“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the couple with the baby carriage.” — That was a school yard chant when I was in elementary school — usually used to tease a couple of kids caught holding hands. That was in the 50s, in some ways a much more innocent time.
These days, the love-marriage-parenting progression has been blown apart. Babies happen before marriage, to cohabiting couples, and to women who are not emotionally connected to the father. Love may not have anything to do with it. In fact 40% of children born in the U.S. are born to unmarried mothers. According to the U.S. Census, 43% of children under age 18 live without fathers. That’s over 24 million kids growing up without a dad in the house.
Having kids is no guarantee that dads will live with their children or will stay. Compared to kids born to married couples, those born to cohabiting parents are three times as likely to experience the departure of their dad — or may never even know him. Those born to unmarried parents who don’t live together are four times as likely to grow up without an involved dad. A recent study published in the American Sociological Review shows that fifty percent of all children born to married parents this year will experience the divorce of their parents before they turn 18.
According to the national Fatherhood Initiative, about 40% of children who do not live with their biological father have not seen him during the past 12 months; more than half of them have never been in his home and 26% of those fathers live in a different state than their children.
Negative Effects of Father Absence
The result of father absence, whatever the reason, is disastrous. A Google search results in countless articles that list many of the same statistics. Kids who grow up without a father present in the household are more likely to be poor and homeless. Fatherless kids are more likely to fail or drop out of school, to have behavior problems, to get involved with drugs and risky, maybe even illegal, activity and even to suicide. Girls without fathers are more likely to implode and get depressed. Many become pregnant in their teen years, often in a search for someone who will love them. Boys are more likely to “explode” and become angry kids who get suspended from school or court-involved. Some even become incarcerated. Neither gender is as likely to find a stable love relationship as a young adult as those with a strong relationship to their father.
The Antidote Is Father Involvement
Reading the many articles about the negative consequences of father absence is discouraging and disquieting, indeed. But there is a flip side. Whether dads never married their children’s mother or are divorced, whether they live with their kids or don’t, when fathers show their love for their children and are actively involved in their lives, those negative numbers get turned around.
Children whose fathers have regular and frequent contact and whose fathers provide hands on care are likely to enjoy school and get high grades. They are more likely to participate in sports and other after school activities. They are more likely to have a healthy self-esteem and less likely to get involved with substance abuse and high risk and/or illegal behavior. Having a positive experience with their dad often results in their ability to find healthy, loving relationships as adults. Both genders are more able to trust a partner and to be worthy of that trust.
What Dads Can Do
Fathers who are not living with a child’s mother can have important positive impact on that child’s growth and well-being. But it takes commitment and effort. If you are a father who doesn’t live with his kids, here are some of the actions you can take to ensure that your children grow into healthy adults.
- Marry their mother. If you have a child together but are unmarried, work on whatever is getting in the way of marriage. If divorced, consider that a rupture in a relationship can be an important learning experience, not the final chapter. With therapy and honest personal work, some couples are able to finally marry or remarry. Some can’t. But regardless of the outcome, putting in an effort usually leads to a healthier relationship between the kids’ parents.
- Be civil to the kids’ mom. If marriage or reconciliation isn’t possible, you can still be a role model for a positive adult relationship. Remember: The children are learning from you. Boys are learning how to treat women. Girls are learning what to expect from men. You don’t have to love their mother to be polite, to stay out of arguments, and to work with their mother for the best interests of the children.
- Commit to the child even if you can’t commit to the mother. Your children need you. Don’t limit your participation to weekend parenting or a couple of vacation weeks a year. Children whose dads are involved with them on a regular basis are more likely to do well. That means being an active parenting several times a week. That means making their meals, doing laundry and car-pooling. That means going to the kids’ events, overseeing homework, going to school meetings, and participating in their lives.
- Be reliable. Trust is built on reliability. Do what you say you will do when you say you will do it. Show up when your children expect you. Follow through on promises. Give them your attention when you are with them.
- Don’t treat your kids like guests. Make a home for them in your home and have them there regularly. Make it obvious that you are a dad. Put their art work on the fridge and their pictures on the walls. Provide them with their own bedroom if you can do it. If you can’t, create a corner or a shelf, a couple of drawers or a basket where they can keep their stuff and know it will be just as they left it the next time they come.
- Pay attention to your children’s interests. Show genuine interest in what your kids care about. Even if you don’t particularly like their music or their sport or the subject they are crazy about, learn enough about it to be able to participate in good conversations. Caring about what interests them is an important part of caring about the kids.
- Show affection. No, you don’t have to be mushy if that doesn’t come naturally to you. But be aware that affectionate non-sexualized touch is essential to kids’ development. A pat on the shoulder as you walk by, a bear hug, a kiss good night, etc. are important ways to show your kids that you love them.
A look at the numbers shows that fathers not living with their kids’ mother has become acceptable, even normative, in the U.S. But it is not healthy for either parent or for the kids when a father drops out of the picture. On-going, positive involvement of fathers is critical to raising healthy, happy adults who will be good parents someday.