In honor of Father’s Day, President Obama has taken on everyone from Hanna Rosin (The End of Men) to Carolyn Castiglia (Happy Father’s Day?) to Pamela Paul (Are Fathers Necessary?). The President says “I was raised by a heroic mother and wonderful grandparents who provided the support, discipline and love that helped me get to where I am today, but I still felt the weight of [my father's] absence throughout my childhood. It’s something that leaves a hole no government can fill. Studies show that children who grow up without their fathers around are more likely to drop out of high school, go to jail, or become teen fathers themselves.”
It all sounds kind of funny, coming from one of the most successful sons of a single mother the world has ever known. And it’s even odder considering that it’s apparently not true. But most of us–including the President himself–strongly resist any suggestion that kids do just fine without dads. Maybe that’s because “fine” isn’t exactly our goal.
The research, as it stands, seems to bring us to this: kids are better off with female parents. Two moms trump a traditional mom/dad pairing, but a single mom wipes the floor with a single dad. Women, for whatever reason, have, for the period studied, been more involved, set more rules, communicated better and produced healthier, better adjusted kids.
Obama, and plenty of others, worry that studies like this let dads off the hook. A divorced dad, casually perusing the Atlantic, will shrug off his weekend visits. The President would prefer that the message be that “there is no excuse” for fathers failing to step up and meet their obligations. He wants to raise awareness about responsible fatherhood, and in a speech yesterday, he called on the country as a whole to work to re-engage fathers with their children. The White House set up fatherhood.gov to serve as a resource for “fathers, mothers and others interested in responsible parenthood.”
Those now-maligned studies reflecting that kids who grow up without fathers are more prone to various failures themselves didn’t control for the affect of a father’s influence, as opposed to the lack of a father’s income. The result is that we don’t know what kind of affect a father’s presence, or lack thereof, would have on its own. So articles like The End of Men and Are Fathers Necessary? don’t let men off the hook (and they’re not intended to). Instead, they ask us to look at what dads and moms contribute to parenting.
We know that on an individual level, we need our husbands and fathers. Sierra asked Who Needs Dads Anyway? but pointed out that she does, and her kids do. Mine do, too. Other research shows that the more supportive adult relationships a kid has in his life, the better, and still more research, as Helaine Olin pointed out this morning, shows that it doesn’t matter all that much what parents do anyway. And all of this research, piled up in a heap and combined with fatherhood.gov et al, really doesn’t tell any of us, individually, what we should or shouldn’t do as parents–not as moms, not as dads, or as women or men. What it really tells us is that we’re still figuring it out.