In any society you will find:
Emotional and behavioral problems
Inappropriate sexual activity involving minors
But in a society where few fathers are engaged with their children, these issues explode.
In his book Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn theorizes that devalued fatherhood has led to a higher incidence of crime, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and child poverty. Beyond theory, I think the forthcoming statistics will make that quite clear.
It’s undeniable that the preponderance of families with strong parents have children with far fewer “issues.” Expand that to a nation of good mothers and fathers, and I guarantee that nation will be one of the strongest nations in the world, with much less dependence on social programs, military might, natural resources, or geographic location, because an entire society built on solid parenting would be virtually unshakable and morally strong.
As stated by Linda Eyre in her co-authored book, The Turning:
“Nothing is more responsible for the pain and suffering in the world than the breakdown of families; nothing can heal and renew the world like the revaluing of families; and there is not nearly enough focus on how dramatically the state of families affects the state of society.”
But beyond the big societal picture, children deserve the love of their fathers for their own development and success. It’s relatively easy to learn what it takes to become a good Dad, but actually doing it and having successful results is much more difficult. Once you have earned your children’s trust, they’ll always come back for support and advice, no matter their age.
While young, most children don’t consciously know what their parents are up to and may not care. But unconsciously they want to know you will take care of them and love them. You give them this assurance with praise and discipline. They also want to know what to expect from you. They will know what to expect if you are consistent.
And yet, what about those homes where the father is absent?
“For boys, the most socially acute manifestation of paternal disinvestment is juvenile violence. For girls, it is juvenile and out-of-wedlock childbearing. One primary result of growing fatherlessness is more boys with guns. Another is more girls with babies.”
—David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America
“For the best part of thirty years we have been conducting a vast experiment with the family, and now the results are in: the decline of the two-parent, married-couple family has resulted in poverty, ill-health, educational failure, unhappiness, anti-social behavior, isolation and social exclusion for thousands of women, men and children.”
—Rebecca O’Neill, Experiments in Living: The Fatherless Family
These quotes put a professional spin on what we already know. But where is the movement to reverse these tragic trends? Instead of fixing the problem, we accept its results.
Our nation’s government, like those of other nations, attempts to help those in need. But when it comes to families that must accept government help, we find that most are without fathers. And no matter how hard it tries to provide food, shelter, and medical care for needy families, our government cannot provide the two most important things a child needs from a father: love and emotional support. [. . .]
Statistics are certainly not perfect—not all studies agree—and some people will argue about their context, relevance, and accuracy. But the statistics do give a flavor of the problems caused by raising children in father-absent families. Father absence—even being ignored by one’s father—causes so many other social ills, which in turn cause more fatherless homes in an often endless cycle.
If you considered just one social problem caused or magnified by a lack of fathering, it would be impossible to ignore how it ripples throughout society. We could choose teen pregnancy, mental health, crime, or any issue, but let’s use drug abuse as an example.
As mentioned earlier, drug use by fatherless children is two to three times more prevalent than by those who have present, engaged, and available fathers. And the ripples through society are visible in crime rates, medical costs, crowded prisons, suicides, early deaths caused by drug overdoses, homelessness, and so on—all increased by the drug culture. As our society tries to help these people recover, this affects each of us financially.
We can stop the cycle of many of society’s woes just by making it our goal and our practice to be present, engaged, and available as Dads.
Sons and daughters who turn to drugs often do so to try to fill a void left in them by absent fathers. Many of these young people also seek love but do so inappropriately, ending up with children conceived not out of love, but out of a need to be loved. As parents, they often try to raise their offspring without a job or money. And too many continue their drug habits, leaving their own children in a state of dire need. These children will characteristically not have both parents involved in their lives. So without intervention, the cycle continues and expands.
We spend billions of dollars treating a result, drug abuse, while we allow one of its most significant causes, father absence, to be relatively ignored. I can’t say it enough: be involved!
When parents lose control of their kids, then society takes over. All society can do is a one-size-fits-all fix that tends to treat all kids the same.
