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Fathers—Why They Are Disappearing

Fathers—Why They Are Disappearing

 Fathers—Why They Are Disappearing

“I don’t remember Mom and Dad fighting or arguing. All I know is that Dad was there, and then—boom!—one day he wasn’t there. I don’t know where my dad is to this day. I know I don’t feel anything toward him.”—Bruce.

“I was the only kid at school who didn’t have two parents and didn’t live in a house . . . I always felt like I stood out. I always felt very different from everyone else my age.”—Patricia.

THE crisis of fatherless families has its roots in the industrial revolution. As factory jobs began luring men away from their homes, the father’s influence in the family began to wane; mothers took on a greater share of child rearing. * Even so, most fathers remained with their families. During the mid-1960’s, however, the divorce rate in the United States began a dramatic upward spiral. Religious, economic, and social barriers to divorce started to crumble. Spurred on by the advice of self-proclaimed experts who asserted that divorce not only didn’t harm children but might actually be good for them, couples opted for divorce in record numbers. Says the book Divided Families—What Happens to Children When Parents Part, by Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., and Andrew J. Cherlin: “In Belgium, France, and Switzerland rates [of divorce] have doubled [since the 1960’s], while in Canada, England, and the Netherlands they have risen threefold.”

Although children usually stay with their mother after a divorce, most departing dads want to maintain a relationship with the children. Joint custody is one popular solution. Yet, most divorced fathers maintain surprisingly little contact with their children. One survey revealed that only 1 child in 6 sees his or her divorced father on a  weekly basis. Almost half the children had not seen their father for an entire year!

The Failure of Shared Custody

For divorced couples to share custody, it requires enormous cooperation and trust—qualities often in short supply. Researchers Furstenberg and Cherlin put it this way: “A major reason why fathers stop seeing their children is that they want to have nothing to do with their former wives. And many women adopt the same attitude toward their former husbands.”

True, many divorced fathers do see their children regularly. But because they are no longer involved in the day-to-day lives of their children, it is difficult for some to behave like fathers when they are with them. Many opt for the role of playmate, spending virtually all of their time together in recreation or shopping. Fourteen-year-old Ari describes his weekend visits with his father, saying: “There’s no set schedule, no ‘Be home by five-thirty’ kind of stuff. It’s open. It’s free. And my father is always buying me presents.”—How It Feels When Parents Divorce, by Jill Krementz.

A loving father should ‘know how to give good gifts to his children.’ (Matthew 7:11) But gifts are no substitute for needed guidance and discipline. (Proverbs 3:12; 13:1) When one trades the role of parent for that of playmate or visitor, the father-child relationship is bound to deteriorate. One study concluded: “Divorce can permanently rupture the father-child relationship.”—Journal of Marriage and the Family, May 1994.

Hurt and angry at being cut off from their children’s lives—or perhaps just coldly indifferent—some men abandon their families, failing to give needed financial support. * (1 Timothy 5:8) “I don’t think of anything about my father that I like,” says one bitter teenage boy. “He’s really out of the picture, not supporting us or anything, and I think that stinks.”

Unwed Parents

Record numbers of illegitimate births have caused the biggest growth in the numbers of fatherless children. “About one-third of all childbirths in the [United States] now occur outside of marriage,” says the book Fatherless America. Out of the approximately 500,000 babies born each year to those from 15 to 19 years of age, 78 percent are to unmarried teens. Teen pregnancy is a global problem, however. And programs that teach contraception or preach abstinence have done little to change the sexual behavior of teens.

The book Teenage Fathers, by Bryan E. Robinson, explains: “Out-of-wedlock pregnancy no longer carries the shame and humiliation it did during the 1960s because of more liberalized social attitudes towards sex  and premarital pregnancy. . . . Also the youth of today are constantly bombarded with sexuality through advertising, music, motion pictures, and television. The American media tell adolescents that sex is romantic, exciting, and titillating without ever showing the real-life consequences of spontaneous and irresponsible sexual behavior.”

Many youngsters seem blissfully unaware of the consequences of illicit sex. Note some of the comments that author Robinson heard: “‘She didn’t look like the type [to get pregnant]’; ‘We only had sex once a week’; or ‘I didn’t think you could get pregnant the first time.’” Of course, some young men know all too well that sex can result in pregnancy. The book Young Unwed Fathers observes: “To many boys [in the inner city], sex is an important symbol of local social status; sexual conquests become so many notches on one’s belt. Many of the girls offer sex as a gift in their bargaining for the attentions of a young man.” In some inner-city circles, boys who have not fathered a baby may even be teased for being a “virgin”!

The picture gets even darker when you consider the results of a 1993 study of school-age mothers in California. It turns out that two thirds of the girls had become pregnant, not by teenage boyfriends, but by men over 20 years of age! In fact, some studies indicate that many unwed teen moms are victims of statutory rape—or even child abuse. Such widespread exploitation reveals how sick and depraved modern-day society has become.—2 Timothy 3:13.

