The Decline of Fatherhood

The decline of fatherhood is one of the most basic, unexpected, and extraordinary social trends of our time. Its dimensions can be captured in a single statistic: In just three decades, between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of U.S. children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled, from 17 percent to 36 percent. By the turn of the century, nearly 50 percent of American children may be going to sleep each evening without being able to say good night to their dads.

No one predicted this trend, few researchers or government agencies have monitored it, and it is not widely discussed, even today. But the decline of fatherhood is a major force behind many of the most disturbing problems that plague American society: crime and delinquency; teenage pregnancy; deteriorating educational achievement; depression, substance abuse, and alienation among adolescents; and the growing number of women and children living in poverty. The current generation of children may be the first in our nation’s history to be less well off–psychologically, socially, economically, and morally–than their parents were at the same age. The United States, observes Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “may be the first society in history in which children are distinctly worse off than adults.”

Even as this calamity unfolds, our cultural view of fatherhood itself is changing. Few people doubt the fundamental importance of mothers. But fathers? More and more, the question of whether fathers are really necessary is being raised. Fatherhood is said by many to be merely a social role that others–mothers, partners, stepfathers, uncles and aunts, grandparents–can play.

There was a time in the past when fatherlessness was far more common than it is today, but death was to blame, not divorce, desertion, and out-of-wedlock births. In early-17th-century Virginia, only an estimated 31 percent of white children reached age 18 with both parents still alive. That figure climbed to 50 percent by the early 18th century, to 72 percent by the start of the 20th century, and close to its current level by 1940. Today, well over 90 percent of America’s youngsters turn 18 with two living parents. Almost all of today’s ‘fatherless’ children have fathers who are alive, well, and perfectly capable of shouldering the responsibilities of fatherhood. Who would have thought that so many men would relinquish them?

Not so long ago, social scientists and others dismissed the change in the cause of fatherlessness as irrelevant. Children, it was said, are merely losing their parents in a different way than they used to. You don’t hear that very much anymore. A surprising finding of recent research is that it is decidedly worse for a child to lose a father in the modern, voluntary way than through death. The children of divorced and never-married mothers are less successful in life by almost every measure than the children of widowed mothers. The replacement of death by divorce as the prime cause of fatherlessness is a monumental setback in the history of childhood.

Until the 1960s, the falling death rate and the rising divorce rate neutralized each other. In 1900 the percentage of American children living in single-parent families was 8.5 percent. By 1960 it had increased to just 9.1 percent. Virtually no one during those years was writing or thinking about family breakdown, disintegration, or decline.

Indeed, what is most significant about the changing family demography of the first six decades of the 20th century is this: Because the death rate was dropping faster than the divorce rate was rising, more children were living with both of their natural parents by 1960 than at any other time in world history. The figure was close to 80 percent for the generation born in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But then the decline in the death rate slowed, and the divorce rate skyrocketed. “The scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent that I know of,” says Lawrence Stone, a noted Princeton University family historian. “There has been nothing like it for the last 2,000 years, and probably longer.”

Consider what has happened to children. Most estimates are that only about 50 percent of the children born during the 1970-84 “baby bust” period will still live with their natural parents by age 17–a staggering drop from nearly 80 percent.

In theory, divorce need not mean disconnection. In reality, it often does. A large survey conducted in the late 1980s found that about one in five divorced fathers had not seen his children in the past year and that fewer than half of divorced fathers saw their children more than several times a year. A 1981 survey of adolescents who were living apart from their fathers found that 52 percent hadn’t seen them at all in more than a year; only 16 percent saw their fathers as often as once a week–and the fathers’ contact with their children dropped off sharply over time.

The picture grows worse. Just as divorce has overtaken death as the leading cause of fatherlessness, out-of-wedlock births are expected to surpass divorce in the 1990s. They accounted for 30 percent of all births by 1991; by the turn of the century they may account for 40 percent (and 80 percent of minority births). And there is substantial evidence that having an unmarried father is even worse for a child than having a divorced father.

Across time and cultures, fathers have always been considered essentia–and not just for their sperm. Indeed, no known society ever thought of fathers as potentially unnecessary. Marriage and the nuclear family–mother, father, and children–are the most universal social institutions in existence. In no society has the birth of children out of wedlock been the cultural norm. To the contrary, concern for the legitimacy of children is nearly universal.

In my many years as a sociologist, I have found few other bodies of evidence that lean so much in one direction as this one: On the whole, two parents–a father and a mother–are better for a child than one parent. There are, to be sure, many factors that complicate this simple proposition. We all know of a two-parent family that is truly dysfunctional–the proverbial family from hell. A child can certainly be raised to a fulfilling adulthood by one loving parent who is wholly devoted to the child’s well-being. But such exceptions do not invalidate the rule any more than the fact that some three-pack-a-day smokers live to a ripe old age casts doubt on the dangers of cigarettes.

