National Edition

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

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

Mike DeBoer and his son Lucius, who is 17 months old, enjoy the sunshine in Ogden. "I'm gonna do everything … to make sure he has the best shot at life," DeBoer said.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

OGDEN — Two stints in prison, rehab and a probation officer failed to inspire Mike DeBoer to give up the drugs. Dirty diapers, peanut butter sandwiches, playing "tickle monster" with a giggly redhead who smiles his daddy's smile — that's what did it.

"My dad wasn't there for me," said DeBoer, 30, a thick, muscular man with a shaved head and five o'clock shadow, pausing to coo at his now-17-month-old son. "There's nothing in the world that's gonna keep me from being there for my little man."

One-third of American children are growing up, as DeBoer did, without their biological father, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the past 50 years, the percentage of children who live with two married parents has dropped 22 points. During that same time, the number of babies born to unwed mothers jumped from 5 percent to 40 percent.

The growing trend of father absence could have grave implications for society, researchers say, because having dad around has been linked to important developments in a child's physical, emotional and behavioral health. At the same time, though, research indicates it's not enough just to have a male figure in the home.

Several leading sociologists have labeled father absence "the most pressing issue facing America today." Alarmed by growing evidence of the importance of fatherhood, President Barack Obama, who was raised by a single mother, has forcefully pleaded with fathers to step up throughout his presidency.

"In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence — both in my life and in the lives of others," Obama wrote in a 2009 Father's Day piece in Parade Magazine. "I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill. We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference."

Where did Daddy go?

DeBoer doesn't remember much about his father. His mom and dad divorced shortly after he was born, and since then, DeBoer's only seen him twice. What he does remember is sitting alone in bed at night, covers pulled up around his chin, wondering, "Why didn't my dad want me? Am I not good enough?"

"I've spent a lot of my life hating him," DeBoer said. "It made me angry that he would abandon me like that."

The increase of father absence in America is born of several intertwining trends, said Allen Hawkins, a professor in BYU's School of Family Life. While the divorce rate has dropped in recent years, it's not an indication that more families are staying together. Rather, Hawkins said, more people are choosing not to get married in the first place.

For many years, marriage and children "were a packaged deal," he said, "and society was pretty good at enforcing that with strong cultural norms." Things started shifting during the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s. Now, polls indicate, a majority of Americans are opposed to the idea of a "shotgun wedding," or getting married just because a woman is pregnant.

The move away from marriage is a result of a bigger shift in American values that Hawkins calls a loss of "child centeredness." At one time, society expected adults to make decisions based largely on what was best for the children.

"Marriage isn't about kids anymore," he said. "It's about my satisfaction as an adult, my emotional well-being, my personal development."

A large percentage of today's young moms and dads are children of divorce and, therefore, wary of marriage. For many, Hawkins said, the logical solution is cohabitation. In 1960, there were only about 197,000 unmarried couples raising children together, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. In 2009, there were more than 2.5 million.

"Most of these couples are together when the baby comes and they have high hopes for staying that way," Hawkins said. "Unfortunately, only a small percentage are able to hold that together and solidify that relationship. It's even easier to leave your kid when you haven't got a legal commitment holding you there."

In a five-year study following 5,000 children, the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., found 80 percent of fathers provide support to mothers during pregnancy and more than 70 percent visit their children at the hospital. At the time of birth, a vast majority indicated they wanted to help raise their child.

Five years down the road, however, only 35 percent of unmarried couples had gotten married. About 40 percent of unmarried mothers had already broken up with their child's father and entered into at least one new partnership. Fourteen percent had a child with a new partner.

"Most fathers care about their children," said Victor Nelson, a marriage and family therapist from Logan. "They've given up on making things work with the mother, but most want to figure out some sort of solution for their kids."

But even if fathers keep in touch after a breakup, children suffer, said Nelson, who specializes in helping couples make co-parenting plans after a relationship has gone south.

"The bottom line is, kids really need frequent contact with both parents to successfully navigate developmental stages as they grow up," he said.

Growing up without Dad

While he's careful to take responsibility for the way he's run his life up to this point — criminal record and all — in the back of his mind, DeBoer, who dropped out of high school to help his mother provide for his younger siblings, has always wondered if things might have been different had his father been around.

The family was poor. At times, DeBoer's mother worked three jobs in order to pay the bills.

"She worked so hard," DeBoer said. "There wasn't nothing she wouldn't do for us kids."

But the combination of a working mom who wasn't around much and living in a crime-riddled, low-income neighborhood proved difficult for DeBoer. The first time he got arrested, he was 17 years old. He started drinking in middle school. He picked up drugs in high school. When he started drifting toward gang activity, his mother sent him away to live with his aunt and uncle. DeBoer continued, though, down the path he'd started.

"My dad wasn't there to teach me how to be a man, so I looked to my friends," he said. "I didn't have no one to look up to. I had to teach myself everything."

The research backs DeBoer up.

A study by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services found only 13 percent of juvenile delinquents come from families where the biological mother and father are married to each other. Thirty-three percent come from families where the parents have divorced. Forty-four percent have parents who were never married. The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University both found young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families — even when other factors like race, income, parent education and urban residence were held constant.

"Something about not having a father in the picture seems to make at least certain types of boys more likely to engage in aggressive violent behavior," said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. "The theory is, they are trying to signal to others they are a man. If they don't have a good model in the household, they are more likely to embrace what they see on TV or what they see their friends doing."

Today's dads still bring the majority of financial resources to the table, Wilcox said. Money translates into things like food, tutoring and college.

Despite socioeconomic status, however, just having a father at home makes a child more likely to succeed at school, according to a study by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Children from low-income, two-parent families outperform students from high-income, single-parent homes. Almost twice as many high achievers come from two-parent homes as one-parent homes.

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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