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Life With - and Without - Fathers

  • Rebecca Hagelin The Heritage Foundation
  • Updated Jun 15, 2006
Life With - and Without - Fathers

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, 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 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 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:

How much of a difference do these absent fathers make? Plenty. Survey data from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, show that teen-agers without a dad around are almost twice as likely to be depressed as teen-agers from an intact married family. They are more than four times as likely to be expelled from school and three times as likely to repeat a grade. Drug and alcohol abuse is much more common. On top of that, they are also more likely to have sex before they are married-setting the stage for yet another fatherless generation.

Life without a father also is a good way to miss out on the American Dream. The poverty rate for all children in married-couple families is roughly 7 percent, NIH data show. By contrast, the poverty rate for all children in single-parent families is 51 percent.

Maybe the folks in the make-believe world of television and the movies can get by without "functional marrieds" and the dads who make up one half of that vital equation. But for those of us in the real world, fathers play an irreplaceable role. As I point out in my book, Home Invasion, they help us mothers raise the happy, healthy children who make a thriving society possible.

So to all the fathers out there: Don’t let the pop culture relegate you to oblivion. We need your leadership and your love – we need you. You are vital to your families, to our society and to our nation’s future. Please make every day a day of fathering.

Rebecca Hagelin has championed the pro-family message in both Washington and around the nation for some twenty years. She is a vice president of The Heritage Foundation ( whose vision is to "Create an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish." Her weekly column, "Heart Beat," appears on and For more information on Home Invasion visit: