Families Without Fathers

Families Without Fathers

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.

Families Without Fathers

The Effects of Divorce on Children and Parents

Review of Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce, by Sandra Blakeslee and Judith Wallerstein

Reviewed for Heart to Heart Communication, LC, by Staff Researcher, Brandon Wall, MA

Many of you are coming to this website because of concerns about your marriage. Perhaps you are considering divorce or are already divorced and are trying to rebuild your life. Seeing as this site is dedicated to keeping marriages together and thriving, we want to give you as much information and advice as humanely possible about the effects of divorce on men, women, and children, so that you can be better informed. One of the best ways to do this is for us to point you to appropriate literature and research dealing with this topic. In what follows is my review of Judith S. Wallerstein’s bestselling book Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce. When published in 1984, it was the largest study ever conducted on the effects of divorce. They have followed up this study with The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, published in 2000 (look for review in a later date).

This book is a summary of a decade long longitude study of 60 families with 131 children from the periods of 1971 to 1981 on the effects of divorce.  The couples, as well as the children, were studied during a six-week period near the time when one of the parents left permanently from the house.  At 18 months, 5 years, and 10 years, a reexamination interview was performed to record the effects post-separation. While the book was being written, many of the adults and children had already been reexamined for a 15 year interview.[i]

The study attempted to “describe what happened to the parents in the years after the breakup as they struggled to rebuild their lives” (p. ix), so that “parents [could be informed] about each child’s short-and long-term reactions to divorce, so they will know how to best to support their children during their growing-up years” (p. ix) The study shows, divorce is not an event quickly forgotten or effects abated. As Judith and Sandra say, “the men, women, and children whom we interviewed were still deeply affected by the divorce ten and fifteen years later” (p. xiii).  They continue with “the breakup and its aftermath were life-shaping events” (p. xiii)  Only about half the men and the women in the study considered the divorce a dead issue, the opposite was true of the children. For them, “not one considered it a dead issue. They remembered the day that one parent left home with a vividness that took [Judith and Sandra’s] breath away” (xiii).

The book is divided into five sections. The first section gives a general overview of the nature of divorce and what the study says. The next three sections focus on three families (the Moores, the Burrelles, and the Catalanos) that Judith and Sandra see as archetypes of the data. Each family represents an aspect of the study.  This method brought a personal aspect to the impersonal data.  Instead of reading just statistics about how divorced mothers’ struggle to put their lives back in order, you learn about Betty and the tremendous courage she has to provide for her children. Instead of reading about how lonely children are without their fathers around, you read the gut-wrenching story of how Jarrett idolizes his dad, who doesn’t even recognize Jarrett when he showed up at his father’s front door unannounced. Story after story the data is brought to life. Some of the stories are encouraging, others are some of the saddest I have ever read. In fact, it took me several weeks to read the whole book, because I could only handle a chapter at a time emotionally. The last section is dedicated to self-help suggestions. It gives many helpful “tasks” parents can do to minimize the damage on themselves and their children when divorcing.

This book is recommended to all couples pondering divorce, and especially if they have kids.  The book will also be beneficial to people who have already divorced, for the research shows how to minimize (not eliminate) the damage of divorce on each other and the kids. If there is one suggestion that stands out more than any, it is the importance of fathers to both girls and boys. As the study shows, the children who have a truly active and present father tend to do a lot better than children who’s father are inactive and not present (see statistics below for more information).  Newlyweds (or those engaged) could benefit from the book by being scared into strengthening their marriage now, so they don’t have to face the bitter effects of divorce later. Lastly, marriage and family therapists, psychologist, social workers, counselors and ministers would benefit from this research, for it gives many helpful suggestions on how to lead people back to a fulfilling life. Furthermore, parents and professionals will benefit from Judith’s discussion on joint custody (chapter 16), for it has some suppressing results.

Some Salient Facts from this study

(Note: This list is a result of direct quotes and paraphrasing. I did not use quotation marks, but the reader should assume the content is Judith’s. Also all these facts took place within the 10-year mark unless otherwise noted)

Effects of Divorce on Husband and Wives:

  • Most young fathers (b/w ages mid to late 30’s) feel they are no longer centrally important to their children and don’t maintain a relationship (pg. 224-5).
  • After ten years, ½ of the women and 1/3 of the men are still very angry at their former spouses (pg. 29).
  • 1/3 of women and ¼ of the men feel life is unfair, disappointing, and lonely (pg 29).
  • 65% of the women and 35% of the men actively sought to end the marriage even though the other opposed it.
  • In only 10% of divorces do both partners achieve “happier” lives (pg. 40).
  • The quality of life in ½ the women and 2/3 of the men is no better off or even worse 10 years after the divorce.
  • ¼ of the older men remain isolated and lonely (pg. 45).
  • Every women over 40 remained unmarried (pg. 45).
  • ¼ of the families reported violence in the marriage (pg. 117).
  • Many of the fathers are unaware that their children feel rejected (pg. 150).
  • 1/5 of the fathers have their children living with them (pg. 224).
  • 10 to 12% of the parents engaged in bitter litigation over the children (pg. 196).
  • 2/3 of the men and over ½ of the women remarried (pg. 226).
  • 10% of men and women after divorce are living in cohabiting relationships (pg. 227).
  • ½ of the men and ¼ of the women who remarried where divorced for a second time (pg. 228).

