Father Absence and the Riots
There has been a good deal of media commentary recently on the riots in London and "flash mob" activity in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the U.S. Although some of the commentary has been sympathetic to the teens involved in the mayhem and has speculated on the grievances that might have caused these "protests," most of it has been very critical.
Many of the commentators have noted that the teens involved in the rioting were largely from single-parent homes. Given the recent dramatic increases in the number of single-parent families in U.S. society, a serious problem may be developing here as well. The cause of this developing problem has been assumed to be the lower economic status of single-parent families and the likelihood that the mothers raising these children are "overwhelmed."
But decades of research on single-parent families in the U.S., almost all of them headed by women, have made it pretty clear that the problems of the children raised in these families have very little to do with poverty and very much to do with father absence. Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia is one of the few public figures who recognized this in his comments to the community following the mayhem there.
The research on children, much of it summarized by Dr. Warren Farrell in his several books on the subject (including Father and Child Reunion), shows the startling differences in the social health and academic achievement between those children raised without biological fathers in their homes as compared with children raised in intact, two-parent families, even when research results are adjusted for factors such as family income.
For example, one study found that children from single-mother families were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to have one or more behavioral or emotional problems compared to those living in two-parent, married households, whether or not the families were poor. In another, after controlling for variables such as the mother's race, education level, and family income, boys who grew up outside of intact marriages were found to be, on average, more than twice as likely as other boys to end up in prison.
Daughters with similar socioeconomic backgrounds who live with only their mothers are twice as likely to have a teen birth out of wedlock. In fact, the single biggest predictor of a teenage pregnancy is that the girl's biological father does not live with her. Furthermore, other than age, the most important factor by far in preventing drug use by children is involvement with fathers.
Even when race, education, income, and other socioeconomic factors are equal, living without a dad doubles a child's chance of dropping out of high school. Students living in biological father-absent homes are twice as likely to repeat a grade in school. School-age children living without a dad have more suspensions, more expulsions, and a higher rate of truancy.
It is noteworthy that the problems of children who grow up in single-mother families have less to do with deficiencies of the moms than with the absent positive contributions of dads. As Dr. Farrell explains in another of his books, Why Men Are the Way They Are, the positive aspects of male socialization, passed on to children who live with their dads while growing up, include the value of a system of rules at work and at play, the flexibility to adapt to change and deal with failure, self-sufficiency, an orientation to problem-solving, and a sense of efficacy -- what works.
Despite his understanding of the consequences of father absence, Mayor Nutter, for his part, is of the opinion that fathers are to blame for father absence. To this effect, Nutter publicly advised Philadelphia fathers to stop "making babies [you] don't want to take care of." And while the mayor's opinion on this matter is widely held, and while the judgment that irresponsible men are largely responsible for out-of-wedlock births in our black communities is understandable, it is somewhat absurd to hold men accountable for the problem of father absence in the society as a whole.
Today, women initiate somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all divorces in the U.S. and get sole custody of the children in 85%-90% of the cases. So it is interesting and relevant that well into our society's current era of equal rights, our instinct is still to protect women -- even if it means that we must blame men for a problem over which they have virtually no control.
The riots in London and the flash mobs in Philadelphia do suggest that a crisis is developing in our society. But asking dads to be "responsible" -- the popular but simplistic pitch now endorsed by President Obama -- doesn't scratch the surface of this problem. Moreover, this conceit completely ignores the many social factors that have been contributing to the disintegration of the American family over the past fifty years.
So along with our iPods and our cell phones, our laptops and flat-screen TVs, and our unprecedented affluence as a culture, we've also got some serious problems today. There have been unanticipated consequences of the developments of the last fifty years, and there is reason for concern about the direction in which American society is headed.
Hopefully, it's not too late to begin addressing these issues.
Richard Haddad is the former editor and publisher of American Man, a small-circulation magazine that was devoted to a serious exploration of the male gender role and the male experience.