The Murphy Brown Question: Do Children Need Fathers?

What matters for social success today is less whether your father was rich or poor than whether you knew your father at all. That’s the crucial verdict of recent research on childhood, as summarized by Professor Lawrence Mead. Fatherless households, which are this country’s fastest growing family type at present, are risky places for children to grow up in. Claims that dads are dispensable, and that single mother families are adequate substitutes for the two-parent family, are directly contradicted by mounds of current evidence.

Are Fathers Different from Mothers?

In considering the importance of fathers, we first need to address the question of whether fathers do anything for children that is distinct from what mothers do. As it happens, we can deal with that issue quickly—because the debate over whether there are intrinsic differences in the way men and women “parent” is now closed.

Over the last decade or so, psychologists, sociobiologists, and neuroscientists have produced some powerful new evidence on sex differentiation. What we’ve learned, basically, is that while mothers and fathers are both well-equipped to foster children, their inclinations and methods of operating, their natural skills, and even their ways of perceiving tend to be quite different.

We know, for instance, that infancy is a special time for mothers. They have hormonal tools and distinct physiological advantages which allow them to more easily “read” and satisfy a newborn baby, and investigators find that in a wide array of cultural settings and family types, mothers nearly always take charge during the initial year to 18 months. The critical period for the father generally begins when the child starts to interact with the impersonal world.

There is a large measure of complementarity in male and female parenting. And the demands on fathers and mothers shift back and forth as a child passes through different developmental stages. There is no question, though, but that men and women tend to provide children with different things, in different ways. There is not even a hint in the scientific literature that family role androgyny is ever likely to occur among humans. Instead, there appear to be strong physiological and biochemical barriers against it.

When Fathers Are Present

What are some of the useful things that a dad can provide to his children when he is present in the home? Bronislaw Malinowski argued that the main thing a father does is to place his children in the broader social context, to help them understand the requirements for living in the world outside the family. We know, just as a clinical finding, that exclusive rearing by women restricts a child’s environmental exploration and delays development of some kinds of external competence.

Psychologists and pediatricians have shown that as early as their third week of life, children experience and react to their father differently from their mother. Even the child’s physical postures adjust according to which parent is nearby. This is a reflection of the fact that mothers and fathers generally approach their offspring with different intentions in mind—with fathers coming to play and stimulate, while mothers tend to soothe and caretake. (These findings, incidentally, are not merely cultural—they turn up in a number of quite different countries.)

Studies show that fathers also have a special role to play in building a child’s self-respect. They are important too, in ways we don’t really understand, in developing internal limits and control in children.

There is no question but that fathers tend to be far more effective at discipline. In both intact and divorced families, for instance, children are more likely to obey fathers than mothers. Researchers have found that while “mothers are more active than fathers in helping youngsters with personal problems… with regard to youthful drug use, fathers’ involvement is more important.”

Fathers play critical roles for their children as teachers. Clinical work shows that fathers are more likely than mothers to encourage children to explore the outer levels of their competence and withstand frustration. They do more direct training and cognitive stimulation, their play has a coaching emphasis, and they tend toward puzzles, word games, and “learning” toys. As children get older, fathers frequently concentrate on helping their offspring navigate through specific life crises, for instance those surrounding puberty.

Research also shows that fathers are critical in the establishment of gender in children. Interestingly, fatherly involvement produces stronger sexual identity and character in both boys and girls. It’s well established that the masculinity of sons and the femininity of daughters are each greatest when fathers are active in family life.

It would be idiotic to suggest that among the different traits and capacities that fathers and mothers bring to the family any one set of qualities is superior to another. The point is, these varied skills and outlooks combine in lovely ways to give children everything that they need.

When Fathers Are Absent

Fatherless families and the children living in them tend, as is well known, to have a lot of problems. One reason for this is simply that the solo-mother family is short-handed. One brain, one mouth, one pair of hands and eyes can’t do as much parenting and providing as two could.

But there are also problems associated specifically with the lack of masculine presence. These disadvantages shake out differently according to the reason for the father’s absence: a father’s withdrawal usually produces more damaging effects on children than his death. The problems also impinge differentially upon boys and girls.

In boys and girls both, fatherlessness produces an exaggerated peer-orientation, tendencies toward juvenile delinquency, and a lack of social control. Among girls, the effects of father absence are often delayed and only burst forth, in a kind of “sleeper effect,” at puberty. They are often acted out at that time in exaggeratedly flirtatious and promiscuous sexual behavior. Difficulties in forming comfortable and durable relations with men are very common among women who grow up without a consistent fatherly presence.

