Don't Give Up on Fathers

Last December, some of our neighbors held an epic Christmas potluck at our church ministry center.  The highlight of the evening was the open mic time when people shared stories, poems, and laughs.  Most of the sharing centered on what we were thankful for.  An elementary school boy (we’ll call him Sam) took the mic and shared a few sentences in his usual energetic way.  Sam’s words were short and simple.  “I am really glad I have a father.”  My eyes filled up with tears.  During the early years of his life, Sam didn’t have a father around.  He had a loving mom who had been embraced by loving neighbors.  But Sam’s gratitude showed that he knew what all of us in the neighborhood knew.  That Sam’s present and future got a lot brighter when his mom met and married a great man who is now a father to Sam.

It may seem obvious, but fathers are a big deal. 

Fatherhood is a critical topic within the larger discussion of early childhood development, which is itself a critical topic within the larger discussion of the alarming inequality of opportunity in America.  Fatherhood affects almost every positive outcome in the inequality discussion.

The media, the government, and researchers have given a great deal of attention to early childhood development and school readiness.  That is the result of simple logic. The outcomes show that if we give kids a better start, they have a brighter future.  But the focus on fatherhood is the result of a belief that this logic can go even farther.  Students succeed at greater rates when they are prepared.  But they are more likely to be prepared if they are read to, if they are not subject to neglect, and if the first two years of their lives are developmentally positive.  The situation is complex and subject to hundreds of factors.  But one thing is fairly clear: opportunities for success are dramatically increased when there is a caring father in the picture. 

We live in a time when our culture seems to have given up hope for fathers.  Fathers, both in absence and presence, have been the source of pain and critique from the wider culture.  And to be sure, there are failings aplenty.  Yet it is that very gap – between what American fathers fall short of being and what we know they can be – that should grab the attention of social researchers and concerned Christian citizens.  There is a great opportunity for growth in our present and future fathers.  And in that, there is hope for our children.

But, of course, everyone would like to see a country of better fathers.  The real question is, Can that be done?  “Making” better parents is a tricky, controversial, and maddeningly complex endeavor.  Any parent (myself included) who has tried to improve their own parenting knows what a difficult thing it is, let alone anyone who might attempt to help other parents.  The problem is certainly not a lack of opinions on parenting.  One needs only to see the glut of parenting books and blogs to know that there are ten thousand “right ways” to raise a child.  There is so much advice, but so little change.   And this is especially true of our most vulnerable families.

But I think there are ways to take steps in the right direction. Ways to take steps as a community andin our communities.   And it should be clear that government, civil society, and individuals can contribute in significant ways in each of these arenas.

EQUIPPING - I am referring to the equipping and empowering of parents.  Several programs have been attempted or are available for parents to receive training and support from social workers or other parents.  It is difficult to evaluate the benefit of such programs, especially on a large scale.  The investment needed in the lives of parents to make a substantial difference in parenting outcomes is enormous.  Parenting is learned from our own family systems and culture and therefore both good and bad habits are ingrained in us as deep as they can go.  That is why both federal and local organizations can agree that significant resources of time, relationships, and money are needed to make even the slightest measurable impact. 

When fathers fail, the cause is often not a great mystery, but is the result of generations of troubles and family dysfunction.  This does not diminish the importance of personal responsibility, it simply states a basic truth.  The challenges of transforming such ingrained problems should not surprise us.  Even if the success of such programs has been tenuous, we intuitively know that people with the right support network and the right resources can make changes.  It takes a network of diverse institutions to raise a generation of healthy parents. 

Too often the state has been the one to intervene.  This is not so much a great overreach of the state as it is a failure on the part of our local communities to support each other.  Education for fathers will only be effective if it can be done in the context of ongoing relationship.  The issues that neglectful, abusive, or absentee fathers are dealing with are too deep to be addressed in any other way other than by their local neighborhoods.  This should be a source of repentance for many of our local non-profits, churches, and neighbors.  We have failed to support one another.  But there is also ample opportunity to offer disciple-like support even with the small means that local organizations have to offer.  These grass-roots efforts will have to target men generally, in order to get ahead of the problem.  The issues of fatherhood begin long before men become fathers.  And many studies have shown that the first years of a child’s life may be the most formative for future success.  That means we can’t afford to wait to offer growth opportunities until men are already failed fathers.