Why Young Men Walk Away

Teenage boys who father children rarely take long-term responsibility for their offspring. Said one boy whose girlfriend became pregnant: “I just told her, ‘See ya’ ’round.’” However, as an article in Family Life Educator points out, “most young fathers express a strong desire to have a close relationship with their children.” According to one study of young unmarried dads, 70 percent visited their child once a week. “However,” cautions the article, “as the children get older, the amount of visitation decreases.”

One 17-year-old father summed up why, saying: “If I’d only known how hard it was going to be, I’d never let this happen.” Few youths have either the emotional maturity or the experience to handle the demands of parenthood. Nor do many have the education or the employment skills needed to earn a living. Rather than cope with the humiliation of failure, many young men simply walk away from their children. “My life is pretty much of a mess,” confesses one young father. Another laments: “I can hardly look after myself; I don’t know what I would do if I had to look after [my son] too.”

Sour Grapes

In Bible times the Jews had a saying: “The parents ate the sour grapes, but the children got the sour taste.” (Ezekiel 18:2, Today’s English Version) God told the Jews that it did not need to be that way, that past errors need not be repeated in the future. (Ezekiel 18:3) Nevertheless, millions of children today seem to be tasting the bitterness of their parents’ “sour grapes”—paying the penalty for their parents’ immaturity, irresponsibility, and marital failures. The research is simply overwhelming in demonstrating that children who grow up without a father are exposed to a plethora of physical and emotional risks. (See the box on page 7.) Particularly distressing is the fact that the legacy of a fatherless home is often passed on from generation to generation—a continuing cycle of pain and misery.

Are fatherless families doomed to failure? Not at all. In fact, the good news is that the cycle of fatherless families can be broken. Our next article will discuss how.


^ par. 4 Interestingly, before industrialization, child-rearing manuals in the United States were generally addressed to fathers, not mothers.

^ par. 10 According to researchers Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, in the United States, “about 40 percent of children who are theoretically eligible for child support do not have a [court ordered] child support award at all, and a quarter of those with an award receive nothing. Less than a third of children receive the full amount they are owed.”

 [Box/Picture on page 7]


Growing up without a father poses serious risks for children. While the following information may be painful for some to consider, being aware of the risks is the first step in preventing or at least minimizing the damage. Realize, too, that statistical studies apply to groups and not to individuals. Many children grow up in fatherless homes without experiencing any of these problems. As our final article will show, parental intervention and the application of Bible principles can do much to mitigate these potential difficulties. Consider, then, some of the possible risks a fatherless child may face.

Increased Dangers of Sexual Abuse

Research clearly shows that fatherlessness increases the risk of child sexual abuse. One study revealed that out of 52,000 cases of child abuse, “72 percent involved children living in a household without one or both biological parents.” The book Fatherless America asserts: “The escalating risk of childhood sexual abuse in our society stems primarily from the growing absence of married fathers and the growing presence of stepfathers, boyfriends, and other unrelated or transient males.”

Increased Risk of Early Sexual Behavior

Because there is likely less parental supervision in a single-parent home, young ones often have more opportunities to engage in immoral conduct. Less parental training may also be a factor. “Girls without a father in their life are two and a half times as likely to get pregnant,” says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


A study of black teenage girls in South Africa concluded that poverty is a common consequence of unwed parenthood. “In about 50% of cases,” say the study’s authors, “the teenager is unlikely to return to school.” Many unwed mothers end up in a life of prostitution and drug trafficking. The situation may not be much better in Western lands. In the United States, “10 percent of children in two-parent families were in poverty [in 1995], compared to 50 percent in female householder families.”—America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 1997.


Forced to fend for themselves, some single parents are overwhelmed by their responsibilities and are unable to spend adequate time with their children. One divorcée recalls: “I was working by day and going to school at night—running myself ragged. I definitely neglected the kids.”

Emotional Damage

Contrary to the claim of some experts that children quickly bounce back after a divorce, researchers, such as Dr. Judith Wallerstein, have found that divorce inflicts long-lasting emotional wounds. “Over a third of the young men and women between the ages of nineteen and twenty-nine have little or no ambition ten years after their parents’ divorce. They are drifting through life with no set goals . . . and a sense of helplessness.” (Second Chances, by Dr. Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee) Low self-esteem, depression, delinquent behavior, and persistent anger were observed among many children of divorce.

The book The Single-Parent Family says: “Numerous studies show that boys raised without a strong male presence in their lives show insecurity about their gender identity, low self-esteem, and, later in their lives, trouble forming intimate relationships. The problems girls may develop from living without male role models don’t usually show up until adolescence or later, and include having difficulty forming successful male/female relationships in adulthood.”