April 9, 2008
“It is easier and better to build boys than to repair men.”
The last forty years has witnessed the eclipse of the traditional family. In 1960, only one child in ten lived in a home without both biological parents. By 2006, due to a soaring divorce rate and nanny-state programs that rendered obsolete the need for active fathers, it was one in three.
The meteoric rise in single-parent homes is alarming to anyone concerned with the welfare of children. Studies show that, when compared against homes with both biological parents, children reared in single-parent homes exhibit, among other things:
- Five times the risk of growing up in poverty
- Three times the incidence of emotional and behavioral problems
- Five times the risk of becoming teen parents
- Three times the likelihood of joining a gang
- Twice the incidence of dropping out of school
- And up to 10 times the involvement in criminal behavior
The reasons are clear. Children in non-traditional homes have significantly less parental supervision and involvement. More often than not, the parent is a single mother holding down one or two jobs, who entrusts child care to female relatives or professionals. For older juveniles and adolescents, after-school supervision is often absent.
Reduced contact with biological parents means less opportunity for nurturing, monitoring and mentoring from emotionally-invested, genetically-linked adults. It is a void all too readily filled by peer groups, as evidenced by the near ten-fold increase in gangs from 1970 to 1998.
To a lesser degree, children in traditional, two-parent homes have experienced some of the same problems.
Risks in traditional families
In 1960, few mothers with children under the age of six worked outside of the home; in 2006, 65 percent did so. Even for families with both biological parents, workplace demands divert precious time and energy from that needed to be effectively engaged in the lives of children.
In a bygone day, children came home from school to a glass of milk and plate of cookies baked by a mom with a ready ear and an encouraging word. Today they are left to surf the internet or roam the streets foraging for affirmation and advice from their peers. This tectonic shift has not come without significant social costs.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juvenile courts processed 4500 cases per day in 2004, compared to 1100 cases in 1960. Thus, during the same period that the number of children in non-traditional families increased by a factor of three, the number of juvenile offenders increased by a factor of four. In some areas of the country, this has had tragic consequences.
Meredith May of the San Francisco Chronicle writes of Oakland, California: “There are entire blocks without a single two-parent family, where drug dealers have become the predominant male role models, and children fend for themselves in crowded, chaotic homes where they are routinely exposed to drugs, sex and guns.”
The lack of stable families has led to a generation of feral kids without any moral compass. As one police official observed, "Talking to these suspects day in and out, there's a higher percentage today with no sense of right and wrong. It's frightening, but we are creating super-criminals."
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number one factor putting young people at-risk for “undesirable life outcomes” is living in a home without both parents.
Turning the tide, and securing a brighter future for children, will require a comprehensive strategy.
A get-well plan
Foremost, marriage laws should support the arrangement that, throughout civilized history, has proven the most effective in the flourishing of children—one man and one woman for life. In concert, divorce legislation--which made it easier to end a 30-year marriage than cancel a two-year cell phone contract—should reflect marriage as a covenant between life-long partners as opposed to a legal contract between consenting parties.
Welfare and entitlement programs need to be revamped. Instead of ushering in the much-touted “Great Society,” they are largely responsible for a permanent underclass sustained by misery merchants whose power is derived from keeping the downtrodden in their back pocket. Able people on the margins don’t need a work-free, life-long dole that holds them captive in a perpetual orbit of idleness and dependence; they need training, job skills, and temporary subsidies. Essential is the elimination of embedded disincentives to marriage and the active involvement of fathers in their families.
These challenges present the Church with opportunities aplenty. For nineteen hundred years the local church was distinguished for the comprehensive care of its own. But as social programs burgeoned with the New Deal, the Church began the slow abdication of that tradition. It is a tradition the Church could reclaim, starting with the enhanced support of members who are homeless, widowed, or are single parents.
On an individual level, Christians have the duty to approach their own marriages with the holy devotion deserving of its divine institution. Husbands must be committed to their wives and wives to their husbands, and both to creating a stable environment for their children.
Outside the family sphere, the need for individual involvement is great. As convicted criminals and experts told Meredith May, “a mentor might have saved them, anyone from the outside who could have shown them another way to be a man.”
