Father's Day Reflections and Concerns
On Fathers Day we remember and honor our dads, those overworked and
underappreciated men for whom recliners and TV remote controls were
invented. My own father is deserving of sainthood for his patience,
integrity, support, humor, and wisdom. As the years have passed, I have
come to agree with Mark Twain when he said: "My father was an amazing
man. The older I got, the smarter he got."
Today dads all across the
country are the beneficiaries of new neckties, golf balls, fishing rods,
and an extra dollop of family affection. Although the idea of a special
day honoring fathers originated when retailers lobbied for another
national holiday to help boost gift sales, such commercial motives
should not diminish the legitimacy of honoring fatherhood.
is a cause not only for celebration but concern, for full-time fathers
have become an endangered species. Over one-third of all American
children are growing up without their biological fathers at home. In
some inner-city neighborhoods, the number is as high as 90 percent.
sharp increase in fatherless households is one of the most devastating
social trends of our time. While we rejoice at examples of disadvantaged
children from single-parent homes achieving success, the overall trends
are distressing. On average, a child raised by a single parent is twice
as likely to drop out of high school, 2.5 times as likely to become a
teen parent, and 1.4 times as likely to be an idle young adultout of
work and out of school.
Of course, statistical correlations do
not necessarily prove causal connections, but the absence of fathers is
certainly not helping matters. Child abuse is higher among children in
female-headed, single-parent households than in conventional two-parent
households. Moreover, no other social group is so poor or stays poor
longer than single-parent families.
Anthropologists stress that a
sense of fatherly responsibility is an acquired rather than an
inherited social role. For thousands of years, human cultures have
employed sanctions and rewards to encourage parental responsibility in
males and to constrain their sexual energy. The institution of marriage,
of course, is the primary way by which a society sanctifies long-term
relationships between men and women. As the distinguished cultural
anthropologist Margaret Mead observed, there is no society in the world
where men will stay married for very long unless required to do so by
social mores and religious injunctions.
The good news is that
there are signs of improvement. The divorce rate has dropped from 50 to
40 percent during the 1990s, and teen pregnancy, which soared during the
1980s, has steadily declined in recent years. The Save Our Sons
organization in Greenville is one of many grassroots efforts to revive a
sense of paternal responsibility. The strong economy has also helped
promote more stable families. And in 1994 the National Fatherhood
Initiative convened its first National Summit on Fatherhood. Vice
President Al Gore provided the keynote address, thereby giving the issue
the spotlight of national attention.
But more can be done to
reinvigorate the institution of marriage as an essential social
institution. Employers, for example, could be more sensitive to the
disruptive effects on families of transferring employees to another city
or state. They could also be more supportive of fathers participating
in family leave programs. Leaders of the entertainment
industryespecially producers of television shows and moviescould help
revitalize the stature of fatherhood through choosing more socially
responsible themes, characters, and plots. Public policy issues also
play a role. Congress is now considering a bill to end the IRS "marriage
penalty" and increase the value of the tax exemption for dependent
children. A welfare system that unwittingly provided monetary incentives
for mothers to avoid marriage and work is at last being reformed.
are just a few suggestions among many that warrant attention. What are
your own ideas about this complicated issue? In the end, it seems to me,
a commitment to fatherhood will be revived not simply by passing laws
but by the renewed efforts of families, communities, and churches to
instill in young men a sense of paternal responsibility before they
become parents. Americas childrenand their fathersdeserve no less.