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Fatherless Families?

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Many children today grow up without a father in the home. What does it mean to have a father? What does it mean to be a father? The Bible shows how God the Father is the author and example of successful fatherhood.


Millions of families will observe Father's Day this year on June 17. The United States is one of several dozen countries that observe this much-beloved holiday on the third Sunday of June each year. Other countries set different dates for Father's Day; India observes it on the first Sunday of June (June 3 this year), and several European countries (including Italy, Portugal and Spain) observe it on March 19. In Australia and New Zealand, Father's Day falls on the first Sunday of September (September 2 this year).

As we approach this day when we honor fathers, we should ask: What is the state of "fatherhood"? Does it have real significance in society today?

True fatherhood is not just the biological capacity to father children. In-vitro fertilization can accomplish that with no father present. True fatherhood involves a father being in the home, training and loving his children in the context of a committed marriage relationship. By that definition, fatherhood in the United States is at an all-time low. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. births now occur out of wedlock, according to December 2006 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. In some European countries the figure is even higher—41 percent in France, roughly 50 percent in Norway, and 62 percent in Iceland (Daily Policy Digest, March 27, 2002).

Compounding the problem is that the U.S. has the second-highest divorce rate in the world. Recently, married couples for the first time became a minority, accounting for only 49.7 percent of households with children.

Choosing Fatherlessness

Increasingly, older single mothers are choosing to become pregnant without a husband. One 31-year old single mother noted that when she became pregnant "it didn't matter if I had a man, because I knew I could do it alone." A single mother said that her 9-year old daughter "does cry sometimes about not having her dad around, but we talk about it… I do feel guilt sometimes, but we don't let it overwhelm us" (Monterey Herald, December 25, 2006).

What about the effect on children? Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said, "Children raised by single moms have a greater risk of poverty, emotional problems, school failure… Cohabitating parents don't show quite the same strength; neither do stepparents. Marriage carries with it a whole set of messages about how to live, which are consistent with middle-class life in this country" (ibid.).

Out-of-wedlock pregnancy and divorce are so widespread, according to author David Blankenhorn, that "before they reach the age of eighteen, more than half of our nation's children are likely to spend at least a significant portion of their childhoods living apart from their fathers" (Fatherless America, p. 1). In studying divorce, researchers Paul Amato and Alan Booth concluded that "at most a third of divorces are so distressed that the children are likely to benefit. The remainder, about 70 percent, involve low-conflict marriages that apparently harm children much less than the realities of divorce ("Two parents, even unhappy, are better," Today, January 7, 1998).

In Bringing Up Boys, psychologist James Dobson points out that in spite of such evidence, some believe not only that fathers are unnecessary, but that the institution of fatherhood is harmful to families (p. 65). He cites Carl Auerbach and Louise Silverstein, authors of Deconstructing the Essential Father, as well as Karla Mantilla, a radical feminist author, who said, "I am highly suspicious of the… necessity of kids to have a male role model… The propaganda that children, especially boys, need fathers I think, has contributed incalculably to the misery of children all over the world" (ibid.).

Roots of Paternal Conflict

Some mistakenly believe that Jesus Christ came to earth to counterbalance a harsh "Father-figure" God. They fail to see how Jesus showed only deep respect, honor and love for His Father. He said, "Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do… For the Father loves the Son… I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me" (John 5:19–20, 30). In John 14:28, Jesus said His Father was greater than He, in position and authority. He said He came to earth to reveal and declare the Father (John 1:18).

Christ taught that we are to pray to, worship, and love "our Father in heaven" (Matthew 6:9). He said, "O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You, and these [His disciples] have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them." (John 17:25–26). Jesus, as our personal Savior and Elder Brother, is teaching us to love His—and our—heavenly Father as well!

Yet many still recoil from fatherhood, in the family or in religion. "Consider this dilemma of the father's power. It is a fundamental human problem, shaping psyches and cultures. The anthropologist Weston La Barre, for example, probing for the origins of religion in human societies, finally views the 'anguish' produced by paternal authority as 'the root of religion' and 'the secret of who we are…' In short, antagonism toward paternal power seems to go with the territory of fatherhood" (Blankenhorn, p. 93).