The collapse of children’s well-being in the United States has reached breathtaking proportions. Juvenile violent crime has increased sixfold, from 18,000 arrests in 1960 to 118,000 in 1992, a period in which the total number of young people in the population remained relatively stable. Reports of child neglect and abuse have quadrupled since 1976, when data were first collected. Since 1960, eating disorders and depression have soared among adolescent girls. Teen suicide has tripled. Alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers, although it has leveled off in recent years, continues at a very high rate. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have declined more than 70 points, and most of the decline cannot be accounted for by the increased academic diversity of students taking the test. Poverty has shifted from the elderly to the young. Of all the nation’s poor today, 38 percent are children.

One can think of many explanations for these unhappy developments: the growth of commercialism and consumerism, the influence of television and the mass media, the decline of religion, the widespread availability of guns and addictive drugs, and the decay of social order and neighborhood relationships. None of these causes should be dismissed. But the evidence is now strong that the absence of fathers from the lives of children is one of the most important causes.

What do fathers do? Partly, of course, it is simply being a second adult in the home. Bringing up children is demanding, stressful, and often exhausting. Two adults can support and spell each other; they can also offset each other’s deficiencies and build on each other’s strengths.

Beyond that, fathers–men–bring an array of unique and irreplaceable qualities that women do not ordinarily bring. Some of these are familiar, if sometimes overlooked or taken for granted. The father as protector, for example, has by no means outlived his usefulness. And he is important as a role model. Teenage boys without fathers are notoriously prone to trouble. The pathway to adulthood for daughters is somewhat easier, but they still must learn from their fathers, as they cannot from their mothers, how to relate to men. They learn from their fathers about heterosexual trust, intimacy, and difference. They learn to appreciate their own femininity from the one male who is most special in their lives (assuming that they love and respect their fathers). Most important, through loving and being loved by their fathers, they learn that they are worthy of love.

Recent research has given us much deeper–and more surprising–insights into the father’s role in child rearing. It shows that in almost all of their interactions with children, fathers do things a little differently from mothers. What fathers do–their special parenting style–is not only highly complementary to what mothers do but is by all indications important in its own right.

For example, an often-overlooked dimension of fathering is play. From their children’s birth through adolescence, fathers tend to emphasize play more than caretaking. This may be troubling to egalitarian feminists, and it would indeed be wise for most fathers to spend more time in caretaking. Yet the fathers’ style of play seems to have unusual significance. It is likely to be both physically stimulating and exciting. With older children it involves more physical games and teamwork that require the competitive testing of physical and mental skills. It frequently resembles an apprenticeship or teaching relationship: Come on, let me show you how.

Mothers generally spend more time playing with their children, but mothers’ play tends to take place more at the child’s level. Mothers provide the child with the opportunity to direct the play, to be in charge, to proceed at the child’s own pace. Kids, at least in the early years, seem to prefer to play with daddy. In one study of 2 1/2-year-olds who were given a choice, more than two-thirds chose to play with their fathers.

The way fathers play affects everything from the management of emotions to intelligence and academic achievement. It is particularly important in promoting the essential virtue of self-control. According to one expert, “Children who roughhouse with their fathers . . . usually quickly learn that biting, kicking, and other forms of physical violence are not acceptable.” They learn when enough is enough.

Children, a committee assembled by the Board on Children and Families of the National Research Council concluded, “learn critical lessons about how to recognize and deal with highly charged emotions in the context of playing with their fathers. Fathers, in effect, give children practice in regulating their own emotions and recognizing others’ emotional clues.” A study of convicted murderers in Texas found that 90 percent of them either didn’t play as children or played abnormally.

At play and in other realms, fathers tend to stress competition, challenge, initiative, risk taking, and independence. Mothers, as caretakers, stress emotional security and personal safety. On the playground, fathers will try to get the child to swing higher than the person on the next swing, while mothers will worry about an accident. It’s sometimes said that fathers express more concern for the child’s long-term development, while mothers focus on the child’s immediate well-being. It is clear that children have dual needs that must be met. Becoming a mature and competent adult involves the integration of two often-contradictory human desires: for communion, or the feeling of being included, connected, and related, and for agency, which entails independence, individuality, and self-fulfillment. One without the other is a denuded and impaired humanity, an incomplete realization of human potential.

For many couples, to be sure, these functions are not rigidly divided along standard female-male lines, and there may even be a role reversal. But the exceptions prove the rule. Gender-differentiated parenting is so important that in child rearing by gay and lesbian couples, one partner commonly fills the male role while the other fills the female role.

