Families Without Fathers

by | Sep 28, 2011

Thriving Couples is dedicated to keeping your marriage not only together but also for it to thrive. We not only want you to flourish, but we also want your spouse and your children to flourish as well.

Since many of you are coming to this website because your marriage is needing some readjusting or because you are thinking your marriage is heading for the chopping block, we thought it pertinent to remind all of you how important fathers are to their children.  To do this, we thought it best to review David Popenoe’s book Families Without Fathers.

The main thesis of this book ‘is that as marriage declines, fatherhood will inevitably weaken and children will be hurt . . .’ (p.vii).  While many of us are used to the notion of children being raised without a father, it was not always so. As Popenoe, writes, ‘the decline of fatherhood is one of the most basic, unexpected, and extraordinary social trends of our time” (p.2). Consider the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers from 1960 to 1990 went from 17% to 36%. As such, Popenoe wants to show through this book that a father’s absence ‘is a major force lying behind many of the attention-grabbing issues that dominate the news: crime and delinquency; premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock teen births; deteriorating educational achievement; depression, substance abuse, and alienation among teenagers; and the growing number of women and children in poverty’ (p.3).  If this is true, is it any wonder that ‘some experts have suggested . . . that the current generation of children and youth is the first in our nation’s history to be less well-off—psychological, socially, economically, and morally—than their parents were at the same age’ (p. 2)?  Popenoe’s book not only aims to prove this, but also gives suggestions on how to reverse the effects of fatherlessness.

Surprisingly, this book in not just filled with statistic about how children without fathers are deprived (though there is plenty of this), for Popenoe wishes to go deeper by addressing key cultural assumptions and objections about fatherhood, family structure, and marriage as a whole. On of the major assumption and objection that he addresses is the popular notion that fatherhood is merely a social construction that any women can do. In other words, to women that think they can raise their children on their own, Popenoe wants to say, first, not without serious difficulty, and, secondly, not really.

Certainly, a growing number of mother’s have the ability to provide financially, and most mothers give emotionally to her children. However, the biological father brings a different emotional, psychological, and biological element to the children’s needs that women just can’t give very well, if at all.  Popenoe argues, then, that there is something fundamentally inherent in the biology of a man that predisposes him to be the best fit to care and educate (both intellectual and morally) for his own children when he is within a married state. That is to say, a married man is the best father.

In an age that promotes sexual equality, some of you might want a few examples of what men bring that women don’t bring without difficulty or at all.  While Popenoe dedicates all of chapter five to this question, we will just provided a few examples. The obvious is a role model. As Popenoe writes, ‘sons learn from their fathers about male responsibility and achievement, about how to be suitably assertive and independent, and how to relate acceptably to the opposite sex’ (p. 142).  The father helps the boy make the shift from boyhood to manhood by assisting him in ‘braking away from the comforting female arena of their mothers’ (p. 142). Also, fathers are essential in curbing teenage boys behavior and aggression (p. 142). Likewise, girls learn how to relate to other men. They learn that some men can be trusted and are not always seeking sexual gain. It is well documented that girls without fathers tend to experiment with sexual behavior and have more out of wedlocked children than girls with an in-homed father.

Another example is children thrive with the different parenting styles that each mother and father brings.  A counterintuitive example is play. The father tends to emphasize play more than care-taking (p. 143). More often than not, the father’s play is physically stimulating and exciting.  It turns out that this sort of play is essential for children (both boys and girls) to learn self-control. They learn not to bite, hit, or scratch. ‘Children 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 other’s emotional clues’  (p. 144).

For more examples, you’ll have to buy and read the book.

The book is divided into four parts with seven total chapters.  Part one (chapters 1 and 2) deals with fatherlessness and its effects.  Chapter one reports the decline of fatherhood in America with chapter two giving the ‘carnage of fatherlessness.’  These two chapters have the heaviest statistical feel.  I personally found these two chapter the most depressing. These two chapters will be of most people’s interest.

The second part (chapters 3 and 4) ‘looks back at fatherhood, marriage, and family life in American history’ (p. 15).  Its main focus is the rise and fall of the modern nuclear family. By far this was the most interesting part of the book for me.  I love reading about the history of the family and how our cultural understanding plays into shaping our opinions about how the world should work.  There are several important facts that Popenoe brings out in these two chapters, but two of the most salient are the decline of the father in the house due to becoming the primary bread winner and with such a decline the father’s role of the primary discipliner and education shifted to the mothers role.  This section will interest mostly historians, specialist, people who enjoy cultural studies, and social philosophers and theologians. Yet, I do recommend all to read it.

The third part (chapters 5 and 6) deals with why fathers matter. Basically, ‘the social science evidence is analyzed to find out what fathers actually do that makes them so important and how they differ from mothers’ (p. 15).  Chapter five just radials what Popenoe believes the evidence suggest. In chapter six he uses evolutionary psychology to explain why men have these character traits. The basic point of chapter six is to show that fatherhood is not merely a social construction but somewhat essential to manhood. I for one think one can show this without appealing to evolutionary psychology, but that debate is for another day.  I strongly recommend chapter five to all readers and chapter six to specialist and philosophers.

Part four (chapter 7) ‘summarizes the main thinking of the book and deals with how fatherhood and marriage can be reclaimed’ (p. 15).  After several pages of summarizing the book, Popenoe shifts to listing five key social propositions and two action implications that need to be embraced if fatherhood is going to thrive again.

The first proposition is that ‘fathers have a unique and irreplaceable role to play in child development’ (p. 197). The second proposition is that ‘children need a committed male and female couple to provide them with dependable and enduring love and attention . . .’ (p. 197). The third proposition is that for men, marriage and parenthood are strongly interlinked’ (p. 198).  In other words, without marriage, men have a hard time staying involved with their children. The fourth proposition is children need to feel recognized and accepted by their fathers; they need to feel that they are special’ (p. 198).  The fifth proposition is that biological fathers are more likely to be committed to the upbringing of their own children than are nonbiological fathers.

The first actions implication is ‘marriage must be reestablished as a strong social institution.”  To achieve this Popenoe summarizes the suggestions of ‘The Council of Families in America’ document entitled, Marriage in America: A Report to the Nations. The document gives suggestions to employers, religious leaders, organizations, social-worker, health-care and other human service professionals, marriage counselors, family therapist, family-life educators, pregnancy health-care providers, teachers, principals, leaders in education, family scholars, entertainment industry, print and broadcast media journalists and editors, civic leaders and community organizers as to how to foster a society strong on marriage.

The second action implication is ‘redefining the father’s role’ (p.209). Popenoe first gives several reasons why we can’t go back to the ‘traditional view of the family (husband works and the wife stays home).  He then lays out what he says the new father should do. However, to get this information, once again, you’ll have to buy and read the book.  I strongly suggest this part to all readers.

Overall, the book is great. Thriving Couples does not endorse all of Popenoe’s suggestions or views (particularly his view on cohabitation), but compared to what else is out there right now on fatherhood, this books gives some a breath of fresh air.

Brandon Wall

Brandon Wall

Brandon Wall, LMFT is passionate about helping individuals and couples experience lasting change. He is described by his clients as having the ability to be a straightforward counselor while also being fully compassionate, down to earth, and working at the client’s pace. He has an innate ability to grasp the larger patterns that cause many individuals and couples from reaching their fully potential. Learn more about how Brandon can help you.

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