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'Experimental' family is a failure

I recently sat in conference with other scholars, policy makers and parents as we considered the status of men in families in our communities. All in attendance were concerned about the ever-increasing absence of men in children's lives. There was a sense that the relationships between children and parents are deteriorating.

For example, in some communities there are unbelievable numbers of children raised in homes with only the mother and no father present; numbers of homes without fathers will exceed 70 percent this year. At this conference, I presented a paper that explored how children's ideas about their parents changed when the father was out of the home. Also covered in the paper is how teens rate the jobs their parents do when the mother lives alone with the children or has a new husband/father figure in the home.

Data were collected during two successive years from several thousand parents and teens from across the country. The first finding would surprise no one. We found that nonresident dads have very little knowledge and/or influence on what their children do, where they go after school and what friends they have. This was particularly true for African-American dads.

It was disappointing to confirm our suspicion that nonresident fathers, regardless of race, youth's gender or family type are seen by their children as knowing practically nothing about what they do. We also found that when there is no father or father figure in a household, teens rate their mothers very harshly with regard to her job as a parent. These children say that their mothers rarely monitor their play or school activities and they think their mothers do a poor job at parenting in general (compared to how teens in two-parent families rated their moms). The children rated their mothers very low in attempts to maintain daily family routines. The absence of a father or father figure, it seems, not only removes him from the home, but also has a dramatic effect on how the mother is able to perform her parenting duties. Children in these situations saw these mothers as less effective, more permissive and more likely to be uninvolved.

I hasten to add that we should be careful not to blame single moms for the ills of society. If she is trying to do the job alone, for whatever reason, she has her hands full. The noted communitarian activist A. Etzioni reminds us that parenting is such a complicated task that even two parents are probably not enough to do the job. With the increasingly popular trend toward individualism, we have completely focused our attention on individual rights, individual pleasures and individual wants. This has put in peril the very fabric of community life.

We have experimented for approximately 50 years with the idea that families were just changing and adapting to a new time in our evolutionary social progress. But this experiment doesn't seem to be working. Our cultural focus for nearly a generation has been the enhancement of individual well-being instead of the well-being of children and others in the community. We are now reaping the harvest of a misguided navel-gazing philosophy of "flaming individualism" that pushes parents apart, fragments homes and contributes to the destruction of essential family connections.

The moral responsibility of community success lies not in promoting and enhancing the immediate gratification of self. Instead, it resides squarely on individuals turning away from personal navel-gazing and focusing on strengthening community through increased efforts to fortify family life.


Randal Day, Ph.D. is a professor in the School of Family Science at Brigham Young University. E-mail: randal_day@byu.edu