Some years ago, a greeting-card company started a special Mother's Day program for federal prison inmates. Prisoners received a free card, postage paid, to send to their mothers for Mother's Day. The response was overwhelming! The lines were so long, representatives had to return to the factory to get more cards. The program was so successful, the company decided to come back on Fathers' Day. What happened on Father's Day? Nothing. There were no lines at all. Not a single inmate wanted to send a card to his father. Truly, a loving relationship with a father has a profound effect on one's life. And the lack of an engaged, active father is a strong determining factor in behavior gone awry (Dobson, p. 60).

Where did antagonism against fatherhood originate? In the distant past, before mankind was created, the archangel Lucifer rebelled against God, our Father in heaven. We read: "How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!... For you have said in your heart… I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:12–14). Lucifer became Satan, and as Satan he transmitted his attitude of rebellion to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:5). That same spirit of rebellion against authority—even the authority of our heavenly Father—has been passed on to all mankind, and the result is sin (Romans 3:23).

Human nature naturally resists authority—whether the father of a family, or the Father-figure God (Romans 8:7). "More than the mother-child bond, the father-child bond is frequently charged with distance, tension, and even hostility, all stemming, at least in part, from the typically distinctive content of paternal authority… the father's power, as a general anthropological proposition, is more conflictual than the mother's: more rule-oriented, more emotionally distant, more aggressive… Much of this tension is rooted in the fact that the child both craves and resents authority. So does a culture" (Blankenhorn, p. 93).

Is fatherhood a valid excuse for abusive behavior? Of course not! Violence against wives and children is a horrible and tragic crime. Women and children need to take steps to protect themselves against criminal behavior when it occurs. However, it is wrong to believe, as some do, that the fatherhood role itself increases violence against women. In fact, evidence from the National Crime Victimization Survey showed that boyfriends and ex-husbands—unmarried men—are six times more likely than husbands to commit violence against women (ibid., p. 35). Clearly, when men are married, the risk of abuse is dramatically decreased. God mandates that the father is to be the head of the home (Ephesians 5:23), but his role of leadership must be exercised in love and kindness (v. 25).

The Bible reveals four distinct roles that fathers are meant to fulfill. We can also see these roles fulfilled by our spiritual Father in heaven. What are these roles?

Fathers Provide

When God thrust Adam and Eve out of the garden, Adam's role was to provide for the sustenance of the family (Genesis 3:17–19). The Apostle Paul taught that wives' and mothers' primary responsibility was to be managers of the home (Titus 2:5; 1 Timothy 5:14). These passages shock and embarrass some people today, but they outline basic biblical roles.

Indeed, when men shirk their responsibility to provide, they cause untold suffering. Author Aubrey Andelin describes the reaction of a woman whose husband quit a higher-paying job for another which made him happier, but at which he only worked four hours a day. "[My husband] does not seem to care whether or not he provides for us… we are desperate for money. We have been living with his parents for the past seven months and it doesn't even look hopeful that we might possibly have our own place to live. I am losing all respect for my husband and without respect there is not real love" (Man of Steel and Velvet, p. 78). Yes, a man's desire and earnest attempt to provide for family members is vital if he is to retain their respect.

Sometimes, of course, a man may be unable to provide for his family. Sometimes a wife may need to step into the "primary breadwinner" role. But the general biblical principle is that a husband should provide for his own (1 Timothy 5:8).

Does God, as our Father, provide for His children? Of course! He sends the sunshine and the rain to all (Matthew 5:45). God takes special care to put bread on the table of those who honor and love Him, so that "in the days of famine they shall be satisfied" (Psalm 37:19). David wrote, "I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants [children] begging bread" (Psalm 37:25). Jesus taught His disciples to ask their Father in heaven to "give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11), and that it is God's pleasure to "give good things to those who ask Him" (Matthew 7:11). Let us look to our spiritual Father for our sustenance and needs. And let us uphold the biblical role of physical fathers to do the same in families here on earth.

