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What can be done about absentee fathers?

Communities across the country are experiencing success with counseling for unwed fathers plus other mentoring initiatives.

The U.S. is the world leader in families without fathers. From 1960 to 1990, the number of children living only with their mother jumped from 5,100,000 to 15,600,000. Just 27% of American kids live with their biological mother and father.

Over the past 30 years, fathers have been disappearing from American families. Divorce dramatically has altered the roles of fathers for nearly half the youngsters in the nation. Further, the cost of making a living and maintaining a family has resulted in both parents working. Parents today spend 40% less time with their children than parents of the previous generation. Many of today's fathers have two or even three jobs. Others travel weekly, taking them away from their families.

We hear about deadbeat dads, absentee dads, teenage dads, abusive dads, alcoholic dads, and workaholic dads. So pervasive is the negative information about fathers that many people have come to doubt that we can---or even should--halt the trend toward fatherlessness. Nevertheless, for the sake of the children, we must try.

Perhaps the fastest growing subpopulation of absentee fathers is unmarried men. Each year in the U.S., more than 1,000,000 babies are born to unwed mothers. The statistics are grim for these children. They are more likely to live in poverty, get minimal medical care, and do poorly in school. There is an overwhelming chance that their male offspring will turn to drugs, gang activity, and crime. Their female children likely will become unwed mothers themselves, and the cycle continues.

The growing divorce rate magnifies the trend of fatherless families. About 40% of kids whose parents are divorced have not seen their father in at least a year. Ten years after divorce, more than two-thirds of those living with their mother haven't seen their father for a year.

Today's society holds a number of misconceptions that help sustain fatherlessness. One is that raising children is women's work. Americans share the myth that it is somehow not masculine to care for kids. Yet, a rapidly growing number of single fathers dispute this belief every day by working at their paid jobs and raising their offspring.

Another misconception is that girls do not need fathers. This is not true. Research shows that girls with active and hardworking dads are more ambitious, more successful in school, attend college more often, and are more likely to attain careers of their own. They are less dependent, more self-protective, and less likely to date or marry abusive men.

Many fathers hold the misconception that small children do not need their influence and that they can just step in when the kids are older. They believe that the things grown men have to offer require more attention, strength, or self-control than youngsters can sustain. However, if a man waits until his son or daughter is older, the child probably will resent Dad's lack of previous involvement, will have become overdependent on Mom, and will show little interest in Dad's favored activities, opinions, or suggestions.

A fourth misconception is that fathers can "make up" for being gone. Many absentee dads excuse themselves from everyday involvement in their offspring's lives by making scheduled appearances for so-called "quality time" experiences. Quality time is not just a photo opportunity at the zoo, though. It is doing homework, building school projects, or talking with a child who has had a hard day.

Many people, particularly single mothers, question the notion that youngsters suffer without an active father in the family. Mothers assume their love and guidance is enough. However, an avalanche of evidence from educators, law enforcement officials, mental health facilities, and teen pregnancy programs show the negative consequences of raising kids without fathers. The facts clearly demonstrate that children of disrupted families experience increased emotional, behavioral, and educational problems.

So powerful is the relationship between fatherlessness and juvenile crime that this factor alone is more predictive than poverty level, race, and education level. When fathers are absent from the home, adolescent and teenage boys are two to four times more likely to be arrested for juvenile offenses. Youngsters living in non-intact families are twice as likely to repeat a grade than those living with both parents, and their dropout rate is two times greater. Boys who got in trouble for violent misbehavior while at school were 11 times more likely to come from fatherless homes. Fatherless children have more difficulty forming and maintaining peer relationships than those from two-parent families. Kids involved with their fathers, on the other hand, have stronger self-esteem, are less susceptible to peer pressure, show greater skills and competence, and are more self-reliant.

Without fathers, most children lack the support, guidance, and discipline required to deal with life outside the family and, in many instances, within it. If the magnitude of the problems associated with fatherlessness is considered, it is clear that the absence of fathers in youngsters' lives is a devastating trend. Today's world is complex and challenging, and children need the balance of a mother and a father. Relationships between men and women seem more difficult to maintain. Nevertheless, kids still need two parents to protect and prepare them for life as adults.

Fathers' contributions

As a family psychologist, I have conducted countless parent training programs over the years and interviewed hundreds of active fathers. Based on what I have learned, I have come to believe strongly that a father's contributions are complementary to those of the mother and that they are different and irreplaceable. In my seminars, when participants are asked to give the contributions of fathers, they typically list the following:

Financial support. The most frequently cited contribution of fathers is financial support. Yet, many men point to their obligations associated with wage earning as the major obstacle preventing them from being more involved as fathers. Clearly, fathers must work for their families, but the need to work is not an excuse for being absent. A father's obligations go beyond financial support and hard work.

Caregiving. At its most fundamental level, caregiving means taking care of someone who is unable to care for himself or herself. Caregiving for children goes beyond changing diapers. It includes feeding, bathing, getting them to bed, teaching, and an endless list of tasks. It is important for a man to be involved in the caregiving process to anchor the father-child connection and to establish himself as an equal parent with his wife. Caregiving is an expression of a dad's commitment to his child.

Physical play. While caregiving is essential, the male's role as playmate emerges as the most powerful variable in anchoring the father-child relationship. All kids, from infants to elementary school-aged youngsters, prefer play with their fathers over doing so with their mothers. Compared to mothers, play with fathers is unpredictable, rough-and-tumble, and somewhat risky for children, but the benefits override the risks. Kids with secure attachments with their fathers come to see themselves as successful risk-takers and are better prepared to form trusting relationships with people outside the family.

