Skip to comments.Five Myths on Fathers and Family (Be on the lookout this week for stories with these bogus memes)
Posted on 06/22/2009 3:11:52 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
With Fathers Day almost upon us, expect a host of media stories on men and family life. Some will do a good job of capturing the changes and continuities associated with fatherhood in contemporary America. But other reporters and writers will generalize from their own unrepresentative networks of friends and family members, try to baptize the latest family trend, or assume that our society is heading ceaselessly in a progressive direction. So be on the lookout this week for stories, op-eds, and essays that include these five myths on contemporary fatherhood and family life.
1. THE MR. MOM SURGE
Open a newspaper or turn on a TV in the week heading up to Fathers Day and you are bound to confront a story on stay-at-home dads. I have nothing against stay-at-home dads, but they make up a minuscule share of American fathers.
For instance, less than 1 percent (140,000) of Americas 22.5 million married families with children under 15 had a stay-at-home dad in 2008, according to the U.S. Census. By contrast, about 24 percent (5,327,000) of those families had a stay-at-home mom. This means that the vast majority more than 97 percent of all stay-at-home parents are moms, not dads.
The focus on Mr. Mom obscures another important reality. In most American families today, fathers still take the lead when it comes to breadwinning: In 2008, the Census estimated that fathers were the main provider in almost three-quarters of American married families with children under 18. Providership is important to protect children from poverty, raise their odds of educational success, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed later in life. Thus, the very real material contribution that the average American dad makes to his family is obscured by stories that focus on that exotic breed, the stay-at-home dad.
2. WOMEN WANT EVERYTHING 50-50
Another prevailing media myth is that contemporary women are looking for fathers who will split their time evenly between work and family life. It may be true for the average journalist or academic, but it is not true for the average American married mom.
Most married mothers nowadays do want their husbands to do their fair share of housework and childcare. But they do not define fairness in terms of a 50-50 balancing act where fathers and mothers do the same thing at home and work. Instead, contemporary mothers take into account their husbands work outside the home when they assess the fairness of the division of labor inside the home.
Moreover, most women who are married with children are happy to have their husbands take the lead when it comes to providing and do not wish to work full-time. For instance, a 2007 Pew Research Center study found that only 20 percent of mothers with children under 18 wanted to work full-time, compared with 72 percent of fathers with children under 18. My own research has shown that married mothers are happiest in their marriages when their husbands take the lead when it comes to breadwinning largely because his success as a provider gives her more opportunities to focus on the children, or balance childcare with part-time work (the most popular work arrangement for married mothers). So, on this Fathers Day, dads who are fortunate enough to hold down a good job and make a major contribution to their families financial welfare should take some comfort from the fact that they are likely to be boosting not only their families bottom line but also their wives happiness.
3. MARRIAGE IS JUST A PIECE OF PAPER
With the rise of cohabitation over the last 40 years, a large minority of American children will spend some time in a household headed by a cohabiting couple. Experts now estimate that about 40 percent of American children will spend some time in a cohabiting household, either because they are born into such a household or because one of their parents cohabits after a breakup. Faced with this reality, many journalists, scholars, and advocates are tempted to minimize the differences between married and cohabiting fathers and families.
But the reality is that, on average, cohabiting fathers do not compare with married fathers. As Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland and Kermyt Anderson of the University of Oklahoma found in a recent study, married fathers are significantly more involved and affectionate with their children than are cohabiting fathers. In fact, from their research, they conclude that marriage per se confers advantage in terms of father involvement above and beyond the characteristics of the fathers themselves.
Married fathers are also much more likely than their cohabiting peers to stick around. One recent study by Wendy Manning at Bowling Green State and Pamela Smock at the University of Michigan found that 50 percent of children born to cohabiting parents saw their parents break up by age five; by comparison, only 15 percent of children born to married parents saw their parents divorce by age five. Dad is much more likely to stick around if he has a wedding ring on his finger.
This is because, for men, marriage and fatherhood are a package deal, as sociologists Frank Frustenberg and Andrew Cherlin observed a number of years ago. By force of law and custom, marriage binds men to their families and gives them a recognizable role to play in the lives of their children. Try as they might, unmarried men typically find it difficult to be a consistent and positive force in the lives of their children.
4. THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Every couple of years, some journalist seeks to revive the myth of the good divorce often to excuse his or her own bad behavior. Sandra Tsing Loh is Exhibit A this week. In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, she spends several thousand words trying to justify her divorce from her husband of 20 years a man she admits is a good man and loving father under the cover of a sprawling, incoherent, and frankly disturbing review of five books on marriage and family life. (Among other things, the reader is regaled with all too much information about Lohs private life; we learn, for instance, that one reason she ended up divorced is that she could not replace the romantic memory of my fellow [adulterous] transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband.)