In Cincinnati, a governing Little League council outlawed chatter in baseball like “hey batter, hey batter, swing!” Why? Because too many kids went too far in their bravado and chest pounding, encouraged by watching athletes on TV and accepting them as role models (if Dads weren’t there to fill that role).
Distractions, such as the opposing team chattering while a kid is at bat, are good life lessons and should be allowed as long as they are not demeaning. When put into perspective by caring parents, these life lessons teach young people that competition, opposition, and struggle will be constants in their lives. They will learn to deal with the “chatter” and move on toward their goals.
Society errs in its practice of awarding all kids in sports and other endeavors, no matter their standing or effort.
“We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”
—David McCullough Jr., “You Are Not Special”
In trying not to hurt little Johnny’s feelings, we reward mediocrity, and that is not the answer. The answer is rewarding little Johnny for what he does well, not what he does poorly. If the Baseball Hall of Fame rewarded participation and effort instead of results, it would require a much bigger building. Again, this “everyone wins” mentality is a one-size-fits-all reaction to dealing with children’s self-image, which does them no favors. We are once again allowing our society to dictate the role of parenting, resolving an issue that parents should handle on a child-by-child basis.
Ah, but to handle things on a child-by-child basis, we need to be engaged as parents. And here we are, back again at the premise of this book: the power of fatherhood—of being a Dad—means being there, listening, caring, and loving. This is how you handle issues on a child-by-child basis: you are present and involved.
A school banned the use of jump ropes in gym class because some kids couldn’t jump rope. I can only assume that those who could not jump rope properly were being teased by other children. Society’s answer to that predicament was to eliminate the situation. Instead of letting society take control of the situation, parents need to emphasize to their children the importance of being kind and supportive to others, but also being able to ignore teasing and keep trying until they succeed. While some children of good parents may still bully their peers, parents teaching their children to be kind and resilient is much more effective than letting society completely remove potential learning experiences.
Do you want society to step in to raise your child? Be present, involved, caring, and loving—and this will never be an issue.
When kids act cruelly, it is usually to fit in with the wrong group or to seek attention at all costs. What if fitting in meant being supportive and empathic and not being demeaning or trying to feel superior? Through teamwork and support, children will be accepted by those groups worth joining.
Many kids who lead are not good leaders, and those who follow sometimes follow the wrong examples. These misinformed and misled kids have not been properly mentored, and it shows. Receiving the guidance and attention of a father is priceless.
In February 2007, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) released a report that said, among the twenty-one wealthiest nations, the United States was the worst place to raise a child. The United States ranked low on the scale regarding children who eat and talk frequently with their families and had the highest proportion of children living in single-parent families. Single-parenthood was associated with “a greater risk of dropping out of school, of leaving home early, of poorer health, of low skills, and of low pay.”
Conversely, the study revealed that children in the Netherlands, Spain, and Greece “were the happiest,” and children of the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal “spent the most time with their families and friends.” The evidence in the Netherlands and Spain supports the obvious: children’s welfare—their health and happiness—is greatly enhanced by involvement with those they love.
A partial explanation of the report’s low ranking of the United States is the competitive nature in the job market, making adults less available to their children. Jonathan Bradshaw, one of the authors of the study, stated, “The findings we got today are a consequence of long-term underinvestment in children. They [the United States and also the United Kingdom, which ranked next to last] don’t invest as much in children as continental European countries do.” (Farley)
When economic conditions weaken, parental attention suffers as fathers and mothers look for work or struggle to make ends meet. Men’s competitive nature to get work trumps their nature to nurture.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.”
There are two effects of inept fathers. One effect is subtle, often involving those families that look good from the outside but have problems within. The other effect is obvious, where dysfunction is out in the open and the need for government assistance is common.
The subtle effects are emotional or psychological or both, caused when the father is uncaring, overdominant, or not emotionally connected with his children. These effects are sometimes difficult to detect and have consequences that can be overlooked if we are unaware.
When the father doesn’t contribute to the support of his family, the obvious effect is economic. When the obvious economic effects are joined with the subtle, psychological effects, we find children and families in the “cycle of despair.” Defeated mothers and absent fathers create future defeated mothers and absent fathers.
Defeated mothers and absent fathers create future defeated mothers and absent fathers.