Scholars like Philip and Carolyn Cowan have also done work on strengthening relationships between mothers and fathers.  The results seem promising and many programs around the country focus on developing the relational health of the couple as an avenue toward the flourishing of parents and children alike. In fact, one of the best predictors of a child’s success and safety is the health of the parents’ relationship.  Stronger couples generally make stronger parents.  This only further shows that when we talk about “educating” fathers we are not just talking about offering a brief class on good discipline or healthy eating.  We are in need of comprehensive support that helps demonstrate healthy marriages and relationships in general.  The problem of educating fathers is so broad that it is overwhelming, but it is also full of entry points to growth. 

Policy – Fatherhood is not just a private problem.  Parents with more resources of time and money usually extend those blessings directly to their children.  Thus, when government creates robust economic conditions, children and their fathers directly benefit. So the difficult question that we must wrestle with is, What policies assuage the stress that correlates with bad parenting?  This will include a multi-faceted approach that looks at alleviating the burdens of families who are at high economic risk as well as solid economic policies that benefit many.  One current policy initiative that could have this kind of impact is the proposed expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for young and childless workers.  The move has support from both President Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan.

This is why the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Family (which is all very apropos to this discussion) states that “Government’s policies should aim to uphold the integrity and social viability of families…”  As my discussion of education explored, fathers are not just individuals and will not improve as such.  They will grow as much as there is an environment in which they can grow – and that includes the economic and social policies of our larger government.

Culture – When we talk about supporting the family structure, Americans usually assume the values expressed are conservative.  But conservative-minded citizens should have found an ally in President Obama and his emphasis on positive fatherhood.  Unfortunately, many of the same people who would emphatically support such initiatives have been reluctant because of their personal feelings toward the president.  But what he has tried to do is potentially powerful.  The initiative on fatherhood has not made any gigantic breakthroughs, statistically speaking.  But I think its power lies elsewhere.  Its power lies in changing the narrative of fatherhood.  And this is an admirable undertaking.  Our definitions of manhood and fatherhood need reevaluation and our imaginations should be commissioned toward that end.

It seems to me that this is a fruitful avenue for cooperation between liberals and conservatives.  Each express a keen interest in promoting fatherhood and the welfare of America’s children.  The stable nuclear family is a huge source of vitality in the success of children.  It is an area in which conservatives often show a more compassionate social interest and liberals can see the benefits of healthy, stable, even traditional family structures.

Too often we give up on fatherhood because we see men as somehow impossibly individualistic.  But this is fatalistic and destructive.  Fathers need the teaching and encouragement of other fathers just as surely as women do.  Otherwise, how will we ever maintain hope for our future fathers?  Will a million fathers come to the sudden and independent realization that they can be better?  Yet the stories we tell are of mothers gathering for comfort, counsel, and support while fathers remain isolated and rugged individualists.  This has to stop.  If any growth or discipleship is going to happen, then fathers need to come alongside other fathers, the perception and the image of the father in the media needs to change, and there needs to be a revolution that ends the justification of isolation pervading manhood generally. 

Then, God willing, we can be better fathers... together.

Why did I start to cry when Sam shared his words during open mic?  Because even without seeing the statistics, we know intrinsically that having a caring father was the biggest factor that was missing for Sam’s potential success in life.  For him, a caring father means emotional, relational, and financial stability.  It has also created the opportunity for his mom to be a better mom.  Just like the rest of us, the future is no guarantee for Sam.  There is no absolute assurance of a smooth road ahead.  But the impact is clear and joyous.  And a little hope was reborn in the world. 

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.