Father’s Day tends to get treated as just another “Hallmark Holiday.” And we have so many: Grandparents Day, Secretary’s (now the more politically correct “Administrative Professional’s”) Day, National Teacher’s Day, Take Your Daughter to Work Day– the list goes on. Yet if ever there was a need for a Hallmark Holiday, Father’s Day is it.
The last few decades have been rough for fathers. If dads once were idealized in popular culture as all-knowing patriarchs, today they’re usually the butt of the joke. The Simpsons, comedy classic though it is, probably is the best known example. Marge is a relatively positive role model; a caring, generally sensible figure (in spite of the hair). Homer is stupid, childish, undisciplined, and completely incompetent. From Malcolm in the Middle to The Family Guy, the modern TV dad is more idiot than ideal. Just as any fictional battle-of-the-sexes today is invariably won by women, positive images of dads in entertainment are rare.
Our media culture’s disrespect for dads certainly stems from the sad reality that men increasingly are absent from their children’s lives. In this sense, television is relatively kind to fathers: They may be clownish, but at least they’re there– a dream for a growing portion of American children. Today, one in three children lives without his father. According to the National Fatherhood Institute, roughly one in ten children won’t see his father at all this year, and two in ten have never been to dad’s home.
Two trends have contributed to this burgeoning crisis of fatherhood: the divorce rate and out of wedlock births. Divorces grew precipitously during the late 1960s and early 1970s– from 27 per hundred marriages in 1965 to 50 per hundred marriages in 1980, where the number remains today. As recently as 1970, just one in ten babies born in the United States was born outside of wedlock. Today, more than one out of every three is born to a single mother.
Government predictably has made the problem worse, addressing the problem of absent fathers primarily through welfare for single moms. Programs have been put in place to help single parents afford daycare, housing, and healthcare. The state has stepped up enforcement against deadbeat dads, compelling them to honor at least their financial obligations to their children– although often this means merely reimbursing the government for services rendered.
The impulse behind these policies is understandable: Fatherless children need proper care and ought not suffer for their parents’ follies. Yet the unintended consequences have been staggering. Government has made it easier for women to have babies without husbands and has essentially told fathers that their only responsibility is to be an ATM.
Clearly, a father has a moral obligation to provide for his children financially, and the mass failure on this front has had devastating social consequences. A child raised by a never-married mother can expect to spend more than half of her childhood living in poverty– seven times longer than a child raised in an intact family. A never-married single parent’s income on average is less than 40 percent of the income of married parents.
But fathers provide more than just a paycheck.
Dads parent differently than moms. In Taking Sex Difference Seriously, Steven Rhoads highlights how fathers help children, boys in particular, learn to channel and control their natural aggression. While women may complain that fathers whip an already rambunctious son into a frenzy, so-called “rough-and-tumble play” serves an important purpose in teaching when aggression is appropriate. Children learn how to calm down and how to judge when a game becomes too rough or upsetting.
Fathers also specialize in teaching children certain skills. They are more likely to teach children how to play sports and how to build and repair things. Dads tend to encourage children to work through problems to find a practical solution and to tackle tasks on their own.
Put simply, children need their fathers. Anyone familiar with social policy today knows the litany of ills caused by their absence: Children raised outside of marriage are more likely to drink to excess, smoke, use drugs, drop out of school, be victims of abuse, have mental problems, and commit crimes. Reformers of the Left and Right increasingly agree that reducing the number of children growing up outside of marriage is an important goal. So a national debate will continue to rage about how government can bring back fathers, either by scrapping programs that subsidize single parenthood or by encouraging marriage.
The hard truth is that no program or policy will fix America’s broken homes until society gets back to valuing dads as indispensable role models. Father’s Day is a good time to start.