An environment of poor parental care, economic challenges, and little character direction begets children with weak self-esteem and poor values. When this happens, it is no surprise that emotional issues, violence, and drugs are more likely to enter a young person’s life.
The cycle of despair not only continues but also grows with each generation through increased poverty, more dependence on social programs, and mushrooming emotional issues. People in this cycle see themselves as victims and demand that society fix what is wrong with their lives. I say, of course they are victims—victims of poor parenting, an acquired negative outlook on life, and little understanding of what they can do for themselves to escape the cycle. My undereducated mother and my absent and inept father have alone spawned five father-absent or father-inept families in just two generations. My wife sees the impacts of this ignored truth every day in her job working with teen parents. You have surely seen it yourself.
Momentum, resistance, fear, and ignorance all contribute to the cycle of despair: the relentless reenactment of conditions that produce children disadvantaged by father absence, by father disengagement, or by father disinterest. Being disadvantaged as a child takes on many forms. If not disadvantaged economically, a child can be disadvantaged socially, psychologically, and emotionally. Being in this cycle is a near-hopeless situation that without some type of intervention, cooperation, or miracle will continue without end. The reasons for the cycle are not difficult to determine, but they are difficult to stop.
Momentum contributes to this cycle because it is so easy to continue with what you know, even if you don’t like it. Resistance contributes because it is the most imaginative of our individual characteristics—in other words, we can find so many ways to resist change or to resist those things that will take us to better situations. Fear contributes by being the backbone of resistance (Pressfield). Without fear, there would be no resistance. Ignorance contributes because you cannot make choices when you don’t know what your options are or when you lack understanding about the benefits and limitations of those options.
The cycle isn’t limited to any particular location, whether rural, urban, or suburban. It can happen anywhere families are at risk.
If you are not a victim of this cycle, then you can prevent it from rearing its ugly head and creating misery for your descendants. If you are a product of this cycle, reading and heeding the advice in this book will help you intervene. You are taking action. You are seeking understanding and wisdom. Good for you—and great for your children. Without your intention to break the cycle of despair, a miracle would certainly be needed to save your children from the same plight.
If you are a product of the “cycle of despair,” stop right now and give yourself a pat on the back. Just by seeking advice through reading and practicing the tips in this book, you are breaking the cycle of despair.
Eradicate the ignorance that prevents better choices. By reading this book, heeding its advice, and recommending it to others, you are doing that now. Removing ignorance brings enlightenment, which will help break the momentum of questionable life choices. Enlightenment lessens fear by helping you see that you are not alone and that there are tools and resources to help you. Lessening fear will weaken the resistance to change and the excuses you have used so cleverly to avoid or shirk your fatherly duties.
A meme is a cultural behavior or style transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes. Put simply, “monkey see, monkey do.” Infants will learn from abusive adults or unloving adults just as naturally as they will learn from well-meaning, nurturing, and loving adults.
Nature has given us fingers with opposable thumbs, but our genes do not help us decide what to use those fingers for and what behaviors to emulate. Genetic behavior will prompt teens to procreate voluntarily, but the social mores they have learned from their parents may likely determine if they will wait for the right time and person. Similarly, teens need the guidance of adults to combat what their nature and peers tell them to do. Parents must do for their offspring what their offspring’s genetic makeup cannot.
If children and teenagers come from an environment that hasn’t taught those social mores, nor the value of self-esteem and the lessons of a successful life, then the odds of getting out of their environmental rut are stacked against them. We are shaped by both our genes and our memes.
where children should learn kindness, goodness, values, discipline, and manners.
where children should find understanding, care, and comfort.
where successful lives should begin, with open minds, encouragement, and love.
where compassion should exist, where the safety nets of our children’s failures are made of rubber bands, ready to sling them back into the world—stronger, wiser, and with new momentum.
If we were to find these characteristics in all homes, what kind of world would we have? Certainly most homes have some of these characteristics, a lucky few have most, and some have none. I don’t have to spout statistics, although they are readily available, to convince you that in those homes where fathers are present and involved, the chances for success and happiness are much greater.
