Do dads make a difference?

Judging by the way they’re often depicted in pop culture, the answer would seem to be no. From the big screen to the small screen, from books to advertisements, fathers are mostly bumblers, abusers or dullards.

When they’re around at all, that is: Many a plot revolves around deadbeat dads who are they’re simply gone, and no one seems the worst for it. As a recent article in The Washington Post noted, "There’s an increasingly endangered species on modern television: functional marrieds." The dysfunctional ones, by contrast, are legion. The message is clear: If you don’t have a father in your life, don’t sweat it. Heck, you’re probably better off.

Well, with Father’s Day just around the corner, it’s time to explode this so-called conventional wisdom for what it is: a vicious lie. In fact, a wealth of social-science data, much of which can be found on familyfacts.org, shows the opposite to be true: Loving fathers bring a vital dose of love, security and stability to their wives and children and they make a very positive difference, indeed.

Here’s one finding about fathers -- published in the journal Child Development and compiled from samples of girls in the United States and New Zealand, who were followed from age five to approximately age 18 -- you can read in just two clicks from the familyfacts.org home page:

Even when controlling for differences in family background, father absence was associated with the likelihood that adolescent girls will be sexually active and become pregnant as teenagers. This association was strongest for daughters whose fathers were absent when they were younger. Compared with the pregnancy rates of girls whose fathers were present, rates of teenage pregnancy were 7 to 8 times higher among girls whose fathers were absent early in their childhoods and 2 to 3 times higher among those who suffered father-absence later in their childhood.

Another factor that positively affects the children in a family is whether a father is religiously active. W. Bradford Wilcox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, conducted an extensive amount of research in this area for his book Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands. From it, the familyfacts.org site pulls this eye-opening finding:

Frequency of church attendance is a stronger predictor of paternal involvement in one-on-one activities with children than employment and income, and its effect is comparable to that of race, ethnicity, and education. Both active conservative and active mainline Protestant fathers have significantly higher one-on-one and youth involvement scores than their unaffiliated counterparts.

Yet where are the fathers that we so desperately need? Despite clear evidence of the positive difference that they make, we’ve seen their numbers drop precipitously over the last few decades. According to family expert Patrick Fagan of The Heritage Foundation, in 1950, 12 out of every 100 children born entered a broken family -- four were born out of wedlock and eight saw their parents divorce. Fast forward 50 years, and the number quintuples: For every 100 born, 60 wind up in a broken family -- 33 born out of wedlock and 27 see their parents divorce.

As Fagan concludes, in the space of one half century, America has transformed itself from being "a culture of belonging" to being "a culture of rejection." And the children caught in the middle pay the price. As Fagan writes: