Fledgling fatherhood movement faces significant challenges

September 08, 1998|By Dr. Wade F. Horn

RECENTLY, I WAS invited to make a presentation at a National Governors' Association's meeting in Milwaukee on how states can help to promote responsible, committed and involved fatherhood. As I gazed out upon this gathering of governors, I thought about the first time I started discussing the crises in fatherlessness about five years ago.

Then, few people were talking about the fact that increasing numbers of children were growing up without fathers. Those who did were routinely belittled and berated, labeled misogynists or worse.

So when some colleagues and I began to discuss the formation of the National Fatherhood Initiative, success was not at all inevitable. The smart money was on our failure. We were counseled that the culture was too steeped in family relativism, the wrongheaded notion that all family structures are of equal value. Better to try to tackle something else, something less quixotic.

A key role

Today, what is remarkable is how unremarkable it is to hear someone say that fathers matter. At the Milwaukee meeting, governor after governor talked of the importance of fathers, not just as economic providers, but as nurturers, disciplinarians, role models and skill coaches. No one gasped, no one choked. Instead, there was applause.

But despite the extraordinary rapidity with which the fatherhood message has become mainstream, the emerging fatherhood movement still faces significant challenges.

First, in recent years there's been an explosion in the number of community-based fatherhood support, outreach and skill-building programs, but there's still much to be done, including raising money to provide for support programs.

Unfortunately, while many private foundations today talk about the need to reach out to and support fathers, far too few actually provide any resources to do so. Consequently, most fatherhood programs today exist on shoestring budgets -- if they have any at all.

We need to challenge private foundations to open up their purse strings and provide more support to community-based fatherhood programs and local initiatives. We also need to encourage existing social service providers to more effectively integrate fatherhood outreach and support into existing programs. And we need to impress upon our public sector leaders the importance of finding creative ways they too can help nurture this growing, yet still fragile, field.

Child-support issue

A second challenge stems from the fact that while most public officials now wax eloquently about how important fathers are to their children, some still only connect this rhetoric to calls for stronger child-support enforcement efforts.

Now, don't get me wrong. I believe in child-support enforcement. Any man who fathers a child incurs an obligation to ensure that his child is taken care of economically. But child-support enforcement is not a fatherhood support program. It's about money, not about dads.

A final challenge is the need to be clearer on the goal. While there are legitimate differences of opinion about this, I believe the goal of the fatherhood movement ought to be this: to increase the number of children growing up with a father at home who loves their mother.

By emphasizing the need to increase the number of children living with married dads, I do not mean to imply that divorced or unwed fathers should be tossed overboard. Children need their fathers. The fact that their father does not reside in the same household does not lessen that need.

But in working with divorced and never-married fathers, we should not shy away from the ideal of married fatherhood. To do otherwise sends an ambiguous message to the next generation of fathers.

We need to be clearer that men should wait until they are married before fathering children, and once married, they should do everything they can to ensure their marriages stay strong and vital.

The good news is that we are starting to see, for the first time in more than 30 years, a leveling off of the number of children growing up in homes lacking a father.

I believe that with concerted effort we can actually reverse the trend toward fatherlessness within the next five years. Not simply stop the rise in fatherlessness, but reverse it. Doing so will require that we stand firm on the issue of marriage, for marriage is the most likely -- not perfect, but certainly the most likely -- pathway to a lifetime father.

There is much about which those of us within the fatherhood movement can be proud. We have seen much progress over the past four years. But there is much more work to be done. As I listened to the governors in Milwaukee extol the importance of fathers to the well-being of children, families and communities, I grew increasingly confident that work will get done.

Wade F. Horn is a clinical child psychologist, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of several books on parenting, including "The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book." Mr. Horn writes from Gaithersburg. His e-mail address is NFI199ol.com.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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