The Effects of Divorce on Children:

  • ½ of the boys (between the ages of 19-29) are unhappy, lonely, and lack lasting relationships with younger women. (p. 67)
  • A whole group of girls were attracted to older men, which they see as a parent they never had (p. 65-66).
  • At the time of the divorce, boys’ ages 6-8 have a difficult time adjusting to the changes (p. 77).
  • ½ of the mothers and daughters maintained a healthy emotional dependency during the girls’ adolescence (p. 98).
  • At 15 years after the divorce 40% of the young adults have been in therapy at various times to deal with relationship issues (p. 107).
  • 20% of young women were in abusive relationships 10 to 15 years after their parents divorced (p. 120).
  • 1/3 of the men and women (between the ages of 19-29) have little or no ambition 10 years after their parents divorced (p. 148), and most have not pursued higher education, nor make long-term goals (p. 149).
  • Many of the fathers are unaware that their children feel rejected (p. 150).
  • 1 out of 3 young men and 1 in 10 young women (between the ages 19-23) are delinquent at the 10 year mark (p. 153).
  • 20% of all children of divorce were drinking heavily (p. 154).
  • 1/3 of the fathers who could afford it helped pay for their children’s collage (p. 156).
  • ¼ of the girls became sexually active in middle school.
  • All but one of the young women who married before 20 are now divorced (p. 171).
  • After 10 years, over 1/3 of the children have poor relationships with their fathers (p. 187).
  • During the marriage 10% of the children have poor relationships with their parents. After the divorce and 10 years later, 35% have poor relationships.
  • 70% of men pay irregular and partial child support (p. 222).
  • More than 1/3 of the boys and girls saw their fathers at least once a month, 10% saw their fathers twice a week, and 10% were visited less than once a year. Few fathers dropped out completely (p. 237).
  • 55% of the boys and girls lived with a stepfather (p. 245).
  • 9 in 10 feel their lives are better because of the stepfather, 2/3 fell they can’t love their stepfathers and their fathers the same, and 1/3 are struggling with loyalty conflicts  (p. 247).
  • 68 children had stepmothers and very few lived with them.  Less than 10% where close to their stepmothers (p. 254).


Wallerstein, J. S. and S. Blakeslee (2004). Second chances : men, women, and children a decade after divorce. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

Wallerstein, J. S., J. Lewis, et al. (2000). The unexpected legacy of divorce : a 25 year landmark study. New York, Hyperion.

[i] For more information on method and sample, see Appendix in the end of the book.

Integrity for Life

Integrity for Life

My son, keep your father’s commands…

Bind them on your heart forever…

keeping you from the immoral woman,
from the smooth tongue of the wayward wife.

Do not lust in your heart after her beauty
or let her captivate you with her eyes,

for the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread,
and the adulteress preys upon your very life.

Proverbs 6: 20-21, 24-26

If you read Proverbs chapters 4-6 you will see that the setting is a father’s advice to his son and that one of the major themes is staying away like the plague from sex outside of the protection of marriage.  He also gives advice to stay out of debt, to not be lazy, staying away from friends who are a bad influence, and to stay away from the BIG SIX: lying, pride, violence, planning evil in your heart (OUCH!), being quick to do evil, a false witness, and causing dissension.  I guess there’s seven.  Sorry.  Proverbs is funny that way.  He’ll say there’s 3 things that…and then he changes his mind and says, no 4.  It’s poetic license.  Maybe there is six: he mentions lying twice.  He mentions planning evil as one and doing evil as another.  I suppose those are different.  Probably if you didn’t plan evil you wouldn’t do it.  I look at the list of the BIG SIX and I think, with my 4 kids, that, as a father, I told them not to do all the things on the list, but I don’t remember telling them not plan to do evil.  I remember spanking them once in awhile for doing evil.  Maybe we should have had a few talks about planning evil!

But my point from linking the above verses together is the notion that dad’s advice, (in this context, King Solomon), to his son (not sure which one.  He had a ton.) was to keep dad’s advice forever.  I presume that means at least as long as you live.  And then he talks about avoiding an adulterous woman.  As I’ve said in an earlier blog, I’ve read Proverbs daily (there’s 31 chapters; it’s easy to read a chapter corresponding to the day of the month) off and on my whole life.  I started around age 19.  It’s been a faithful companion.  But is it still all relevant?  Do I need advice to stay away from affairs and prostitutes and illicit sex or pride and lying and planning or doing evil or being a busy body when I’m 57?  Or 72?  Or 85 for that matter?  I’m guessing I’ll never grow too old for a sound kick in the pants.

Hang in there with me.  I’m getting to my point:  I deal with affair cases frequently in my work and, curiously, affairs have no age barrier.  Don’t be too proud for this warning, buddy.  I kid you not: I’ve had several cases of wives feeling violated by their husband’s wandering eyes and flirtatious mouths in their retirement community.  I’ve also had men of retirement age still struggling with pornography and chatting with other women on dating sites, several for whom it led to criminal behavior.  Dang.  How’d you like that from your grandpa?  In my counseling practice sexual indiscretions from females have stopped around the early 50’s.  That’s not to say women struggle less in the later years.  Maybe they are more discrete?  In any case, the women who shared with me their hurt around their husbands’ dinking around it the retirement community certainly saw these other women are real threats and their husbands’ actions are real violations.  I agreed with them.

Please don’t laugh.  I certainly didn’t write this as a joke.  Temptation is real at any age.  We are always vulnerable.  You need to be on your guard.  Integrity is needed at every age.  I’m of the opinion anyone can have an affair…or worse.  This kind of advice never goes out of style.

Lord, protect me from being an Ol’ Geezer.  Dang.