It is ironic that in our public discussion of fathering, it’s seldom acknowledged that fathers have a distinctive role to play. Indeed, it’s far more often said that fathers should be more like mothers (and that men generally should be more like women–less aggressive, less competitive). While such things may be said with the best of intentions, the effects are perverse. After all, if fathering is no different from mothering, males can easily be replaced in the home by women. It might even seem better. Already viewed as a burden and obstacle to self-fulfillment, fatherhood thus comes to seem superfluous and unnecessary as well.

We know that fathers have a surprising impact on children. Fathers’ involvement seems to be linked to improved quantitative and verbal skills, improved problem-solving ability, and higher academic achievement. Several studies have found that the presence of the father is one of the determinants of girls’ proficiency in mathematics. And one pioneering study found that the amount of time fathers spent reading was a strong predictor of their daughters’ verbal ability.

For sons, who can more directly follow their fathers’ example, the results have been even more striking. A number of studies have uncovered a strong relationship between father involvement and the quantitative and mathematical abilities of their sons. Other studies have found a relationship between paternal nurturing and boys’ verbal intelligence.

How fathers produce these intellectual benefits is not yet clear. No doubt it is partly a matter of the time and money a man brings to his family. But it is probably also related to the unique mental and behavioral qualities of men; the male sense of play, reasoning, challenge, and problem solving, and the traditional male association with achievement and occupational advancement.

Men also have a vital role to play in promoting cooperation and other “soft” virtues. We don’t often think of fathers as teachers of empathy, but involved fathers, it turns out, may be of special importance for the development of this character trait, essential to an ordered society of law-abiding, cooperative, and compassionate adults. Examining the results of a 26-year longitudinal study, a trio of researchers reached a “quite astonishing” conclusion: The single most important childhood factor in developing empathy is paternal involvement in child care. Fathers who spent time alone with their children more than twice a week–giving meals, baths, and other basic care–reared the most compassionate adults.

It is not yet clear why fathers are so important in instilling this quality. Perhaps merely by being with their children they provide a model for compassion. Perhaps it has to do with their style of play or mode of reasoning. Perhaps it is somehow related to the fact that fathers typically are the family’s main arbiter with the outside world. Or perhaps it is because mothers who receive help from their mates have more time and energy to cultivate the soft virtues. Whatever the reason, it is hard to think of a more important contribution that fathers can make to their children.

Men, too, suffer grievously from the growth of fatherlessness. The world over, young and unattached males have always been a cause for social concern. They can be a danger to themselves and to society. Young unattached men tend to be more aggressive, violent, promiscuous, and prone to substance abuse; they are also more likely to die prematurely through disease, accidents, or self-neglect. They make up the majority of deviants, delinquents, criminals, killers, drug users, vice lords, and miscreants of every kind. Senator Moynihan put it succinctly when he warned that a society full of unattached males “asks for and gets chaos.”

Family life–marriage and child rearing–is a civilizing force for men. It encourages them to develop prudence, cooperativeness, honesty, trust, self-sacrifice, and other habits that can lead to success as an economic provider. Marriage also focuses male sexual energy. Having children typically impresses on men the importance of setting a good example. Who hasn’t heard at least one man say that he gave up a socially irresponsible way of life when he married and had children?

The civilizing effect of being a father is highlighted by a path-breaking program started in 1982 in one of Cleveland’s inner-city neighborhoods by social worker Charles Ballard. Using an intensive social-work approach that includes home visits, parenting programs, and group therapy sessions, he has reunited more than 2,000 absent, unwed fathers with their children through his Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization.

The standard theory is that if you want inner-city men to be responsible fathers, you first must find them a job. Ballard has stood this theory on its head. His approach is that you first must convince the young men of the importance of being a good father, and then they will be motivated to finish school and find work. An independent evaluation of his approach showed that it works. Only 12 percent of the young men had full-time work when they entered his program, but 62 percent later found such work, and 12 percent found part-time jobs. Ninety-seven percent of the men he dealt with began to provide financial support for their children, and 71 percent had no additional children out of wedlock.

Marriage by itself, even without children, is also a major civilizing force for men. No other institution save religion (and perhaps the military) places such moral demands on men. To be sure, there is a selection factor in marriage. The men whom women would care to marry already have some of the civilized virtues, and those who are morally beyond the pale have difficulty finding mates. Yet studies have shown that marriage has a civilizing effect independent of the selection factor. Marriage actually promotes health, competence, virtue, and personal well-being. Along with the continued growth of fatherlessness, we can expect to see a nation of men who are at worst morally out of control and at best unhappy, unhealthy, and unfulfilled.

