Q&A: Brad Wilcox on the state of fatherhood in America — and what can be done to make it better
Fathers are more active in their children’s lives, but only 1 in 2 children will spend their childhood living with both biological parents
This weekend will be all about fathers and the roles they play in our lives. But too many children are growing up without their father full time in their home; only one of two American children will spend the entirety of their childhood living with both biological parents.
Esther Larson of the Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, to talk about the state of fatherhood in America, and how philanthropic organizations and individuals can help.
Wilcox is the author of the forthcoming book “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization.” He is also a Deseret contributor and a visiting scholar at Sutherland Institute.
He says that there’s good news about fatherhood, especially a recent decline in divorce rates and a rising number of fathers who stay active in their children’s lives even if they don’t live with the child. Despite these improvements, many boys and young men are struggling because they are distanced from paternal love — either as the recipient or the giver. This isn’t a problem just for individual families, Wilcox explains, but for society as a whole.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Esther Larson: Why is fatherhood important as we consider children and community life in America?
Brad Wilcox: Fathers play an irreplaceable role in the lives of our kids, families and communities. In my book “Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives,” my co-authors and I discuss four unique ways in which fathers contribute to their children’s lives. First, fathers play. Yes, moms play with their children. But the rough-and-tumble play dads engage in with their children uniquely teaches children how to control their bodies and forge friendships on and off the field.
Second, fathers foster independence. Whereas mothers are more likely to offer support and security first, fathers encourage risk-taking and embracing the new. A swim lesson study found, for instance, that “fathers tend to stand behind their children so the children face their social environment, whereas mothers tend to position themselves in front of their children, seeking to establish visual contact with the children.”
Third, fathers protect against bad influences and predators. Teenage girls, for instance, are much more likely to avoid a teen pregnancy when they have an engaged father. Finally, fathers take a distinctive approach to discipline, as family scholars Kyle Pruett and Marsha Kline Pruett show in their book “Partnership Parenting.”
Although mothers discipline more frequently, dads are more likely to hold their children to a clear standard — to be sticklers for family rules and to take an authoritative posture with their children. Kids benefit from the distinct parenting style of their dads, as I noted in a recent article for The Atlantic.
EL: What does this mean for the community?
BW: When dads are on the scene, communities are safer, children are more likely to flourish, and the American dream is stronger. For instance, we know that neighborhoods with more two-parent families have markedly lower crime rates. In fact, in some of his research, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has found the relationship between race and violent victimization in neighborhoods disappears when “percentage female-headed families is controlled.”
We see a similar story when it comes to the health of the American dream. Work done by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues indicates that poor children are more likely to realize the American dream when their communities have lots of two-parent families. Chetty has also found that one of the most powerful neighborhood drivers of the gap in economic mobility for poor Black and white boys is the “fraction of low-income Black fathers present” in a neighborhood. This research tells us that dads make a difference in communities across America.
EL: From your extensive research on the family structure and its impact on culture, what are some key trends related to fatherhood in our country that we should consider?
BW: About 6 in 10 American men are fathers, but because of divorce and nonmarital childbearing, only about half of children will spend the duration of their childhood with both of their biological parents. For kids raised outside of a married home, we see that about 20% of single-parent homes today are headed by single dads.
But the good news is that the divorce rate is falling, which means the share of children being raised in an intact family with their father is ticking up. We’re also seeing the share of nonresidential dads who are staying in regular contact with their kids rising. Finally, even though fathers do not spend as much time with their kids as moms do, today’s residential fathers are markedly more engaged with their kids than was the case in the last century.
EL: In response to these trends, any promising approaches or innovative ways to respond to them that you’ve seen? On the flip side, any lessons learned related to approaching fatherhood and family structure related areas?
BW: We have seen compelling PSA campaigns from the National Fatherhood Initiative, as well as efforts on their part to teach low-income dads how to be better and more engaged fathers. They report that they have distributed 10,687,050 “fatherhood skill-building resources and trained 42,644 individuals working with dads.” One study shows that their 24/7 Dad program increased both residential and nonresidential fathers’ sense of parental self-efficacy.
I am encouraged to see All Pro Dad gearing up similar efforts in Florida, in cooperation with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration. It will be important to evaluate their success in taking the fatherhood message to the general public and in running programs designed to help at-risk fathers play a positive role in their children’s lives.
EL: Any recommendations for the philanthropic community as we consider opportunities to make an impact in strengthening the role of fatherhood in American families?
BW: More and more of us are facing up to the fact that too many American boys and men are floundering. As Andrew Yang wrote last year for The Washington Post, “A number of my friends have become detached from society. Everyone hits a snag at some point — losing a job, facing a divorce — but my male friends seem less able to bounce back. Male dysfunction tends to take on an air of nihilism and dropping out. As a society, we don’t provide many avenues for healthy recovery.”
Yang added, “Male achievement — alongside that of women — is a condition for a healthy society. And male failure begets male failure, to society’s detriment.”
One big reason so many of the boys and men in our nation are having trouble is that too many males are distanced from fatherhood, either as practitioners of paternal love or recipients of that love. Family breakdown and distant dads spell trouble for boys and men alike. So the philanthropic community needs to strengthen marriage, underline the importance of dads and help all fathers — both residential and nonresidential — strengthen their ties with their children.
In particular, foundations and wealthy individuals should get behind initiatives that strengthen marriage, like Communio’s efforts to foster stronger marriages and family ministries in churches in states across America, from California to Texas. They could also help initiatives that provide compelling messaging around fathering and the irreplaceable role of fathers on social media, like the All Pro Dad project of Family First or Success Sequence, which encourages young men and women to put marriage before the baby carriage.
Finally, we need to build networks of support for dads and husbands, like the Fatherhood Foundation of Virginia. The aim here is to maximize initiatives that will make our country a place where Father’s Day is a day of true celebration for ever more men, women and children.