As Father's Day 2012 approaches, let’s take stock of the significance of fathers in children’s lives by examining what the child-development research tells us about the effects of father absence. There is a much more nuanced picture than that painted by President Obama a year ago during his Father's Day address, in which he placed the blame squarely on “deadbeat” fathers.
Many of the ongoing conversations on fatherlessness deflect attention away from the root causes of the social problem in American society. Fathers’ tenuous presence in children’s lives is primarily the result of two key factors: divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing. More often than not, in these arenas, fathers are forced to relinquish their primary responsibilities for their children by family-court judgments concerned primarily with maintaining fathers’ role as financial providers but shunning their involvement as active caregivers. This practice continues despite the gender convergence of child care roles in two-parent families, where fathers and mothers share active responsibility for the care of their children. Fathers have increased their involvement in raising kids while mothers work longer hours in paid employment, and fathers are no longer satisfied to play second fiddle as parents. Many fathers today enthusiastically assume their responsibilities as parents and define themselves first and foremost in relation to their caregiving role rather than their financial role.
According to a recent UNICEF report, children in the United States rank extremely low in regard to social and emotional well-being compared with children in other economically developed nations. Theories involving race, social class and poverty have been advanced to explain this, but the absence of fathers - the one factor that correlates stronger with children’s compromised well-being than any other - has been ignored. There is a clear disconnect between what child-development researchers are observing and public policy in the area of father involvement.
When we look at the causes of father absence, a common reaction is to “parent-blame,” casting aspersions on either single mothers or absent fathers. Yet such judgments are overemphasized. Our social-welfare and judicial institutions undermine rather than support fathers who seek to fulfill their parental responsibilities. Divorced and never-married fathers in particular are devalued as parents by an overwhelming number of family-court judgments, as reflected in their forced removal from their children’s lives as daily caregivers. Laws and policies that diminish the importance and sanctity of the father-child relationship need to be challenged. Paternal involvement is critical to children’s well-being, and fathers desperately require social institutions to support being present for their kids.
When never-married and divorced fathers are removed from their children’s lives, it is their children who suffer. Absence of dads leads to a tangible feeling of deficit in children’s lives, leading to a phenomenon known as “father hunger.” The impact on children is profoundly damaging in a multitude of ways:
Children’s self-regard is deeply wounded, with ongoing bouts of self-loathing, as both their physical and emotional security is threatened. Children feel abandoned and experience the loss of their fathers as a personal rejection of them, and they struggle with the resultant emotions and deflected self-concept.
Social and behavioral problems, from attention deficit disorder to bullying and aggression to withdrawal and depression, are common in situations of father absence. Children report problems with friendships and increasing social withdrawal and isolation as they get older.
School difficulties, including poor academic performance and truancy, are more prevalent for children with absent fathers, as numerous studies of children’s reading proficiency, mathematics and thinking skills show. Fatherless children are more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to leave school at age 16 (71 percent of high school dropouts are fatherless) and less likely to attain academic and professional qualifications.
Delinquency and youth crime, including violent crime, are strongly associated with father absence, as 85 percent of youth in prison are fatherless children.
Promiscuity and teen pregnancy are strongly associated with father absence, including problems with sexual health, a greater likelihood of having intercourse before the age of 16, foregoing contraception during first intercourse, becoming teenage parents, and contracting sexually transmitted infections.
Drug and alcohol misuse and homelessness are rampant among the fatherless population of youth, as 90 percent of runaway children have an absent father.
Fatherlessness exposes children to exploitation and abuse. Lack of paternal protection exposes children to a greater risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. These children are five times more likely to have experienced physical abuse and emotional maltreatment, with a 100 times higher risk of fatal abuse.
Physical and mental health problems are endemic, as fatherless children report more acute and chronic pain, asthma, headaches and stomachaches and are overrepresented in regard to a wide range of mental health problems, particularly anxiety, depression and suicide.
The future life chances of fatherless children are severely compromised, as in adulthood they are more likely to experience unemployment, have low incomes, rely on social assistance, remain homeless and lack purpose and direction. Their future relationships are similarly affected, as they are more likely to enter partnerships at an early age, dissolve those relationships, have children outside marriage, and become themselves absent parents.
Fatherless children have a life expectancy that averages four years less than that of children with fathers present.
This Father's Day, let’s begin taking real steps toward affirming the essential role of both parents in children’s lives. Even in the absence of a spousal relationship, it should be clear that both mothers’ and fathers’ parental responsibilities to their children’s needs deserve full legal protection and recognition.
Edward Kruk is an associate professor of Social Work at the University of British Columbia.