Just as cultural forms can be discarded, dismantled, and declared obsolete, so can they be reinvented. In order to restore marriage and reinstate fathers in the lives of their children, we are somehow going to have to undo the cultural shift of the past few decades toward radical individualism. We are going to have to re-embrace some cultural propositions that throughout history have been universally accepted but that today are unpopular, if not rejected outright.

Marriage must be re-established as a strong social institution. The father’s role must also be redefined in a way that neglects neither historical models nor the unique attributes of modern societies, the new roles for women, and the special qualities that men bring to child rearing. Such changes are by no means impossible. Witness the transformations wrought by the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements, and even the campaigns to reduce smoking and drunk driving. What is necessary is for large numbers of adults, and especially our cultural and intellectual leaders, to agree on the importance of change.

There are many practical steps that can be taken. Employers, for example, can reduce the practice of uprooting and relocating married couples with children, provide generous parental leave, and experiment with more flexible forms of work. Religious leaders can reclaim moral ground from the culture of divorce and nonmarriage, resisting the temptation to equate ‘committed relationships’ with marriage. Marriage counselors and family therapists can begin with a bias in favor of marriage, stressing the needs of the marriage at least as much as the needs of the individual. As for the entertainment industry, pressure already is being brought to bear to curtail the glamorization of unwed motherhood, marital infidelity, alternative lifestyles, and sexual promiscuity.

What about divorce? Current laws send the message that marriage is not a socially important relationship that involves a legally binding commitment. We should consider a two-tier system of divorce law: Marriages without minor children would be relatively easy to dissolve, but marriages with young children would be dissolvable only by mutual agreement or on grounds that clearly involve a wrong by one party against the other, such as desertion or physical abuse. Longer waiting periods for divorcing couples with children might also be necessary, combined with some form of mandatory marriage counseling.

Because the causes of the decline of marriage and fatherhood lie mainly in the moral, behavioral, and even spiritual realms, the decline is mostly resistant to public-policy and government cures. All of the Western societies, regardless of governmental system and political persuasion, have been beset by this problem. The decline of marriage is almost as great in Sweden, which has the West’s most ambitious welfare state, as it is in the United States, the most laissez-faire of the industrialized nations.

Nevertheless, government policies do have some impact. While the statistical relationship of economic cycles to marriage and divorce is not particularly strong, for example, low wages, unemployment, and poverty have never been friendly to marriage. Government can do something about that. It can also remedy the decline in the value of the income tax exemption for dependent children and erase the tax code’s “marriage penalty.” As a society, we have decided through a variety of government programs to socialize much of the cost of growing old, but less of the cost of raising children. At the very least, we should strive for generational equity. But more than anything else, parents need time to be with their children, the kind of time that would be afforded by a more generous family-leave policy.

We also should consider providing educational credits or vouchers to parents who leave the paid labor force to raise their young children. These parents are performing an important social service at the risk of damaging their long-term career prospects. Education subsidies, like those in the GI Bill of Rights, would reward parents by helping them resume their careers.

Government policies should be designed to favor married, child-rearing couples. Some critics argue that the federal government would not involve itself in sensitive moral issues or risk stigmatizing alternative lifestyles. But recognizing alternatives doesn’t require treating them as equivalent to marriage. The government regularly takes moral positions on a whole range of issues, such as the rights of women, income equality, and race relations. A position on the need for children to have two committed parents, a father and a mother, during their formative years would hardly be a radical departure.

Our social order is fraying badly. We seem, despite notable accomplishments in some areas, to be on a path of decline. The past three decades have seen steeply rising crime rates, growing personal and corporate greed, deteriorating communities, and increasing confusion over moral issues. For most Americans, life has become more anxious, unsettled, and insecure.

In large part, this represents a failure of social values. People can no longer be counted on to conduct themselves according to the virtues of honesty, self-sacrifice, and personal responsibility. In our ever-growing pursuit of the self–self-expression, self-development, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment–we seem to have slipped off many of our larger social obligations.

At the heart of our discontent lies an erosion of personal relationships. People no longer trust others as they once did; they no longer feel the same sense of commitment and obligation to others. In part, this may be an unavoidable product of the modern condition. But it has gone much deeper than that. Some children now to go bed each night wondering whether their father will be there the next morning. Some wonder whatever happened to their father. And some wonder who he is. What are these children learning at this most basic of all levels about honesty, self-sacrifice, personal responsibility, and trust?

What the decline of fatherhood and marriage in America really means is that slowly, insidiously, and relentlessly our society has been moving in an ominous direction. If we are to move toward a more just and humane society, we must reverse the tide that is pulling fathers apart from their families. Nothing is more important for our children or for our future as a nation.

David Popenoe is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University. From The Wilson Quarterly (Spring 1996). This essay was originally excerpted from Life Without Father (The Free Press, 1996).

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