Boys are generally hit harder. They tend to have trouble concentrating in school, to do poorly on intelligence tests, and to have difficulty with math. Father absence has been shown to be associated with learning disabilities, and some psychiatrists believe it is behind many of the cases of hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder that particularly afflict young boys. Fatherlessness significantly increases the likelihood of a boy becoming violent, and it is very common for mothers—not to mention teachers, counselors, and others—to have difficulty handling fatherless teenage boys in particular.

Boys lacking a father at home are often confused about their male identity. Studies show that compared to counterparts from intact families they engage in more activities traditionally considered feminine and play more like girls. This tendency toward sex role perplexity can develop in unpredictable ways as the youngster ages, with many fatherless boys later veering toward a defensive machismo. This may partly explain why boys in female-headed families often develop a coercive relationship with their mother, as research demonstrates.

I think it’s important we recognize that the bulk of our problem with domestic and street violence today grows out of having too little masculine authority at the base of society, not too much. Keep in mind that the most fiercely misogynistic males in America today are those raised in our inner-city matriarchies. All those rap anthems about raping and torturing women come out of a world wholly devoid of male presence.

The Importance of Having Two Parents

What all this argues for is the importance to children of having two resident parents. It’s often claimed today that the two-parent partnership is a kind of historical freak—an arbitrary invention of neurotic Victorians, or maybe Eisenhower Republicans. This is historical nonsense. In truth, the mother-father-child household is humankind’s universal childrearing institution. As you read through the historical and anthropological literatures on this question, what really stands out is how little the two-parent norm has varied across enormous stretches of time, place, and cultural fashion. Indeed, we have fossil findings suggesting that the nuclear family dates right back to the beginnings of human existence. Very likely the cultural processes which got human males involved in the rearing of offspring were central to the successful emergence of Homo sapiens in the first place.

And there are lots of indications that fathers are at least as important to successful family life today as they ever were in the past. Even if one ignores the research I’ve just summarized on fathers’ special roles, there is plenty of reason for pause just in the findings on child-outcomes in single-parent families.

In nine cases out of ten today, when we’re referring to a single-parent family we are referring to a father-absent family. And in areas ranging from physical health to income to behavior disorders to educational attainment, children living in such households fare rather badly.

From the literature on non-intact families, let me briefly summarize some findings that have relevance to the news events of the last few months:

•Young people from single-parent families or step-families are two to three times likelier to have emotional or behavioral problems. They end up in psychotherapy more than three times as often as counterparts who have both parents present, according to the National Survey of Children.

•A study which tracked every child born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955 for the first 30 years of their life found that five out of six delinquents with an adult criminal record came from families where a parent—almost always the father—was absent.

•U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures show that 70 percent of the juveniles now in state reform institutions grew up in single-parent or no-parent homes. The correlation between fatherlessness and street gang membership is very close. Gangs exist for two basic purposes: to fill an authority vacuum, and to satisfy an aching to belong—both functions that are closely related to the lack of fatherly presence.

•The rate of drug abuse is several times higher among adolescents living apart from their father.

•Youngsters from decayed families score somewhat lower on intelligence tests, even after adjusting for socio-economic variables, and have much poorer records on measures of attendance, cooperation, and effort at school. Father-absent children require more discipline, have considerably higher suspension rates, have lower grade point averages, and repeat grades more often.

•Even after factoring in differences in economic and demographic background, students from fatherless families have lower college expectations, complete fewer years of schooling, and are far likelier to drop out of school altogether.

•Living in a mother-only family decreases a child’s chances of completing high school by over 40 percent for whites, and 70 percent for blacks.

•The poverty rate in single-mother families, after all government transfers, is 31 percent, while the comparable figure for married mother-father families is five percent. Demographic adjustments show that a very significant portion of the rise in child poverty over the last two decades is attributable simply and directly to growing fatherlessness. The poverty of children in female-headed households is also much deeper and more persistent.

•Welfare dependency is very high among fatherless children. Overall, about half of all female-headed families will receive some public aid in any given year. Even after adjustments for socio-economic factors are made, living in a mother-only family as a child triples your probability of becoming a welfare recipient later in life, for whites and blacks both.

•Economic differences between family types translate into very real lifestyle gaps for children. For instance, 73 percent of children living with father and mother both reside in a home the family owns, while two-thirds of single-parent children live in rentals. A child’s chances of residing in a public housing project are ten times higher when only his mother is present. His odds of living in a suburb are far lower.

•Children growing up in single-parent homes tend to be sexually precocious. Boys and girls both are much likelier to be having intercourse in their early teens.

•Fatherlessness tends to replicate itself. White girls, for instance, who grow up in single-parent families are almost twice as likely to divorce, and more than two-and-a-half times as likely to give birth out of wedlock, compared to counterparts who grow up with father and mother present.

