"Fatherhood failure" comes at an incredible economic cost, its symptoms seen in incarceration rates, teen drug abuse, teen suicide, high numbers of school drop outs, emotional illness, out-of-wedlock births and more. Setting it right is the stuff of how-to books, memoirs, government initiatives, parenting classes and motivational talks.
And some experts say there's nothing less at stake than the future itself.
Men have struggled for hundreds of years with the role of being a guy, a father, a husband, says Tom Watson, author of "Man Shoes" and the father of three boys, ages 17 to 24. A man's role has changed, in part because more women have joined the workforce. "I'm all for that," he says, "but it means our role as men has and is changing and the current economy is stressing it even further."
"Man Shoes" refers to the fact that parents typically buy too-big shoes for children, knowing they will grow into them. Growing up is like that, Watson says. When things go the way they should, young people become responsible adults who are contributors and role models.
"You can see the devastating effect fatherhood absence and fatherhood failure are having in communities," says Gregory W. Slayton, author of "Be a Better Dad Today: Ten Tools Every Father Needs" and a former American diplomat. The book's proceeds are being donated to father-strengthening charities. The father of three boys and a girl, ages 10 to 21, notes that not having a dad around — or having one who's a very poor role model, as his own dad was — means children don't have the examples they need. "That is one of the ways that a generation learns and becomes responsible. We have entire communities where the men are absent or not good role models and it is devastating."
Numbers tell tale
The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse tracks pertinent statistics. "When fathers are involved in the lives of their children," it notes, "especially their education, their children learn more, perform better in school and exhibit healthier behavior. Even when fathers do not share a home with their children, their active involvement can have a lasting and positive impact. There are countless ways to be involved in your child's education at all ages."
The organization says children with highly involved fathers have increased mental dexterity, more empathy, less stereotypical views of their gender roles and better self control. They are more curious and better able to solve problems. A father's active involvement with his young children helps language and literacy development. When non-custodial dads are very involved with their kids' learning, those kids are more likely to excel at all grade levels. And when dad doesn't live with his kids but sees them often and plays a big role in their education and lives, three things are more likely: "Fathers paying child support, custodial mothers being more educated and custodial homes not experiencing financial difficulties," says the U.S. Department of Education.
But what if the number of families without fathers keeps growing and if there are, as Slayton suggests, entire communities that lack male role models?
The clearinghouse notes, among the possibilities, crime and imprisonment. More than 2 million American kids have a parent in prison and many more than that have had a parent (most often a father) in jail. Parental incarceration disrupts the lives of children and often leads to forced displacement to different caregivers. The kids are more likely to be in poverty, to see parental substance abuse, perform poorly at school, have mental health and substance abuse issues and exhibit problem behaviors.Slayton's own dad had serious substance abuse issues and abandoned the family. When he became a father himself, Slayton says he had "no concept of what it was to be a good dad. I had a few ideas of what I didn't want to do as a father — drink too much and other stuff." He started paying real attention to fatherhood across five continents, looking at what was effective and what wasn't. And he saw 10 tools that the effective dads practiced, regardless of some cultural variation.
Strong dad traits
He uses the acronym FATHERHOOD to list them: The F, for example, stands for "family first." That doesn't mean not going to work, but it does mean coming home and being truly present with the family, "looking for opportunities to be a blessing to them."
The A stands for "all-in marriage," he says. "You hear people say ridiculous things like 'we had some struggles, some fights, and thought it better to get a divorce.' Statistics are very clear that is not the case" except with physical abuse, he says. "All marriages go through difficult times. But for the kids and the mom and dad, when (they) stick together and get through the difficult times, kids' futures and success are dramatically strengthened.
"Being a good husband to your wife is the biggest gift you can give to the children themselves," Slayton says.
"Man Shoes" was originally a journal for Watson's sons, after he'd had a stroke. He's wondered who would pass on the things he'd learned if he wasn't around to do it himself.
At 18 he thought he had life all figured out. He didn't foresee the death of his first wife when his two oldest boys were just 2 and 4 or his own later stroke. "Nobody tells you at 18 all those types of things that life can throw at you," Watson says. He was tasked with helping wife, Darlene, finish her life, then he moved on to being a single parent and dealing with grief — his own and his boys'. He's learned that peace and balance in life are two things men struggle with. What's hard "is to manage the challenges on either side of the teeter-totter between personal and professional life and find that balance," Watson says.
He believes men need to do better in their friendships. They hang out and talk about sports, he says, but they often don't dig deeper, and they should. Lots of men before him faced challenges he went through, he says, and there are opportunities to share the wisdom gained. Too often, it doesn't happen. They should be able to ask for support, and to do it on a regular basis, "not just when they're having a meltdown. They will tell you what they think about the New England Patriots in great detail, he says, but most avoid communicating on a level where they'd have to "almost unzipper our hearts."
Even a father who is estranged for years can get back and be a blessing and influence on his children, Slayton says. "There are no perfect fathers, but if you are conscious that it's the most important job that you're ever going to have, of the fact that it's the job of a lifetime," you can improve your skills. It's not a static job, he says, but one that requires growth.
The Rev. Freddie Scott, former pro football player (Lions and Falcons and Colts) and author of "The Dad I Wish I Had," writes of people he's counseled who had a void instead of a relationship with their fathers and who have traveled a self-destructive road — one that may even mimic a father's faulty path. "This is the story of too many people today," Scott says. "People are hurting from their relationships with their fathers and find themselves living their lives trying to cope with the pain, rejection, insecurity and anger that it brings. It doesn't matter if someone is a grandfather or a child. Once someone has been hurt or disappointed by his or her father, it can be difficult to heal and move on in life."
Trying to forget about it or pretend the relationship didn't matter doesn't make the pain go away, he adds. "Many people are locked in their past and have not found a way to unlock themselves into the life that they really wants."
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