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Dad...Are You There?
By Owen Anderson
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that has an official day on which fathers are honored by their children. On the third Sunday in June, fathers all across the United States are given presents, treated to dinner or otherwise made to feel special. As we celebrate Father's Day we should reflect upon a sad fact: It is becoming common to meet young people who either do not know their dads, or who have a minimal relationship with their fathers. Although most children have come face-to-face with their father at some point; sadly, most have little regular contact with the man, or have any faith that he loves or cares about them. In fact, when fatherless young people write about their lives, they tell heartbreaking stories about feeling like "throw-away people." A regular theme of their stories is that they feel safer in a foster care home or juvenile detention center than on the outside, partly because they have no father to hold together the family.
When we begin to view the extent of the problem, the numbers are alarming. The nation's out-of-wedlock (no father involvement likely) birth rate is 38%, with the rate among poor teens almost three times as high as the rate among those from non-poor families. Among Caucasian children, 28% are now born to a single mother; among Hispanic children it is 50%, and the rate reaches a frightening 71% for African American children. Among the rest of America’s children nearly a quarter of Caucasian children (22%) do not have any adult male in their homes; nearly a third (31%) of Hispanic children and over half of African American children (56%) have no adult male figure in the home. Maybe most important of all is that having a dad at home is almost a certain pathway out of poverty; because about 40% of single-mother families are in poverty. Taken together, this represents a dramatic shift in American life. In the early 1960s, only 2.3% of white children and 24% of African American children were born to a single mom.
A father’s non-involvement in family life can be seen early. In kindergarten, children living with single parents are more likely to trail children with two parents when it comes to health, cognitive skills, and their emotional maturity. Having a dad is an advantage and is generally viewed as a passageway to middle-class status, which in turn, increases the likelihood of getting a college education. The odds increase for a child's success with the mental and financial stability rooted in having two parents. Having two parents means there is a greater likelihood that someone will read to a child as a preschooler, support him through school, and prevent him from dropping out, as well as teaching him how to compete, win and lose, and get up to try again, in academics, athletics, and the arts.
Most people can agree that having an involved father has obvious benefits to children. In addition, we can probably agree that fathers are important because they help to teach children values and lessons in solving the problems they may face. Fathers also serve as role models in their children's lives that affect how well they relate to peers and adults outside the home. Before you say what about mothers?”— tell yourself that it's not a question of who is more important: mothers or fathers. The point is that having both parents involved in rearing their child has some obvious, and some maybe not-so-obvious, benefits for the child, the family, and for father’s themselves.
When we talk about the benefits of being an involved father, we most often focus on the benefits that children receive from such a relationship. Being an involved father means being actively involved in nearly every aspect of your child's life, from play and responsibility for childcare to making oneself available to his child on the child’s timetable. The benefits of having a father involved in raising his children are pretty clear. For instance, did you know that research has shown that children whose fathers are involved in rearing them score higher on cognitive tests than those with relatively uninvolved fathers. In fact, fathers who are involved in their children's schools and academic achievement, regardless of their own educational level, are increasing the chances their child will graduate from high school, perhaps go to vocational school, or even to college. In addition, a father's involvement in children's school activities protects at-risk children from failing or dropping out; as a matter of fact, the research shows that fathers who are more involved with their children tend to raise children who experience more success in their career. Career success can lead to greater income and greater financial stability.
In the social arena, father involvement is related to lower rates of teen violence, delinquency, and other problems with the law. On the other hand, a father’s involvement is associated with positive child characteristics such as empathy, self-esteem, self-control, psychological well-being, social competence, and life skills. Also, children who grow up in homes with involved fathers are more likely to take an active and positive role in raising their own families. It is thought that having an involved father provides a role model for positive parenting, healthy caregiving, and a commitment to the family.
When fathers choose to be involved in family life, benefits come in the form of loving and nurturing relationships among family members. Did you know that involved fathering is related to better communication between fathers and family members; a greater sense of commitment to the family; and less troubling conflict with teenage children. Being involved in caring, not only for the child, but for the family can bring greater harmony and fewer arguments. The family tends to enjoy their time together more.
Finally, being an involved father brings benefits to dads themselves. When fathers build strong relationships with their children and others in the family, they receive support and caring in return. Research has shown that healthy family relationships provide the strongest and most important support network a person can have, whether that person is a child or an adult. Being involved in their family members’ lives helps fathers: to enjoy a secure attachment relationship with their children, to cope well with stressful situations and everyday hassles, and to feel as if they can depend on others more. Additionally, fathers involved in family life feel more comfortable in their occupation and feel that they can do their job well; they feel confident they have a lot to offer others in terms of their job skills, parenting skills, and social relationships.
The benefits listed above are really only a few of the research findings from studies of families with involved and uninvolved fathers. Many of the benefits may seem obvious, or perhaps not. If you look at your own involvement in your family, you might discover that you have been enjoying some of the benefits without really noticing them. Generally, being an involved parent requires hard work and setting priorities, but it’s worth it.
Dads, as you celebrate Father's Day, proudly accept those pats on the back and the high fives, but don't forget to pause and reflect on the important work you are doing within the walls of your own home. You will come to appreciate that the long term intellectual, social, and emotional benefits for your children and you are profound. Now, can I make a final request? Dads, at the end of this Father’s Day and the end of each day, stop and express thanks for the opportunity to be a father. As you reflect on those things you have given to your family (including time, energy, and talents) reflect also on the benefits you are getting in return. Then, in appreciation, you will likely join with me in saying, “I love being a dad!”
Owen Anderson is a member of the faculty in the Department of Home and Family at Brigham Young University - Idaho