Imagine if we had good data, an empirically based rationale to develop a program that consistently:
1. Reduced levels of childhood poverty
2. Reduced infant and early childhood mortality
3.Reduced maternal depression
4. Reduced affective disorders in middle school students
5. Reduced juvenile crime for children of both sexes
6. Reduced likelihood of substance abuse
7. Reduced likelihood of early sexual activity
8. Reduced teen pregnancy
9.Reduced risk of child abuse
10. Reduced likelihood of substance abuse
11. Reduced likelihood of obesity
12. Reduced likelihood of dropping out of school
13. Increased likelihood of academic accomplishment
Imagine the clamor to put in place a program that did all these things. Well, it's been done. It's just that not everyone's on board with the program. It's called Fatherhood. You can read more about these studies here.
(Update: after I posted this piece earlier, I came across another site discussing some research about the benefits of dads. You can see that here.)
The fact that I have to write this--or that it might be controversial--is a sign of cultural madness. We all understand that correlation is not causality, but at some point, it seems that wise people might look at all this smoke and start to wonder if there is a fire.
Normally, I post a cheerful, warm reflection on fatherhood. But I've been noticing that more and more, the very idea of fatherhood, and the idea that it might be important, is becoming extremely unfashionable in many circles--we see everything from amused apathy to outright hostility.
Instead, however, of honoring good fathers and sending cultural messages that they are important, our culture is rife with examples of bad, stupid, and clueless fathers. TV commercials, movies, television shows have all somehow given in to the stupid-father cliche, or the fathers-are-unnecessary theme.
Yes, there are some counter-examples. But I would suggest that, culturally speaking, we have generalized bad/dumb fathers into our collective conscious, while reducing good fathers to isolated examples. That is, we grant that there are some exceptions to the dumb dad syndrome, but our general cultural bias, our unexamined cultural default setting, is that most dads are somewhere on the scale of benign idiot to abusive jerk.
Let's think about this for a minute. I wonder if we could try a thought experiment. I wonder if we could look for places in our society where there are large instances of fatherlessness--places where engaged fathers are rare. We might look at those places and see if they are places that most of us want to live. Most likely, they would be places with high crime, low educational opportunity and probably limited chances for economic advancement. We might also look for places where engaged fathers are more common and compare the quality of life and living conditions. Are there differences?
Discerning clear-cut cause and effect in complex human systems is difficult. But this seems like a no-brainer to me. And yes, obviously a child can grow up in a house without a father and be happy and successful. No one says that it's impossible for a mother to raise good kids alone. But if we are really worried about the kids, as opposed to various ideological agendas, then we have to be honest about what is the best way to maximize the likelihood of the best possible outcomes. I'm not a social scientist, but my understanding is that this is a case where the data are pretty consistently overwhelming.
It makes me sad to think that there are kids in this world who will not ever know the security of a father. The absolute, un-cool, possibly stodgy, old-fashioned, total security that comes from this unique role.
It makes me sad that there are kids who don't have dads and don't know any different--and who are absorbing messages from the culture that it's okay--that dads are lame or useless.
The producers of such garbage are doing a huge disservice to who are already vulnerable.
This is a problem all of us need to face. The health of our culture and the strength of families in that culture effect us all. They effect us in terms of tax dollars needed for educational intervention, in increased crime, in medical interventions for obesity and so on.
Our culture is the air that our society breathes, the way our collective values are both formed and expressed.
Dads are not moms. They do different things. They play different roles. They are not interchangeable. Like moms, dads make mistakes. They do things wrong. But these studies I mentioned above didn't rely on perfect dads. Some of them just demonstrate a benefit from the presence of a father. Some demonstrate a benefit from an engaged father. But they all show what most of us ought to just know and understand intuitively : having a father makes a profound difference in a child's life in ways that can be measured and in ways that have significant outcomes for society at large.
It's time that we start encouraging, cheering, and celebrating fathers. It's time we start teaching young men that fatherhood is a worthy aspiration and something to look forward to. It's time we teach young women that having a husband involved in her life and the life of her child should be the default setting. Sure, there might need to be some exceptions, and we don't want to ostracize and stigmatize--but let's re-establish the optimal situation and then figure out exceptions with kindness and support.
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