Do Boys Need Fathers?

  • The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that fatherless boys are twice as likely to drop out of school or go to jail, and nearly four times as likely to need treatment for emotional and behavioral problems.
  • Dr. William Pollock, Harvard psychologist and author of Real Boys, says divorce is difficult for children of both sexes, but is devastating for boys. He says the basic problem is the lack of discipline and supervision in the father's absence, and his unavailability to teach what it means to be a man. Pollock also believes fathers are crucial in helping boys to manage their emotions.
  • Don Elium, author of Raising a Son, says that with troubled boys, the common theme is distant, uninvolved fathers.
  • Prisons are populated primarily by men who were abandoned or rejected by their fathers. Bill Glass, a dedicated evangelist who counseled almost every weekend for 25 years with men who were incarcerated, says that among the thousands of prisoners he had met, not one of them genuinely loved his dad. Ninety-five percent of those on death row hated their fathers.

(Source: Bringing up Boys, James Dobson, M.D., pp. 55–56, 60)

Fathers Protect

God designed fathers to protect their wives and children. Men are generally bigger and stronger than women—ideally suited for the role of protector and provider. Their larger frames and stronger muscles were designed to help care for—not abuse and terrorize—a wife and children. Not that long ago, society took for granted that a father's role was to protect his daughters from boys' unhealthy advances. Meg Meeker describes her father this way: "My dad protected me fiercely, to the point where I was almost too embarrassed to date anyone… But he protected me, not from predatory boys or monsters, but from myself. I was young and too trusting of people and he knew that long before I did" (Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, p. 3).

Today, we see rampant gang violence in communities where fathers are largely absent from their children's lives. "Neighborhoods without fathers are neighborhoods without men able and willing to confront errant youth, chase threatening gangs, and reproach delinquent fathers… the absence of fathers… deprives the community of those little platoons that informally but often effectively control boys on the street" (Blankenhorn, p. 31).

Does our Father in heaven take care of us? The Bible is full of examples of the protection our Father affords us—especially in the Psalms. Even salvation itself—rescuing us from the final destruction of death—is God protecting His children (1 Corinthians 15:57). God loves us, even to the point of giving up His Son for our lives (John 3:16).

If you value God's protection in your life, be appreciative of Him. And be thankful for the similar role He established for fathers on earth.

Fathers Teach

God has also given fathers a unique role in the education of their children. The word "discipline" did not originally mean punishment; it meant teaching. Just a few hundred years ago, in colonial America, fathers "bore the ultimate responsibility for the care and well-being of their children… fathers assumed primary responsibility for what was seen as the most essential parental task: the religious and moral education of the young." As the industrial revolution removed men from the household economy, women became the primary influence in the home. This shift has been one of the "defining features of American domestic life since the 1840s" (Blankenhorn, p. 237).

In general, mothers are better equipped to pay special attention to their children's immediate physical and emotional needs. Fathers, on the other hand, are typically more concerned about character growth than fulfilling immediate emotional needs. Scripture reminds us: "Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying" (Proverbs 19:18, KJV). Both mothers and fathers are necessary for bringing up healthy children, because they complement and balance one another. Author Tim Russert recalled, "Although Dad's disciplinary tactics were rarely appreciated by his kids at the time, I could have filled this whole book with grateful testimonies from sons and daughters who were at the receiving end years ago" (Wisdom of our Fathers, p. 223).

Discipline, however, does not mean lashing out in anger. Paul wrote, "Do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged" (Colossians 3:21). Along with teaching, measured, consistent and firm discipline—"exhorting" and "charging"—is what it takes for fathers to "bring [children] up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4; 1 Thessalonians 2:11).