Loh claims that her children appear to be doing just fine. Her two school-age girls aged 7 and 9 appear to be unfazed and relatively content in the midst of their parents divorce. Who knew divorce could be so easy on the kids?
In reality, Loh is probably deluding herself. The best social science presents a rather different picture than the rosy one Loh is trying to paint. According to research by Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Paul Amato of Penn State, girls whose parents divorce are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, to become pregnant as teenagers, and to suffer from psychological problems such as depression and thoughts of suicide. Girls whose parents divorce are also much more likely to divorce later in life.
Moreover, studies indicate that children experience the most harm when their parents divorce after living together in a low-conflict marriage for many years (as Loh appears to have done). Why? These divorces come as the most surprising ones to children who thought that their parents had a good-enough marriage.
Though Loh manages to find for her Atlantic piece a bunch of well-educated friends who are also entertaining thoughts of divorce, she is (fortunately) in increasingly rare company. The work of sociologist Steven Martin indicates that since 1980, college-educated Americans have grown less tolerant of divorce, and the divorce rate among this cohort has fallen off sharply. Thus, well-educated readers of The Atlantic are unlikely to take Lohs misleading and self-serving essay to heart.
5. DADS ARE DISPENSABLE
The final myth propagated by journalists in connection with fatherhood these days is the myth of the dispensable father. Often conjured up in glowing profiles of women who have become single mothers by choice, this myth holds that fathers do not play a central role in childrens lives.
This myth fails to take into account the now-vast social scientific literature (discussed above) showing that children typically do better in an intact, married families with their fathers than they do in families headed by single mothers.
It also overlooks the growing body of research indicating that fathers bring distinctive talents to the parenting enterprise. The work of psychologist Ross Parke, for instance, indicates that fathers are more likely than mothers to engage their children in vigorous physical play (e.g., roughhousing), to challenge their children including their daughters to embrace lifes challenges, and to be firm disciplinarians.
Not surprisingly, children benefit from being exposed to the distinctive paternal style. Sociologist David Eggebeen has shown, for instance, that teenagers are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and delinquency when they have involved and affectionate fathers, even after controlling for the quality of their relationship with their mother. In his words, What these analyses clearly show is that mothers and fathers both make vital contributions to adolescent well-being.
This is not to say that all journalists get it wrong when it comes to making sense of contemporary fatherhood and family life. This week, for instance, Sue Shellenberger at the Wall Street Journal had a great piece discussing the ways in which mothers serve as gatekeepers for fathers to their children; she also encourages mothers to allow fathers to engage children with their own distinctive style of parenting. Likewise, Linda Carroll at MSNBC has written an incisive story showing that involved and affectionate fathers play a crucial role in steering their daughters away from early sexual activity; in fact, it turns out that dads are more important than moms in protecting their teenage daughters from early sex.
In the coming years, we will need more tough-minded and honest journalism like the kind offered by Shellenberger and Carroll. This is particularly true because the cultural and economic storms of late e.g., the individualistic turn of contemporary life and the recession have been eroding the marital foundations of family life in America. Given the social scientific record on fatherhood, marriage, and family life, the United States could use more journalists who are willing to confront hard truths about the roles that fathers and marriage play in advancing the welfare of our nations most vulnerable citizens, our children, and the cultural, economic, and legal forces that are now undercutting marriage and fatherhood in America.
W. Bradford Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Institute for American Values.
I was always told as I was growing up that the best one parent can do is half the job. Each parent has a significant role.
There used to be a time when our entertainment media portrayed fathers as wise, dependable and essential.
Nowadays, a lot of fathers are being portrayed as foolish, bumbling and dispensable.
Our kids have some classmates being raised by “Mr. Mom.” They are a mess. One of my college friends divorced her husband after he was “Mr. Mom” for years and raised their son. Son’s a mess.
The kids need both parents — Mom to say “Be careful!” and Dad to say “Have fun!”
Today, any TV commercial featuring a husband and wife invariably depicts the former as a bumbling, lazy, confused dork dressed like the clod he is, with the wife shown as a savvy, sassy, sexy fashion plate.
“Why did she marry him!?” is what I usually think, completely forgetting what the commercial was selling.
Yes, and the reason men are idiots on television now, particularly in commercials, (White men), is because the men of hollywood are bumbling idiots. With their own narrow focus on the left coast and belief that they do everything right and the rest of us are fools, its no wonder they get it wrong so often.
