National Edition

Fatherless America? A third of children now live without their dad

Published: Saturday, May 21 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Children who grow up without a father in the home are also more likely to run away from home and commit suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Eighty-five percent of children with behavioral disorders don't have a father at home.

"Dads tend to have a stricter, more firm approach to discipline than moms," Wilcox said. "They are physically bigger. They have deeper voices. They are more likely to command attention and compliance — especially when dealing with teenage boys. Kids need that hard line to develop an appropriate sense of right and wrong."

For girls, living in a father-absent home has physical consequences. Without a father, said Erin Holmes, an assistant professor in BYU's School of Family Life, girls tend to go through puberty sooner. A recent study by three U.S. universities found the earlier a father left, the greater risk a girl was at for getting pregnant as a teen.

Fatherlessness is also associated with eating disorders and depression, Holmes said.

"It could be these girls are trying to fill an emotional void," Holmes said. "We don't know. What we do know, though, is that not having dad around can be devastating."

A dad who's really there

DeBoer doesn't really refer to his father as "Dad" — he gives that title to another man who lived with his mother briefly during his elementary school years. That man, he remembers, "loved me," DeBoer said, "I know he did because he showed me. He took me to Lagoon, to the zoo. He spent time with me."

Being a father is more than just being male and showing up, said Holmes, who studies the effects of father involvement. Children who have poor relationships with their fathers or even those whose fathers are away from home working for extensive periods of time are at risk for some of the same problems as a child without a father, she said. Children whose fathers spend a lot of time with them and build a strong emotional bond report, however, higher levels of happiness and better social adjustment than children who don't consider their relationship with their father to be particularly strong.

"Sometimes fathers aren't in homes because they weren't doing good fathering," Holmes said. "We're not just saying, 'Let's get dads back in homes.' We're saying, 'Let's get dads doing good fathering.' "

DeBoer gave up parties, smoking and beer to make sure he's there to sing little Lucius to sleep and get him breakfast in the morning. He even quit swearing after he realized his son was apt to copy him. To his father's delight, the little boy's first word was "Papa."

"I don't know how a dad can not be a dad," he said. "It makes me so happy to be around my son. I hate leaving him when I go to work."

He's only 17 months into fatherhood, and DeBoer knows he will make mistakes. He is adamant, though, that he won't make the same one his dad made.

"I'm going to be there for him day in and day out," he said. "I want him to stay out of trouble and go to college. I'm gonna do everything in my power to make sure he has the best shot at life I can give him."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com, TWITTER: elizMstuart

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