Disappearing acts of fathers . . .

August 18, 1994|By Mona Charen

TWO EXTREMELY active preschoolers keep me more or less permanently behind the times on the subject of movies. But I did recently see "The Remains of the Day" on tape.

The movie reminds one, once again, of the essential fragility of things that seem so enduring.

Look at the social hierarchy depicted, accurately I think, in that film. The code of duty, honor and responsibility that was so ingrained in generations of Britons -- a code that was strong enough to keep the butler serving at the table even while his father lay dying upstairs -- all of that has been swept away in a heartbeat.

One of the differences between conservatives and liberals is that liberals tend to think you can tinker with social, economic and political arrangements endlessly, while conservatives believe that the veneer of civilization is actually quite thin -- and too much tampering with the foundations will bring the whole thing down.

What puts our civilization at risk? What forces are at work that could make 1994 America look as antique 50 years from now as the butler's world looks to us in "The Remains of the Day"?

The forces that were unleashed by, roughly speaking, Woodstock -- a lamentable anniversary -- have been corroding the foundations of our civilization for 30 years. These years have witnessed a thoroughgoing attack on the American character. Instead of inculcating notions of honor, self-reliance, duty and responsibility, we have become a nation of self-pitying whiners, fast with a lawsuit and slow with child-support checks. We wallow in excuses for poor products.

But the most worrisome aspect of the decline of character is reflected in families. To an unprecedented degree, American men are not performing their jobs as fathers.

David Blankenhorn directs the Institute for American Values in New York, and together with Don Eberly of the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania, he has launched the "Fatherhood Initiative."

There is, these men believe, nothing more important to the health of society than men undertaking the role of father. "There is very little you can do to sever the ties between women and their children," Mr. Blankenhorn notes. "Crack cocaine can do it, but that's about it. Otherwise, the emotional ties are firm."

But men are different. Men can detach themselves from their children, and our experience of the past 30 years has shown just how easily they can let go (just how fragile are the foundations of civilization). Without the strong societal message that to be a good man means shouldering the responsibilities for your wife and children, many men are content to abandon their families.

And when they do, the results for children are catastrophic. Sixty percent of rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates grew up in fatherless homes. Forty percent of American children now live in families without their biological fathers. Half of these have never been in their father's home.

But it isn't just at the pathological extremes that father absence works its mischief. Every child needs a father. A boy needs a father to show him what it means to be a man. He learns how to treat women by watching the way his father treats his mother. Girls derive ambition, self-confidence and a general attitude toward men from their relationship with Dad.

This is not to slight mothers. Mothers are crucial, too. But mothers are not abandoning their children. As Mr. Blankenhorn notes, it is not necessary for society to urge mothers to undertake their responsibilities.

But the data are quite clear that mothers alone have a tough time socializing their children, particularly their sons. And they 11 have a tough time making ends meet. Seventy-five percent of children in single-parent families experience poverty before the age of 11.

For 30 years, our culture has been at war with fatherhood. It was claimed that fathers were stifling, emotionally remote, overly strict and, ultimately, superfluous. Feminists who see today's pTC challenge as getting fathers to pay child support are missing the point. The great challenge is to return men to the business of being fathers.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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