Trust. A mother, through feeding and protecting a newborn, immediately forms powerful links of dependency and trust with her son or daughter. Fathers do not share this biological connection, yet they play a critical role in teaching that trusting relationships other than the mother-child relationship are valuable. The formation of a trusting relationship between father and child is the first crucial experience the youngster will have with a representative of the outside world.

Identity. Everyone agrees that mothers play a powerful role in the development of the child's personality. Until recently, the role of the father in formation of a child's identity has been underestimated greatly. Boys and girls need the influence of both parents in the formation of their identities. Dads who are uninvolved rob their offspring of the opportunity to share the diversity of both parents' perspectives, attitudes, values, opinions, and experiences.

Family traditions. Wise fathers have learned to use traditions as a way of staying connected with their kids. Traditions link us to our past, to the people we loved, and to experiences and memories. They provide a way for dads to overcome obstacles and maintain important linkages.

Security. Effective fathers establish clear limits for their offspring's behavior. Limits provide kids with a sense of security and caring, ensure self-respect, and teach respect for others. When a father sets and maintains reasonable limits, children feel secure within the family and behave themselves outside it.

Self-protection. Effective fathers play key roles in teaching their children to protect themselves, their money, possessions, and good name.

Humor. Amusing stories are more powerful teaching tools than lectures. Effective dads use their own failures or less-than-perfect past performances as tension breakers, allowing kids to be self-forgiving and less anxious. Lectures turn youngsters off, while humor pulls them in and reduces anxiety.

Courage. Effective males encourage their children to take calculated risks and test themselves. They allow their offspring to experience success and, on occasion, defeat. Learning to deal with life's adversities is essential. When fathers stand by the legitimacy of their obligation to help youngsters learn to persevere, they model courageous behavior for their kids. Courage means moving beyond comfort and helping children test themselves and persevere.

Independence. When youngsters have an active father, they are less dependent on the mother. It is important for fathers to schedule time alone with their sons and daughters when the mother is not around. When dads initiate these activities, kids typically get a lot more practice doing things for themselves. Effective fathers follow this rule: Don't do for children what they can do for themselves.

Self-confidence. To master new skills, kids have to be able to enter novel and difficult situations believing they can succeed. Self-confidence is learned. When fathers introduce their offspring to real-life experiences, they take on the role of teacher or coach. Effective fathers understand that support and approval do more to build self-confidence than so-called constructive criticism.

Patience. Children learn to persevere when dads are patient. A key factor in becoming more patient is linked to expectations. When fathers understand that youngsters are not perfect and that mistakes are to be expected, they are less likely to fall into the trap of impatience. As dads demonstrate more patience, their kids become better, faster learners.

Forgiveness allows people to let go of disappointment and anger. Forgiving fathers open the door for their children to learn self-forgiveness. That, in turn, lets kids acknowledge their mistakes and become self-correcting.

Complementary roles

It is clear that the contributions of mothers and fathers overlap in numerous instances. Yet, men and women do not parent in the same way. Even the best of mothers can not be substitute fathers. While the mother's role is essential and powerful, children need the complementary roles of both an active mother and active father.

While parents are obligated to work hard at keeping the family together, this is not always possible. For years, family counselors have supported no-fault divorce, believing that children would be better off if their parents could get along. Nevertheless, it is possible for men of all ages and all situations--married or divorced, young or old--to become committed and loving fathers, providing the input and the influence their offspring need.

Not long ago, I placed an ad in a local newspaper in an attempt to learn how active dads successfully balance their work obligations with their kids' need for an involved father. To my surprise, the phone rang constantly. Some of the men I talked with were making truly heroic efforts at being more than wage-earners. One of the fathers, Larry, works weekends as a butcher for a major grocery market. He is not available for most of his kids' weekend activities. On his usual days off in the middle of the week, though, Larry volunteers at his children's school. He assists the teacher, eats lunch with the kids, and helps with homework.

Another father, Jim, makes his living as a surveyor. His job often requires that he work out of town for days at a time. Jim and his wife have a daughter, so he sets his alarm for 5:15 a.m. each day when he is in town so that, when she wakes up, he will be ready to spend time with her. They eat, talk, and he takes her to school. When Jim is on the road, he often drives many miles, late at night, so that he will be home for this time with his daughter at least every other morning.

These men have created their own solutions to problems common to many fathers. How can their examples, and the success of other committed dads, be utilized to teach men across the country how to become active, involved fathers?

We can mobilize our communities to address these issues, create forums on responsible fathering, and showcase the obligation of men to contribute to their children's lives. Communities across the country already are experiencing success with hundreds of local initiatives, such as programs for unwed fathers, mentoring for fathers of infants, or local outreach efforts involving fathers and troubled youth.

In central Texas, I have worked with almost 2,000 fathers over the past two years and developed a program called "Accepting the Challenges of Fatherhood" to help them understand and adopt the contributions of effective dads. My experience with these men makes it evident that, to make a difference, the involvement and commitment of entire communities is needed in developing local initiatives. Community leaders, policymakers, business representatives, the media, women's and men's groups, educators, and religious organizations must be involved. With such a diverse group of leaders discussing the problems and the potential solutions to fatherlessness, the importance and the magnitude of this issue can be demonstrated.

By developing local solutions to a national problem, there is an opportunity to make a difference in children's lives. Let's take it.

Dr. Klinger, president, Center for Successful Fathering, Austin, Tex., is the author of The Common Sense, No-Frills, Plain-English Guide to Being a Successful Dad.
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Author:Klinger, Ron
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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