As parts of our society attempt to redefine what a family is, the concept of Father's Day may appear to some as a quaint holdover from a simpler time. We seem to be engaged in a grand experiment to determine whether or not we can survive as a society without a father's influence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15 million American kids are currently being raised in a home where a father is not present — that's one child out of every three. In some communities, the trend of fatherlessness is even more pronounced.
"In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence — both in my life and in the lives of others," President Barack Obama wrote in an article for Parade Magazine. "I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill. We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference."
The president's observation is borne out by the statistics, which paint a grim picture of what life has in store for children left bereft of a father's guidance. Economically, they start with massive disadvantages. The income in homes with single mothers is, on average, less than half of that of married couples with children, and father-absent children are four times more likely to live below the poverty line than children in homes with both parents.
The challenges, however, extend well beyond the financial.
The absence of a father means significantly higher likelihood of juvenile delinquency, incarceration and teen pregnancy, along with lower grades and much higher high-school dropout rates. Children in homes with no father are more likely to abuse drugs, more likely to develop behavioral problems and even more likely to be obese. In what may be the most unnerving statistic on this subject, father-absent teens constitute a staggering 63 percent of all teen suicides.
The results of this grand experiment are in: children need fathers. Yet despite this undeniable reality, a growing number of voices insist that fatherhood and its implicated masculinity are archaic notions that ought to be discarded. Historically, fathers have been the protectors and the providers, but for many, the very concept of a masculine protector or provider seems like a sexist relic irreconcilable with modern notions of gender. Yet all children need and deserve a protector and a provider, and fathers are uniquely suited for the job. No other occupation or obligation that a man can have is of greater import.
That said, a great deal of success as a father comes from just showing up. Some psychologists refer to the importance of "quality time," but it is really mundane, day-to-day quantity time that children need. Children may go for days on end without requiring substantial attention, but their confidence increases just by knowing a father is available when needed. To be a good dad, just being there is half the battle.
Good fathers also recognize that they have an equal partner in their efforts. Just as single mothers struggle in attempt to raise children without a father, so do fathers stumble when they fail to honor the mothers whose influence is just as vital as their own.
Still, even with all the problems facing the family today, we ought to be encouraged by the fact that there are countless outstanding fathers who strive each day to protect, to provide and to partner with their spouse as they seek to do their best to raise their children into a happy, healthy and productive adulthood. For the quiet dignity and daily courage they bring to their irreplaceable role, we salute them on this Father's Day.
With any luck, maybe they'll get a chance to take a nap.