Helping Deadbeat Dads--A Father's Day Reflection

Growing up without a relationship with one’s father often has devastating consequences for children, especially boys.  Not having a father negatively affects both boys and girls.  Boys who fail to connect with their fathers because of their physical absence or emotional distance often experience “father hunger.” One study found that a third of girls whose fathers left their home before they were age six became pregnant as teenagers, while only 5 percent of girls who lived with their fathers throughout their childhood did.  Children who grow up without a father in their lives are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crimes, nine times more likely to drop out of school, and twenty times more likely to be incarcerated than those who have a father who is active in their lives.

 Stories abound about deadbeat dads who selfishly have sex and abandon their partners and children.  In their book “Doing the Best I Can,” Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson explain that the situation is much more complicated.  They report, based on their extensive research in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, that many men rather than panicking or lamenting their prospective loss of freedom rejoice at the news that their partners are pregnant.

 The lives of many of the men they studied are filled with negative experiences, and they see having a child as a chance to be more respected and disciplined and find greater purpose and love.  They are often initially quite committed to raising their infant son or daughter.  The major problem is the weak bond many of them have with their child’s mother.  By the time their child is one year old, half of the couples Edin and Nelson studied are no longer together, and many of the others split up in the next few years.

New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that their research demonstrates that many of these “so-called deadbeat dads want to succeed as father.  Their goals and values point them in the right direction,” but they need practical help to build better relationships with their partners and to parent their children more effectively.

So how can we help these men, many of who have limited education, poor job prospects, and low income, to succeed as fathers?  We need to increase the number of low-income parents who marry, strengthen the relationships of those who do as well as those who cohabit, and discourage couples from divorcing.  Our society also needs to provide more instruction in and examples of positive parenting practices and to persuade fathers to be more involved in the lives of their children.  We must improve government and business policies and practices to aid low-income families, increase the number of community and church programs that assist them, and provide better childcare.  These goals can best be accomplished by boosting the income of these parents and families, publicizing the benefits of marriage, supplying more high quality premarital counseling, and offering a wide variety of programs to help couples improve their relationships and parent more effectively.

The quality of the relationship of couples who live together affects whether they stay together as well as their ability to parent effectively and how involved fathers are with their children. Therefore, strengthening the relationships of parents who live together is imperative

Providing mentors and models of healthy marriages can greatly benefit struggling couples.  Many low-income couples need assistance to overcome their mistrust, often connected with sexual infidelity, and to cope with the problems of substance abuse, physical abuse, and criminal behavior.  To succeed, most fragile families need to improve their relationship skills and receive employment assistance, financial counseling, substance abuse treatment, and other social services.

 We also need to help low-income individuals choose more suitable partners and better prepare for marriage.  More compatible spouses are more likely to be content and to stay together.  Happily married couples generally have realistic expectations for marriage, a reasonable concept of love, and a positive approach to life.  They often espouse the same religious commitments and values, clearly communicate their feelings, and make decisions and settle arguments effectively.

 Various actions can help achieve this goal. High schools and colleges could offer more classes on dating and marriage.  Parents could play a more active and constructive role in the dating and mating of their children.  The media could portray more contented, successful marriages. We can encourage engaged couples to participate in premarital counseling sessions in churches, childbirth clinics, community health centers, schools, military facilities, and prisons to help improve their communication, conflict resolution, and teamwork skills.

Publicizing and promoting organizations, programs, and movements that strive to help men be better fathers and husbands is also important.  Since 1990 Promise Keepers has sponsored conferences throughout the nation to encourage men to play a more active role in their families and to build stronger marriages based on biblical values.  The National Center on Fathering, also created in 1990, teaches men how to improve their parenting.  The National Fatherhood Initiative, which began in 1994, prods fathers to engage more fully in family life.  Since 2004 the Million Father March has been encouraging African-American fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and other relatives to participate actively in the educational and social development life of black children. Churches also have a pivotal role to play in helping men be more active fathers and in providing mentors for boys.

 By working together, we can help fathers feel more valued and give them the skills they need to parent more effectively, which is critical to the well-being of children.


Gary SmithComment