One person who is showing young people “another way” is Richard K. Bennett.
A ministry of mentoring
I met Richard at Christian leadership class six years ago. That began a friendship that has deeply enriched my Christian experience.
At 340 pounds and six feet tall, Richard casts an imposing figure. At first glance, he could easily pass for a Tennessee Titan lineman or drug-lord bodyguard. But after locking eyes with him, the menacing form is transformed into a welcoming sparkle that says, “I love you, Brother.”
Richard grew up in the inner city where drugs, gangs and violence were givens. Lacking a compelling vision for his life, Richard drifted into an existence of substance abuse, drug dealing and thuggery. It wasn’t long before his physical and entrepreneurial prowess earned him street respect; and with that, money and female attention. But those “perks” came with a price: a rap sheet, prison sentence, and a body scarred from knuckles, knives, clubs and bullets.
On numerous occasions I’ve seen him display his street wounds and heard him talk about his gangland activities and prison stint; not out of pride mind you, but out of overwhelming gratitude in his future—a future that was turned from death row or the city morgue to life eternal. Richard glows when he recounts the night that he acknowledged his desperate need and fell at the foot of the Cross. It was the night when, as Richard puts it, his life went from “misery to ministry.”
For over three years that ministry has been mentoring at-risk children. Together with wife, Jessica, and co-director, Kathy Schmidt, Richard founded A Better Tomorrow, Inc. (ABT). In an eight-week curriculum aimed at middle and high schoolers, Richard works with parents and school staff in mentoring students in the areas of character development, life skills, decision-making, visioning, relationship building and conflict resolution.
Although the public school setting precludes the inclusion of sectarian messages in the curriculum, questions raised by students frequently give Richard and his staff opportunities to share their personal testimonies.
Each year, the organization serves 300 to 500 students in some of the toughest schools in the city--schools with graduation rates of 35% in neighborhoods where less than 5% of homes have both biological parents.
As to the success of the program, consider this: 75 percent of seniors who completed ABT’s eight-week course are now attending college; 20 percent are learning a trade, starting a business or are, otherwise, gainfully employed. But perhaps the best measure of success is in the words of dozens of students, like these:
“Being in A Better Tomorrow, I learned a lot and now I’m ready to go out in the real world and become a better person than I was before Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Kathy came here.”
“A Better Tomorrow program helped me maintain my focus and now I feel more confident and have higher standard.”
“A Better Tomorrow program helped me do better in school, with my teachers and others.”
“I will encourage more people and let them know how this program can help save and change their lives, it did mine.”
If you desire a brighter future for the next generation consider mentoring a young person, supporting an organization like A Better Tomorrow , or starting an organization in your own community. It is an investment that promises eternal returns.
“Fellow-citizens, why do you turn and scrape every stone to gather wealth, and take so little care of your children, to whom one day you must relinquish it all?” --Socrates
What are your thoughts for making "a better tomorrow?" Please share them here .
For Further Reading:
Family and Living Arrangements , U.S. Census Bureau March 2006
At-Risk Conditions of U.S. School-Age Children , U.S. Census Bureau, June 2001
Single-Parent Families, Children’s Health Encyclopedia
The Consequences of Fatherlessness, National Center for Fathering
North American Youth Gangs: Patterns and Remedies , The Heritage Foundation
Juvenile Court Statistics 2003-2004 , U.S. Department of Justice. March 2007
Many young black men in Oakland are killing and dying for respect, the SF Chronicle, December 9, 2007
A Better Tomorrow, Inc.
Regis Nicoll is a Centurion of Prison Fellowship Ministries Wilberforce Forum. After a 30-year career as a nuclear specialist, Regis became a freelance writer who writes on current cultural issues from a Christian perspective. His work regularly appears on BreakPoint online and the Crux Project among other places. Regis also teaches and speaks on a variety of worldview topics, covering everything from Sharing the Gospel in a Postmodern Generation to String Theory. As a men's ministry leader in his community, Regis also conducts seminars for the spiritual development of men.