On Psychology

Jewish World Review March 22, 1999 /5 Nissan, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

Fatherhood hype

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I do not appreciate those radio commercials sponsored by the National Fatherhood Initiative that suggest a child needs a father. They only give children without a father an excuse to do wrong. I am an 18-year-old girl and I am at the top of my graduating senior class. I do not drink, do drugs, or have sex. I am an athlete, and compete in cross country and track. I am active in my church. And I have lived without a father for most of my life.

My father was an alcoholic, and my parents divorced when I was in the first grade. After the divorce, I did not hear from my father very often. My brother and I were raised by our mother, with no help from our father. Yet both of us are bright, well-behaved young people.

Divorce and living without a father does not increase the chances of bad things happening in a young person's life unless that person is lead to believe that they cannot lead a normal life because of their circumstances. The events in my life only made me stronger. I would not wish for a different life. I wish people would stop saying that kids need a father to grow up to be a well-adjusted adult.

A: Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful letter. The fact that you did, is evidence that you are what you say you are: A well-adjusted, bright, and motivated young lady.

Your letter also gives me an opportunity to clarify my message about the importance of fathers to the well-being of their children.

The research is very clear that children who grow up without a father are at greater risk for a host of negative outcomes, including school failure, drug and alcohol problems, juvenile delinquency, and teen pregnancy. But saying that kids without dads are at greater risk for poor outcomes is different from saying that kids without dads are destined to fail.

In fact, many children growing up without dads do just fine, as your letter attests. But just because you turned out fine, doesn't deny the reality that on average children without dads are more likely to develop problems.

Allow me to explain by way of an analogy. Suppose you were going to the airport one day, and when you arrived at the ticket counter the agent said, "You're in luck. We have two planes going to your destination that will leave at exactly the same time. The cost of the ticket for each plane is exactly the same, and each plane will arrive at your destination at exactly the same time. You even have exactly the same seat assignment on each plane. Which plane would you like to get on?"

Well, you might say, it doesn't sound like there's much of a difference between the two planes. Is there anything else I need to know before deciding?

"Just," says the agent, "one little thing. The first plane will get you to your destination 99 out of 100 times without crashing, whereas the second plane will get you there without crashing 90 out of 100 times. Which plane do you want to get on?"

Very quickly, each of us would make the mental calculation that the first plane is a lot safer than the second. Yet, if you think about it, the second plane will still get you to your destination safely 90 out of 100 times. It's just that there is a non-trivial increase in risk of crashing in the second plane, which each of us would eagerly avoid if we could.

That's the way it is with absent fathers. Many kids without dads do fine. But there is a non-trivial increase in risk for poor outcomes associated with growing up without a father. Shouldn't we try to help reduce that risk for as many children as possible?

Carrying the airplane analogy further, what should the air traffic controllers say once the planes are airborne? Should they say, "Well the second plane has more of a chance of crashing, so we're going to concentrate on the first plane because it's safer." Of course not. What the air traffic controllers should say is, "Because the second plane has a greater risk of a bad outcome, we are going to take extra special care with it, to make sure it gets to its destination safely."

And that is the way we should treat children growing up in fatherless households. Rather than saying, "Those fatherless kids are at greater risk of poor outcomes, so let's concentrate our efforts on helping the kids in the two-parent households," we should be saying, "Because kids in fatherless households are at greater risk of poor outcomes, we should take extra special care to support and encourage them so that they too will reach their destination -- adulthood -- happy, healthy, and well-adjusted."

So the point of those radio commercials, and this column, is not to give kids excuses to do drugs or otherwise misbehave. Nor is the point to encourage the withdrawal of support for children living in father absent households. To the contrary. Those are the kids that need our encouragement and support the most.

Rather, the point is this: Just as we would encourage my imaginary airline to build more planes with a lower risk of crashing, we should take steps as a society to ensure that more kids grow up in the kind of household that has the lowest risk of poor outcomes. That type of household is, of course, the kind with two parents, who are married to each other.

So I applaud your determination to excel at school, be sexually abstinent until marriage, and grow up as a person of faith. The fact that you grew up without a responsible father in your life only makes these accomplishments even more praiseworthy.

But my point remains the same. Even though many fatherless children do just fine, wouldn't it be better if every child in America grew up with the love and devotion of both a mom and a dad? Wouldn't it be better if every child in America were boarded onto that first plane?

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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12/22/98: Silly, Dangerous Ideas About Child Rearing
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10/21/98: Government punishes marriage, pushes cohabitation
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9/29/98: Dads, moms both get job done with babies
9/23/98: Sleep tight -- and right!
9/09/98: Daddy?
9/03/98: How much should we tell the kids about The Bill-n-Monica Show?
8/25/98: Having class-clown son is no joking matter
8/05/98: When a marriage goes stale
6/29/98: Do bad 'authority-figures' make good parents?
6/24/98: When to tell the truth
6/17/98: An ode to a dad who stuck around
6/11/98: No-fault divorce and the partner who "wants to make things work"
5/28/98: The oys and JOYS of fatherhood

5/21/98: When child-support becomes a 'catch-22'
5/15/98: Why ‘shacking-up' for marriage's sake fails
5/6/98: Collision with a pathetic reality
4/26/98: It's time parents learned to 'Just Say No!'

© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn