The power of fathering
There is an epidemic of fatherlessness in America, and I believe we are paying a steep price both economically and culturally.
In a recent article, Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker insightfully noted “that as a society we may be reconsidering how family should be defined. We may be confused about gender roles. We may be struggling with knowing how to parent well in a complicated time.
“But in the midst of all this confusion, there is a growing consensus among social scientists that what kids need, at least, is clear. Kids need their fathers as well as their mothers.”
The United States is increasingly becoming a fatherless society and the consequences are taking its toll in our homes, in our schools, in our rehabilitation centers and most prominently in our prisons. The latest statistics reveal that almost 19 million U.S. children, or one in three, live without a father, and nearly 5 million live without a mother. In 1960, just 8 percent of American children lived in homes without fathers.
Here are some more sobering statistics: Sixty-three percent of teen suicides come from homes without involved fathers (U.S. Department of Health). Eighty-five percent of children with behavioral problems come from homes without involved fathers (Centers for Disease Control).
Seventy-one percent of high school dropouts come from homes without involved fathers (National Principals Association report). Eighty-five percent of youths in prison come from homes without involved fathers (U.S. Department of Corrections).
Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Everybody sooner or later sits down to a banquet of consequences.” America, sorrowfully, is dining on the consequences, that I highlighted above, of fathers abandoning their posts. Frankly, it is well past time to get on the loudspeaker and megaphone and declare a national emergency.
Remarkably, over the past few years we as a nation have been engaged in a dialogue over economic inequality, and I firmly believe, and some of the statistical modeling bears this out, that if we could cut fatherlessness by just 50 percent, we’d make tremendous progress in solving the economic inequality problem. I am not advocating that it would be a panacea, but it would be a giant leap in the right direction.
By way of example, the latest statistics show that married couples with children have an average income of $80,000, compared with $24,000 for single mothers. Yes, there are myriad challenges that our nation faces but unless we address the crucial issue of fatherlessness quickly the rest of the concerns that hamstring us won’t matter.
It is not my intent here to cover all the social, political and public policy implications of a fatherless society but merely to encourage men that fathering is truly worth it, it is vitally important, and, as I often remind my six children, that any success I am on this earth will be written in their deeds.
Dad, what do you want your legacy to be? Every father has the opportunity to achieve something great, and it is the wise man who makes the most of the opportunity. I think President Lincoln summed it up best when he said, “What’s important is not who my ancestors were. What’s important is what my children and grandchildren will become.”
The first and most important thing a father can do is to develop a deep and enduring relationship with the child’s mother. Dr. Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame once stated, that the most important thing a father can do for his children is love their mother. If you’re married, this is imperative. If you’re not, of course this is a challenge, especially if you no longer have any relationship, romantic or otherwise with the child’s mother.
But even if that relationship is strained, it is crucial that you don’t disparage her in front of the child, irrespective of how she may have treated you. Set a positive example of maturity and respect for your children to emulate. This will make an impact on your kids, I guarantee it.
A friend of mine had his mother abandon him and his father when he was 3 years old, and in all the years since he told me he never once heard his dad say a bad thing about his mother and that had an overwhelmingly positive impact on him and his siblings and how he now relates now with his wife and children. Remember, the way you interact with your child’s mom is your way of communicating to your sons on how to treat women and to your daughters on how a man ought to treat a woman.
Second, fathering means involvement and investment. We can’t be, as Steve Farrar has called it, NASCAR fathers. Most of us have surely seen a car race on TV or at Thunder Road. The car pulls into the pit stop, and about 18 seconds later the car pulls out. We must spend quality time with them. Put down the iPhone, turn off the Play Station and Netflix and meaningfully communicate.
We have to be intentional about it. Monday the starter pistol fires and we’re off and running. If we don’t purposefully set aside quality interactive time to spend with our kids, we aren’t going to make a positive impact on them. We’ll make an impact, of that you can be sure, but it won’t be a constructive one.
Please don’t misread me here, I clearly don’t have it all figured out. Just spend some time with my wife and six children and you will get the lowdown on me, warts and all. But over 28 years of marriage and fathering I have learned a few things, mostly the hard way, most notably that fathering requires sacrifice.
Sadly, sacrifice seems to be a foreign concept in our current instant-gratification society. I have no doubt most men would say that they would die for their children, the seemingly ultimate sacrifice. I believe it is time we started living for our children, which frankly may be much more difficult to do.
Moreover, I just want to state that this in no way minimizes the vital importance of mothers. So many valiant women are doing heroic jobs raising their children by themselves, and I salute their efforts. There is a quip we use around our house: Being a mother isn’t easy, if it was, then fathers would do it. It is humorous, and there may be a modicum of truth to it; however, I have concluded that too many women are bearing a heavy burden that they were never meant to carry alone.
I do understand that some women make the decision to go it alone for a variety of reasons and that is their choice. I would say, however, that a majority of the women my wife and I have spoken to over the years would much rather have a father (positive male role model) present in the home, sharing the economic and child-rearing responsibilities, but for a host of mostly disheartening reasons that isn’t practicable.
My primary motivation here is to encourage men to step up and step into the lives of their children, to become a full and value-added participant, not a disinterested bystander.
Finally, most of us fathers won’t write the next great American novel, nor will we cure cancer or be a prominent world leader. That’s fine, but we will ultimately impact our country for generations by how we raise our children. Quite bluntly, I can’t think of a higher honor or more awesome responsibility than that.
There is no better day than Father’s Day to make a commitment to father with courage, perseverance and intentionality. It won’t be easy — most things worth doing aren’t — but I guarantee you it will be worth it. Generational impact: That’s the incredible power of fathering.
Lou Bello is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and father of six who lives in Barre Town.