I’d like to share this very thoughtful excerpt from
THE AMERICAN THINKER entitled : WISHING FATHERS WEREN’T VITAL.
Fathers matter. Often, fathers make all the difference in the lives of children. Ask Tim Russert or Rush Limbaugh or Martin Luther King Jr or Pope John Paul II or Jeff Jacoby. But don’t just ask sons about fathers: Ask daughters or my wife or Ann Coulter. Mothers have a wonderful, sweet, practical, and vital role in the lives of children, but fathers often have a profoundly inspiring and ennobling role in the lives of children groping toward adulthood.
It is politically incorrect to think this way because we have confused equality of opportunity (which all decent people support) with equivalence of attributes (which is cartoon nonsense.) Men and women, of course, are very different. Their bodies are different. Those differences are reflected in separated societies from the Inca to the Mongol and from the Zulu to the Nordic. Sexual roles, naturally developed, are not the same in each culture, but the differences always manifest themselves in the same directions. Anyone who has worked on a farm knows how very different male and females animals behave. Because these differences sometimes favor men, feminists have persuaded themselves that they and all women are victims of oppression.
Fathers, of course, become expendable in this dreary dystopian reality. Impolitic facts are more often than not simply truth. Children need fathers or they lives are very limited. There is an argument, which I will not make but simply suggest, that because so much of our world is soft, cozy, warm, easy, and mild, children actually need fathers more than they need mothers. Let us just say that children need both.
It is a sad, real fact that the principle character flaw in both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton is that both men were fatherless boys who never grew up. In this, I do not blame them but pity them. Barry and Bill had no choice in the matter, but it has affected the whole course of their adult lives. This brings up an unpleasant malady of modern life: the more people who lack something valuable in their lives, the more readily these people accept theories that they have really lost nothing. So, as more children grow up without fathers, more adolescents come to believe that their life without a father did not hurt them at all. The more people grow up without real faith in God, the more people pine to believe that God is dead or, at least, irrelevant. The more couples divorce and remarry, the more men and women yearn to believe that a happy marriage is only ancillary to a good life. The more people “learn” from videos and television, the more books and text seems a waste of time.
We - all of us - at some level want to believe that those crucial elements of our lives are not really crucial at all, and so blithely swallow any pop psychology which supports a portrait of our life as fulfilled, even when it lacks something critical. There is an argument that homo sapiens has risen to the heights that he has because infants of our species began to grow up with the models of a father and of a mother. The earliest strands of our systems of belief, the Torah for example, has indispensable roles for Abraham and for Sara. The story of Genesis is not a story without fathers.
As the percentage of our population growing up without fathers in the home grows, the prospect of anything in our lives improving will continue to decline. No armies of teachers, therapists, social welfare workers, or even sports coaches can replace a good father. Even a good mother cannot replace a good father (and vice versa.) In a society in which every virtue is described as “diversity,” how odd that the only types of vitamins that some people think we don’t need in our diet come in the paternal vitamin packet. They are wrong - terribly, sadly, wickedly wrong.
Why thank you. :-)
As to the article...Mrs. WBill is a stay-at-home Mom (she has a small part-time job to get out of the house and make some spending money). The crap that she gets for staying home from her friends and co-workers is endless.
These would be her mostly Unmarried, Mostly Childless, All Feminist Friends and Co-Workers...and those that have kids all dump them in a daycare for 10-12 hours a day. I attribute their attitudes to jealousy, or guilt.
I'd love to be a Stay-at-Home Dad. Unfortunately, my earning potential is higher than my wife's...it's easier to get by on what I make, rather than on a teacher's salary. Were the shoe on the other foot, I'd swap places in a heartbeat.
Kudos to you for supporting mrswbill’s decision to stay home! An unsupportive hubby makes that decision difficult for a lot of women.
Of course, we don't have a lot of the things that many people I work with do...no laundry service, lawn service or cleaning service. We rarely eat out, and Mrs WBill shops pretty carefully.
Frankly, to be brutally honest, my wife just can't make enough money to have her working be worthwhile. By the time you subtract taxes, daycare, and commuting...it just ain't worth it. Throw in occasional business lunches, new clothes, less time for the family, less time for "careful" shopping and meals.... we'd be in the hole, just for her to work. Foolish.
I work with a lot of Moms and Dads who "have to" work. At least they think that they do. I think that they'd be surprised how much more money they'd have if they dropped out of the workforce.
A dad’s job is to be the sort of man he would like his daughter to bring home...
Thank you for your post :)
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