Incidentally, one of the striking research findings of the last few years is that children in step-families and other re-combined households suffer from many of the same problems that plague single-parent children. In fact, they even experience extra problems to boot. Despite rosy promises at the beginning of the family liberation boom, none of the substitutes for biological families have turned out to have reliably good results for children.

Family Structure and Individual Well-being

It’s clear that the absence of natural fathers from family life is no good for children. And then there are all the ways that the phenomenon hurts adults. As terms like “the feminization of poverty” imply, single-parent families have turned out to be pretty lousy places for mothers to prosper in.

Equally striking, and less often appreciated, is the fact that flight from fatherhood has damaged the well-being of men, too. Men unconnected to children and wives have enormously higher rates of violence, accidents, and criminality than fathers and husbands. They have higher rates of chronic disease, are committed for psychiatric treatment far more often, and have much less success in the labor force.

The point I’m leading to can be illustrated with a story I heard recently: It seems two men were driving down a highway in a large truck when they came to a bridge underpass with a big, stern sign in front of it reading, “Absolutely no vehicles over 11’3″ allowed.” They pulled over to the shoulder, and got out their measuring tape, and it turned out their truck was 12’4″ tall.

At this point, the second guy looked to the driver and asked “So whadya think we should do?”

The driver glanced both ways, then answered: “Not a cop in sight—let’s chance it.”

There are some rules, obviously, that it is futile to flaunt. All we do in ignoring them is endanger ourselves and those traveling with us.

This is especially true when it is cultural, as opposed to legalistic, rules that we are breaking. Most often, those guidelines are there for our own good.

The informal laws that traditionally governed family life are an excellent example of this. The big yellow “Not Allowed” signs that existed in this area were not there to punish or harass, but to try to save as many people as possible from finding out what can happen when you drive unprepared into the steel girders of reality.

In this sense, the “biases” (if you will) in favor of stable marriage, of two-parent childrearing, of fathers meeting their family obligations by being present in the home, are profoundly humane, people-serving precepts. They became enshrined in daily life simply because, over time, they produced the happiest results for the largest number of people. They are a collective preference evolved from centuries of hard experience and time-testing.

On Taking Fatherlessness Seriously

Let me close by pointing out that the surge of fatherlessness and family decay that began about 25 years ago correlates closely to the surges in crime, drug use, child poverty, and educational droop that currently bedevil American society. One of the theses of the book I’m working on is that the connection between our family collapse and these social breakdowns is no coincidence. If we’re going to solve the problems that plague us most acutely today, I believe we’re going to have to encourage movement back toward what could be referred to as the “natural family,” made up of father, mother, and child.

Toward this end, we need to experiment with measures that reinvigorate marriage and actively discourage illegitimacy, divorce, and family abandonment. While creation of a solo-mother family is the leading route into household poverty and childhood pathology today, the leading routes out continue to be marriage and commitment related: Simply avoiding a birth out of wedlock and finishing high school, for instance, gives blacks and whites alike a 9 out of 10 chance of avoiding poverty. Likewise, mothers who have been abandoned but then remarry see their family income nearly double. This, in other words, is not just some symbolic issue. Marriage and family solidarity work, and practical policy ought to acknowledge that.

In places where the fatherly collapse is worst, I believe we’re going to have to try to reintroduce male family virtues in more artificial ways as well. In certain of our inner-cities we should be setting up some residential schools for boys and girls, plus some all-male public academies—perhaps staffed by decommissioned military officers, who know something about building discipline, self-respect, and collective morale.

Of course, every effort along these lines in the recent past has quickly been squashed by the liberal establishment. A few months ago I interviewed the principals of two of the special schools that the Detroit and Milwaukee public education systems tried to set up last year specifically for black males; they were absolutely livid that lawsuits from the National Organization for Women and the ACLU had blocked both projects. Feminists refuse to consider single-sex schools, Crisis writer Leon Podles has argued, because that would undermine their claim to “a monopoly of gender victimization”: “Better black boys die bleeding from gunshot wounds,” he writes in bitter amazement, “than allow any government policy that presupposes there are significant differences between the male and female of the species, and that the differences sometimes work to the disadvantage of the male.”

One final suggestion: in families that are currently intact, we need to help link fathers more closely to their children. There is an emotional as well as a physical aspect to father presence, and an interested and involved dad will always beat a lump at the end of the couch.

But none of this is going to happen until influential sectors of American society stop treating fathers as a kind of optional equipment. So long as we continue to rationalize father absence and excuse father flight, I’m afraid we’re going to keep our police officers, social workers, and hospitals very busy.


  • Karl Zinsmeister

    Karl Zinsmeister (born 1959) is an American journalist and public policy researcher. From 2006 to 2009 he served in the White House as President George W. Bush's chief domestic policy adviser, and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. He is currently vice president for publications at the Philanthropy Roundtable.

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