were compared to the children in homes with fathers with less income, there was no difference in the rates of violent crime. This study is especially significant not only because it controlled for the poverty factor in this way, but because it analyzed data from 11,000 individuals in a variety of urban areas. 155
Perhaps the crime that scares us most is the one that targets our daughters: rape. Eighty percent of rapists who were evaluated as raping out of anger and rage came from father-absent homes. 156
From an economic perspective, we spend trillions of dollars each year on police to stop crimes, on detectives to investigate crimes, on lawyers to prosecute and defend criminals, and on prisons to house the allegedly guilty.
The solution is ensuring that fathers find their place in the home (whether they live there full- time or not)—not just as a wallet, but as a dad. Which is also the most cost-effective solution to crime.
The “Hole” About Which President Obama Speaks
What is the “hole” in the psyche of a boy without a dad? For a son who has never known his dad, male identity is mercurial. He feels rudderless. For a son of divorce or unwed parents who has been alienated from his dad, masculine identity is negative: breeding grounds for low self- esteem, shame and anger.
A son who is also shuttled from his mother-only home to his elementary school with female teachers and no positive male role models, may seek identity from a substitute dad: a cult leader, a military leader, or a gang leader. A boy without a father seeks a “Godfather.”
Adolescence’s sexual rejection magnifies his hurt and anger. He is tempted to disappear into a bottle, take comfort through the point of a needle, or feel some life in the adrenaline released via an X-sport. Whether via suicide, violence, war, or an accident, he forfeits his life, mutilates his body, drains his soul, disappoints his family, and taxes his nation.
Item. 85% of fathers in Sweden take paternity leave.157
Paternity leave in Sweden began in 1995 with one month of parent leave reserved for fathers (at 80% of pay). If the dad doesn’t take the leave, it is lost. Since then, divorce and separation rates have gone down; women’s pay and shared custody have gone up. Companies such as the cell phone giant Ericsson find, “graduates used to look for big paychecks. Now they want work- life balance.”158 Men’s happiness with their family contributes to their effectiveness at work.
If, to paraphrase President Obama, no government can fill the hole in the psyche of a boy who is without a fully involved dad, then the best a government can do is to provide incentives for a fully-involved dad.
Item. A review of the most comprehensive and controlled recent studies reports that if children cannot live with both parents together, a minimum of one-third time for each parent is necessary, and that “additional benefits continue to accrue up to and including equal (50-50) time.” 159
Item. A meta-analysis of recent studies concludes “children in joint custody were significantly better off than those in sole custody.”160 More important, the same meta- analysis finds children in joint custody are “about as well off as those in which the parents remained married.”161
We now have the research to know that if children grow up in non-intact families, that parenting plans for fit parents need to include both parents having “bedtime and waking rituals, transitions to and from school, extracurricular and recreational activities.”162
In addition to exploring the impact of dozens of countries’ paternity leave laws (from Canada and Germany to Portugal and Iceland), some changes a White House Council on Boys and Men can pioneer might start with the fundamentals…
A male birth control pill. From our daughters’ perspective, a male birth control pill relieves women from being the only sex to have their hormones tampered with—it allows our sons to share the responsibility. From our sons’ perspective, if our son is with a woman who wishes to get married, says she is on birth control but is not, she can abort, or sue for support; our son can agree, or go to prison. A men’s birth control pill gives our sons more equivalent options to our daughters. Since the pill is technologically viable, a Council can support its availability so both sexes may share responsibility for birth control.163
Paternal Assurance. A boy who learns at some point in life that the dad he thought was his is, in reality, not his, may feel he knows neither who he is nor what his medical background is; he may become fearful of women, marriage and parenting. When a dad discovers he is raising a child that is not his, it puts that child at the risk of being abandoned. With 40% of American children now born to unmarried parents, the Council on Boys and Men must offer the best options to a ubiquitous problem.
Identify the best programs for single dads and at-home dads, and suggest incentives for their integration into high school and community college curriculums.
Just as diversity programs educate employees how to make the workplace a woman-friendly environment, a White House Council on Boys and Men might explore integrating father- involvement programs into high school curricula to educate our sons and daughters how to make the family a father-friendly environment. Or work with the PTA and schools to encourage dads to volunteer in the classroom; be more involved with their children at home; know the value of their contribution to parenting.
Propose legislation that gives incentives for all children to have as close-to-equal participation of both biological parents as possible, and that makes it illegal for either parent to purposely minimize the involvement of a fit parent.
Finance research to determine the most-effective incentives for parenting training and couples’ communication training, and study the most-effective programs.164
Prepare boys for the transition from military life to family life: how to retain the military- enhanced skills of discipline and boundary enforcement, while replacing the skills of objectifying in preparation to kill with the skills of loving and listening in preparation for parenting and partnering.
Nothing trumps children having both parents.165 When parents are unwed, nothing trumps the children having about equal time with their mom and dad. Whether it is because children benefit from the checks and balances of both parents’ different styles; or because children are the genes of both parents, (and knowing both parents means knowing themselves), is not certain.
What is certain is that in the last half century the U.S. has done a better job of integrating women into the work place than in integrating men into the family—especially into the lives of children in the non-intact family. We have valued men as wallets more than as dads.
And what is certain is that our current single-parenting environment leads to moms feeling deprived of resources, dads feeling deprived of purpose, and children feeling deprived of the full range of parenting input.
The Council can encourage federal agencies to examine how their budgets and programs can be used to support fatherhood strengthening efforts in the nonprofit and government sectors. The Council can also encourage private philanthropy, such as foundations, to invest in fatherhood work so that fathers can receive the training they need to be better dads.
A White House Council on Boys and Men can explore how to best give the resource of dad to children and moms, a sense of purpose to dads, and save the nation trillions of dollars that are the cost of not recruiting fathers to reduce poverty and crime. It can draw up a blueprint to help our sons contribute to their families the way our daughters are contributing to the workplace.