God our Father has established a program of character development for us. Sometimes that includes trials and tests (Jeremiah 17:10), for our eventual good. We are told, "'My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens… Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect… For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness" (Hebrews 12:5–7, 9–10). If we are to be in His Kingdom, we need to grow and change. God our Father is committed to helping us do that, so we can enjoy "the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (v. 11).

Fatherhood is not a curse. It is a necessary complement to motherhood for the training of the next generation. If you had a father who trained you, give thanks for the guidance he passed on to you, however imperfectly. And let us all be grateful that God, as our Father, is willing to train us for life with Him in His Kingdom.

Do Girls Need Fathers?

  • Girls who are close to their fathers exhibit less anxiety and withdrawn behaviors.
  • Daughters who perceive that their fathers care a lot about them, and who feel connected to their fathers, have significantly fewer suicide attempts and fewer instances of body dissatisfaction, depression, low self-esteem, substance use and unhealthy weight.
  • Girls with involved fathers are twice as likely to stay in school.
  • Girls with fathers who are involved in their lives have higher quantitative and verbal skills and higher intellectual functioning.
  • Girls whose parents divorce or separate before they turn twenty-one tend to have shorter life spans by four years.
  • Girls with good fathers are less likely to flaunt themselves to seek male attention.
  • Girls with involved fathers wait longer to become sexually active and have lower rates of teen pregnancy.
  • Seventy-six percent of teen girls said fathers influenced their decisions on whether they should become sexually active.
  • A daughter from a middle-class family has a five-fold lower risk of out-of-wedlock pregnancy if her father lives at home.
  • Girls who lived with their mothers and fathers have significantly fewer growth and developmental delays, and fewer learning disorders, emotional disabilities and behavior problems.
  • Girls who live apart from their fathers have significantly less ability to control impulses and delay gratification, and have a weaker sense of right and wrong.

(Source: Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meg Meeker, M.D., pp. 23–25).

Fathers Nurture

Though fathers may not have the same deep "emotional well" that mothers have, their comfort and encouragement is also essential for their children's growth. While gentleness, tenderness and affection may not come as naturally to some men, those qualities must be present in fathers who hope to nurture balanced, healthy children. "Gentleness is to the steel qualities what mercy is to justice. When justice is meted out alone, it is cold, undeviating, and unsympathetic…. Although justice is in reality given for the benefit of the individual, without mercy it appears intent on the suffering or even the destruction of the person…" (Andelin, p. 213).

A father who is not attentive to his children's emotional needs will seem cold and distant. When warmth, communication, and encouragement are absent in a father, family roles can devolve into "master-slave" relationships. Sadly, as authors Ernest Havemann and Marlene Lehtinen note, this is how many today see traditional marriage roles (Marriage and Families, p. 206). But God never intended fathers to be cold and aloof. Notice how He describes Himself as our Father: "As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you…" (Isaiah 66:13). Paul explained that in his dealings with the church, he tried to be like a caring, compassionate father who comforts (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

As society becomes more decadent and self-obsessed, children need more than ever the strength and love of devoted fathers who will stand by them, support them and be a hero for them. British psychiatrist Dr. Joshua Bierer once observed "[America is] still the fatherless society. The husbands are not husbands. All the women are crying out for a strong man and he's just not there" (Andelin, p. xi). Children need fathers—and women need husbands—who will not bend to peer pressure of "what other parents do." Children need committed fathers who look out for their future character—not just bowing to their every whim and wish.

In a speech for the National Father's Day Committee, General Douglas MacArthur said: "By profession, I am a soldier… But I am prouder, infinitely prouder, to be a father… It is my hope that my son, when I am gone, will remember me not from the battle, but in the home" (Dobson, pp. 68–69). True fatherhood is a noble and honorable role for a man, and is worth striving for.

Will "good family men" become extinct? Not as long as there are men—and women—who appreciate fathers' importance in society, today and in the future. God has given us the father's role as a mirror-image of His protection, providence, discipline, and love for all humanity. As Father's Day approaches, we should thank God—our Father—for the gift of fatherhood.

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