Father Is the Best

Posted: Jun 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Dad is countercultural. If he is responsible, loving, and married, he might seem boring and a constant provocation to his eye-rolling teenage children, but he stands at the ramparts of a movement to save the country from the most destructive trend of the past 30 years: father absence.

The proportion of out-of-wedlock births rose 600 percent from 1960 to 2000, and the divorce rate more than doubled between 1965 and 1980. Roughly 24 million children now live in homes where the biological father is absent ? about one out of every three children. This is a social disaster. Children need their fathers, and they need them in the home, which, as a practical matter, means their fathers have to be married to their mothers.

This is a thoroughly commonsensical notion, but so retrograde that almost no one dared utter it for a couple of decades. Not anymore. Even left-leaning intellectuals like Isabel Sawhill of The Brookings Institution and Bill Galston of the University of Maryland are forthright supporters of intact married families. But much of the Left still can't muster enthusiasm for fathers as anything other than the men who should, if circumstances warrant, be forced to make child-support payments.

The evidence for the importance of traditional fatherhood is overwhelming. "Children who grow up in father-absent homes are more likely to suffer from child abuse, poverty, low academic achievement, drug use, emotional and behavioral problems, and suicide," according to a report from the influential National Fatherhood Initiative (from which most of the data in this column is drawn).

As anyone who has ever had a father ? i.e., all of us ? should know, a father's love is irreplaceable. Research shows that withdrawal of love by either the father or mother is equally important in predicting a child's well-being. So much for only mothers being the "nurturing ones." And nothing so endangers a child's reliably receiving the love of a father than family breakup.

Twenty years after a divorce, one-quarter of girls and less than a third of boys say they are close with their fathers. In contrast, 70 percent of children of intact families say they have close relationships with their fathers. Half of children living without their fathers have never been in their fathers' homes. In one study, only 27 percent of children older than 4 saw their nonresident father at least once a week in the past year, and 31 percent had no contact whatsoever.

The rates of out-of-wedlock births and divorce have leveled off recently. But cohabitation ? no substitute for marriage ? has continued to climb. Children of cohabiting parents are closer in their indicators of well-being to the children of single parents than they are to children of two-parent families. Three-quarters of cohabiting parents split up before their children reach age 16.

So, promoting involved fatherhood means promoting marriage. That will require a broad-based effort of government and the private sector. Roughly half of unmarried mothers are living together with the father at the time of the child's birth, and another one-third are still romantically involved with him. The trick is to convert these relationships into marriage, which the Bush administration wants to attempt by including marriage-promotion measures in a new round of welfare reform. As welfare guru Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation argues, two-thirds of black children are born out of wedlock ? but it can't be that two-thirds of black men are, as critics of the Bush proposal sometimes suggest, "un-marriageable."

Middle-income couples are obviously part of the equation too. The culture should be attempting to reach them with the message that all marriages have problems and usually they are soluble. An activist named Mike McManus has been promoting pre-marriage counseling through churches for young couples. A public-interested philanthropist could do worse than pouring resources into an expanded version of his "Marriage Savers" program.

In the meantime, give dear old traditional dad his due. He might not be cool, but he's important. We need more of him.