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Father’s Day: Are dads really disposable?

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Fathers who parent well are key to children developing persistence

Dads are disposable. This is the story now being told in certain precincts of our culture, from the Hollywood Hills — “Women are realizing it more and more, knowing that they don't have to settle with a man just to have that child,” in the words of Jennifer Anniston — to the Ivy League — Cornell psychologist Peggy Drexler recently wrote a book, Raising Boys Without Men, that celebrated women raising children without fathers.

There is only one problem with this story: it is a myth that does not fit the facts.

Do not get me wrong. I was raised by a single mom, and I think I turned out OK, as do many children raised in fatherless homes. But as a social scientist, I can also tell you that one consistent conclusion from hundreds of studies on child well-being is this: on average, children are much more likely to thrive when they have the good fortune to be raised in a home with their own married father.

Take money. Despite breathless media accounts about women overtaking men as breadwinners, in the real world, married fathers still are the primary earners in the clear majority of married families with children. In fact, married men take the lead in breadwinning in at least 69 percent of married families, according to the U.S. Census. And this money matters to children, insofar as children are more likely to live in a decent home, attend a good school, and eat well when their family has a good income derived in part from Dad’s hard work.

But money is not everything, and dads should not be viewed as human ATMs. This should be an especially welcome fact to fathers who are unemployed or underemployed in today’s tough economic times and to families where mom takes the lead in breadwinning.

Take crime, for example. Boys who are raised in homes with their fathers are more likely to acquire the sense of self-worth and self-control that allows them to steer clear of delinquent peers and trouble with the law. In fact, one Princeton University study found that boys from fatherless families were more than twice as likely to end up in prison or jail before they turned 30, compared to boys from homes with a married father.

Dads do not matter only for sons. They also matter for daughters.

Take teen pregnancy, for example. Girls raised in homes with their fathers are more likely to receive the attention, affection and modeling that they need from their own fathers to rebuff teenage boys and young men who do not have their best interests at heart. They are much less likely to initiate sex at an early age and end up as teenage mothers. For instance, one study by University of Arizona psychologist Bruce Ellis found that girls whose fathers left the home before they turned six were about six times more likely to end up pregnant as teenagers, compared to girls whose fathers were there for the duration of their childhood.

Or take safety. Fathers play an important role in ensuring the safety of their children, both by monitoring their children’s activities and peers, and by signaling to others, from neighborhood bullies to adults seeking a target for abuse, that they will not tolerate harm to their children. Indeed, by simply sticking around, ordinary dads play an important role in protecting their children from physical, sexual and emotional abuse. For example, a recent federal study found that the safest place for a child was a home with her married mother and father and that children living in a home with mom and an unrelated male boyfriend were about 10 times more likely to be abused than their peers living with their married mother and father.

I could go on, citing statistical chapter and verse about the merits of fathers. But clearly the myth of the disposable dad does not fit the facts. The social science tells us a very different story about fathers: In most — albeit not all — families in America, fathers play an important role in fostering the healthy educational, emotional and social development of our nation’s children.

So this weekend, if there is a good father in your life, or your children's lives, make it clear to them that he is not disposable.

W. Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He is also the coauthor of "Gender and Parenthood: Natural and Social Scientific Perspectives" (Columbia University Press, forthcoming).