By Andrew L. Yarrow
Kids need their fathers, just as they need their mothers. It’s a simple, seemingly incontestable truth that children understand and that has been demonstrated by study after study.
Picture a child’s joy and gratitude as their father plays with them on a ball field, reads to them as they go to sleep, helps with their homework, and — much later — talks through the big questions of life, love, and work.
As Margaret Mead, the eminent anthropologist, wrote 70 years ago: “Every known human society rests firmly on the learned nurturing behavior of men.”
Dads On The Sideline
However, enormous cultural changes during the last half century have sadly resulted in millions of kids having little or no contact with their fathers.
Largely due to high divorce rates and the rising incidence of non-marital childbearing, fewer than half of America’s 75 million minor children live with two parents who are in their first marriage, with 25 million living in single-parent homes.
At the same time, fathers have been attacked and ridiculed. Some have suggested that kids principally (or only) need their mothers. The father-as-buffoon is a staple of popular culture. It is widely believed that the nation’s roughly 9 million “missing fathers” are all “deadbeats.”
As J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, disparagingly wrote: It’s hard to have sympathy for a “man who can find the time to make eight children but can’t find the time to support them.”
The Deadbeat Dad Myth
While there are such cases, as a generalization, this is wrong and offensive. The scores of fathers I talked with for my book, “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life,” loved and wanted to be deeply involved in their children’s lives.
And when dads can’t see their kids because of court orders favoring mothers or “gatekeeping” by some moms, these men — rich or poor — can be devastated. I saw many tough, streetwise guys as well as composed professionals cry when talking about how much they missed their daughters and sons.
“It is scientifically and psychologically baseless, as well as a violation of human rights, to discriminate against men because of their sex in assignment of children’s custody [or] adoption,” according to an American Psychological Association resolution.
As Kathryn Edin, a Princeton University sociologist and expert on low-income fathers, said: “If we truly believe in gender equity, then we must find a way to honor fathers’ attempts to build relationships with their children just as we do mothers.”
While fathers need and want their children in their lives, kids need and count on their dads for so many reasons and in so many ways.
Kids Need Fathers
Fathers, as well as mothers, play an essential role in children’s development. Love and nurturing are important from both parents, but research demonstrates that father involvement positively affects their children’s cognitive development, regulating their behavior, stimulating creative play, and developing their identity and social competence.
Even with divorced or unmarried parents who have split up, children who spend at least 35 percent of their time with each parent, rather than live with one and “visit” the other, have better relationships with both their fathers and mothers and do better academically, socially, and psychologically.
As Howard Cosell, the legendary sportscaster, would say: Let’s go to the numbers. There are reams of scientific evidence of the many, many ways in which kids who don’t have fathers regularly in their lives do worse than those with fathers from childhood into adulthood.
Children typically feel abandoned, hurt, and angry. Boys lack good male role models and fail to develop what NYU political scientist Lawrence Mead calls “the male virtues.”
Children without fathers are twice as likely as other children to be treated for mental health issues. Thoughts of suicide are more common, and approximately two-thirds of youth suicides occur among kids separated from their fathers. New boyfriends of single mothers can sometimes be supportive but are often new sources of conflict, especially for boys.
In school, children with little or no contact with their fathers are more likely to drop out of high school and roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled. They tend to score lower on standardized tests and receive lower grades. Strikingly, father absence may depress academic performance more than poverty does, as children from low-income, two-parent families outperform students from high-income, single-parent homes.
Children without fathers are about four times more likely to be poor, twice as likely to engage in criminal activity, and many times more likely to spend time in prison. Ninety percent of homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes. Boys in mother-only households tend to be more aggressive and more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and almost three times as likely to carry guns and deal drugs. Nearly three-fourths of adolescent murderers and 60 percent of rapists grew up without fathers.
Girls, too, are hurt when their fathers aren’t there. Girls (and boys) are more likely to be abused either by their parent, stepfather, or a mother’s boyfriend. Daughters without fathers are more likely to be promiscuous, have children outside of marriage, have rocky relationships, and divorce.
The harm done by having little contact with their fathers continue when they grow up.
They are more likely to remain poor and have mental health problems as adults. They don’t benefit from the counsel or the soft nepotism of a father helping them find a job.
Comparing families of the same race and similar incomes, they are three times more likely to go to prison by the time they are 30. They are also less likely to be employed, according to Harvard economist Raj Chetty.
Children without fathers in their lives create huge costs to society — not only in terms of poor academic achievement, but also mental-health problems, and criminality. The federal government spent about $100 billion in taxpayer money to assist father-absent homes in 2006, a number that has only risen.
However, the biggest costs simply can’t be quantified. These are the sadness and loneliness of too many American boys and girls.
The remedy is clear: Children in all types of households must have fathers in their lives.
Andrew L. Yarrow–a former New York Times reporter, professor of U.S. history, and senior fellow at several thinks tanks — is the author of “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life” (2018).