In Man Enough, Frank Pittman explains:
“Being a father, to our own children or to someone else’s, or being something like a father—an uncle, a mentor, a coach, a teacher, a therapist—is the real way to become a man. We gain our masculinity not by waving it from flagpoles or measuring and testing it before cheering crowds but by teaching it to boys and girls, and to men and women who haven’t known a man up close and don’t know what men and masculinity are all about. If men would raise children, it would not only save the world in a generation or two, it would save their lives.”
When I think of what was good and bad in my childhood, it always comes back to relationships. Those relationships could be with friends, teachers, or siblings, or with a stranger whose kind words during a brief encounter had a lasting impact. When I was nine years old, a stranger watched me learn to ice skate on a Saturday afternoon and told me what a good job I did. That kind and encouraging statement has stayed with me all these years.
Certainly teachers and others can have a huge influence on our lives, but without a doubt the parent-child relationship is the most important of all, especially for the child. Nothing will impact you more—not marriage, not even your own children—compared to your childhood relationship with your parents.
Not to belittle its huge importance in our lives, but even marriage pales in comparison to our upbringing. None of your core values will change much with marriage. (Of course your life will change. Having children will change your life forever, but in ways different from establishing your core values or personality.) All of us were tremendously influenced by our parents, and our most lasting influence will be as a parent.
If you came from a home with an absent father, you likely still had positive male influences in your life—people who helped you form your core values. As a father, your most lasting influence will be as a parent. What type of man do you choose to be? A father, or a Dad?
Nurturing parents consciously create an environment that lets children shape themselves within proper limitations and guidelines. We as parents provide the mold that represents those limitations and guidelines.
On November 5, 2011, an article appeared in the Augusta Chronicle entitled “Poor Parenting Leads Youth to Violent Crime.” The article, written by Meg Mirshak, reported on violent acts perpetrated by very young children, tying it to poor parenting. What caught my attention, however, was a comment by a user called literallyamerican.
I visited a prison not long ago to see the guy who killed my sister. I was looking to understand what happened and why he would do something like that. When I sat there looking around at everyone in the room where people visit, I was shocked to see so many young men in there. It became aware to me, looking at their faces, that for the first time in their lives, they were experiencing what real boundaries are. I believe in punishment and fully realize that you have to pay for what you do, but in some ways it was sad because they had to come to prison to get that type of “parenting” that should have been done at home. I saw the same thing in the person I went to confront—he looked completely shell shocked.
Juvenile court judges, therapists, police, and social workers will all tell you that most young people who get into trouble do not have a father at home, and if they do, he is not involved in fathering his children. It is not my intention to place blame or a guilt trip on anyone. The social implications of ineffective fathers are indeed severe, but my real intention is to make it absolutely clear how much of a hero each man would be to his family, that small nugget of society, by just doing what he is supposed to do as a father: to simply be there and care. We men don’t understand the good we do, the problems we prevent, and the happiness we bring, unless we look at what happens when we don’t perform our role as fathers.
WE’RE OBLIGATED TO PAY ATTENTION
“I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”
—Mark Strand, quoted in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity
The miracle and privilege of life is the gift most often taken for granted by us human beings. You are not just the result of the gleam in your father’s eye; you are the culmination of all the events occurring since infinity. It could have been that one citizen of an ancient culture was drawn to the left fork in the road by a shade tree grown from a seed, carried by an animal that survived a drought while its natural predator did not. This citizen continued down this chosen path and impacted a history that made your presence today possible. If not for that dry, hot summer, maybe thousands of years ago, our citizen of the ancient past may well have taken a different path and led a different life; you, with your looks, personality, and potential, would not be here.
Now you, too, will have an impact on a future that extends beyond your own lineage. There is not the slightest doubt of the significant influence you will have on your children, their children, and on and on. Our DNA, and the culture we teach and exhibit, will mold our children. In this vast perspective, we should embrace our tremendous responsibilities as men and as parents.
Blankenhorn states in Fatherless America: “In all societies, child well-being and societal success hinge largely upon a high level of paternal investment: the willingness of adult males to devote energy and resources to the care of their offspring.”
This article is an excerpt from Michael Byron Smith’s The Power of Dadhood.
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