This question would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. But today the question whether fathers will survive the next century is unsettled. And that's pretty unsettling, at least to me. But the fact is, as we begin the new millennium, there are some who would like to see daddies disappear. Just in case you think I'm exaggerating, here's what the National Organization for Women (NOW) wrote in an "Action Alert" issued on December 3, 1999: "...there is very little in the way of scientific evidence that supports the assertions about the consequences of 'fatherlessness' and about the need for father involvement. In fact, the evidence is heavily weighted in the opposite direction."
In other words, according to NOW, it's a father's presence, not his absence, that is harmful to kids. And I thought all that time I spent reading stories to my kids and playing with them in the backyard was actually being helpful. Silly me.
While most Americans haven't bought into the "daddies are disasters" extremist rhetoric of organizations like NOW, far too many Americans have bought into a growing cultural ambivalence about the importance of fatherhood to today's family. Ask just about anyone over 70 whether fathers matter and they are likely to stare at you in disbelief that you would ask such a silly question. Ask many under 30, and their answer is likely to be "not necessarily."
This has had a predictable behavioral effect: Dads are disappearing. Nearly 40 percent of all children live absent their biological father. About 40 percent of the children who live in fatherless households haven't seen their fathers for at least a year. Fifty percent of children who don't live with their fathers have never even stepped foot in their father's home. More than half of all children born in the United States today will spend half their childhood in a father-absent household. Some experts predict soon this will increase to 60 percent.
While this may please certain extremist groups, it surely is not going to be very pleasing to children. The fact is that on almost every measure of child well-being imaginable, children who grow up without the active involvement of a loving, committed and responsible father, compared to those who do, are at greater risk for poor outcomes.
Fatherless children are, for example, more likely to fail at school or drop out, suffer an emotional or behavioral problem requiring psychiatric treatment, engage in early and promiscuous sex, and commit crime. While economics certainly matters, so do dads.
And, of course, so do moms. Kids need the love and devotion of both their mom and their dad. Despite what some gender warriors of both sexes would have you believe, it's not an either-or thing -- kids need both. But for some reason moms are not required to "prove" their contributions to child development through social science the way that dads are.
So while we wait for social scientists to determine whether fathers in their regression equations add anything to the well-being of children, on planet Earth, real live fathers are rapidly heading for the endangered species list. The question is: Can anything be done about it?
Fortunately, there are some hopeful signs for fatherhood in America. First, there is an increasing recognition that fathers do matter. According to a 1996 Gallup Poll, 79.1 percent of Americans feel "the most significant family or social problem facing America is the physical absence of the father from the home," up nearly 10 percentage points from just four years before.
Second, there is evidence this increasing public awareness about the problems associated with fatherlessness is translating into concrete action. When we started the National Fatherhood Initiative nearly six years ago, we could barely find 200 local, community-based fatherhood support, outreach and skill-building programs nationwide. Today, there are more than 2,000.
Third, even the federal government is starting to get into the act. Last October, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass on a bi-partisan basis the Fathers Count Act of 1999, which would provide funds to community-based organizations to promote responsible fatherhood and marriage. The U.S. Senate is poised to pass a similar bill in 2000, and the Clinton Administration has indicated its willingness to sign such legislation into law.
The bad news is that neither attitudinal change, social activism, nor legislation alone saves endangered species. Behavior does. And when it comes to our behavior and the decisions we as a society make every day about fathers and children, we're still in bad shape. One in three children born today are born out of wedlock. Four out of ten marriages end in divorce. Over 4 million couples are cohabiting today which, contrary to conventional wisdom, increases the likelihood of divorce should the cohabiting couple later marry.
The challenge we face as we head into the next century is to turn attitudinal change into behavioral change. If not, future generations will go to the Museum of Natural History to view a display entitled "The American Father" right next to a display of the Wooly Mammoth. That won't be good news for either fathers or the children who come to stare.