Childhood memories have a mysterious ability to work their way deep into people’s hearts and minds,often subconsciously. Those trips to the beach with grandparents, afternoons spent in the kitchen with Mom, and Saturday soccer games outside with Dad each in their own special way shape us as human beings. They do not define us, but they do provide us with context, an understanding of who we are and where we come from.
But what if those fond childhood memories weren’t there; what if, in their place, there were painful memories? Instead of remembering the people who were present and invested in our lives, many of our neighbors, coworkers, and closest friends can’t help but think of the people who were simply never around.
Christian artist Lecrae tells of his experiences growing up without a father at home in his song “Just Like You.” He speaks of the emptiness in his heart that left him desperately “fighting for approval” and seeking guidance from other men in his life. Woven throughout the song is a single theme: As a young man, Lecrae desired someone to look up to and be loved by.
Studies indicate that an overwhelming majority of single-parent households are headed by a mother and are missing the irreplaceable presence of a father. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, during the 1960-2016 period, the percentage of children living only with their mother nearly tripled from about 8 to 23 percent — a number that continues to grow. The issue of fatherlessness is seen most prevalently in minority communities. Recent figures indicate that 66 percent of African American children and 42 percent of Hispanic children grow up in a single parent household, compared to 25 percent of white children.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the impact that fatherlessness can have on a child’s development, even well into adulthood, is profound. The absence of a father “significantly reduces the amount of adult investment” in a child’s development. Children growing up in single-parent homes are more likely to struggle in school and ultimately less likely to graduate from high school and college. Looking further down the road, children in fatherless homes are also more likely to suffer from poor mental health conditions.
Whether in the community or classroom, these children carry a disadvantage that follows them far beyond the playground. Over time, the lack of positive reinforcement that can lead to low scholastic achievement eventually can lead to bigger problems. Children from fatherless homes, who were unable to complete high school or college, experience higher rates of unemployment and thus further financial difficulties later in life.
Children require strong support systems, encouragement, and most importantly, the confidence that comes from having adults in their life who truly believe in them. For a child to miss out on the presence of either a mother or a father, given the unique gifts and talents each bring to the family, can be hugely detrimental to their formation into healthy, happy adolescents.
The reasons children grow up in fatherless families are vast and complex, as are the solutions. A public justice perspective suggests that a range of institutions must be involved in order to fully address the issue and offer comprehensive solutions. While the government cannot substitute as a father for these children, it can help create space for other institutions to support children growing up in single parent homes.
The government has a clear interest in promoting the health and welfare of communities and, as the Center for Public Justice’s guidelines on family articulate, it has a responsibility to “uphold the integrity and social viability of families.” The government must give weight to this responsibility when creating public policies, always taking “carefully into account the ways that other institutions and the dynamics of society impact families. When addressing the issue of fatherlessness and the specific impact it has on children in minority communities, state, local, and federal officials should ask: Is this policy or course of action going to encourage and equip families to stay together? A key initiative of President Obama’s Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was the Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative. This initiative was responsible for the allocation of funds to nonprofits dedicated to supporting fathers through both job and domestic violence prevention training. The President’s goal was to support fathers who are willing “to step up” and be there for their families. Although the government cannot and should not force couples to marry, they can make sure that the policies and laws they promote are not destructive to families and children, especially those in minority communities.
There are numerous nonprofit groups and organizations dedicated to the service of children in fatherless and other single parent homes. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has been working to match enthusiastic mentors — big sisters and brothers — with children across the country who are in need of a caring adult to “guide them on a path to success.” Mentors provide a dose of extra affirmation and encouragement in their lives. Volunteer “bigs” give of themselves, their time, and resources to ensure that the children in their community have the support they need to thrive. Studies of this particular program have shown that these relationships are as transformational as promised; everything from a child’s performance in school to their self-confidence and ability to make responsible decisions improve as they participate in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Organizations like this are essential to ensure that children from fatherless homes are able to flourish and ultimately become healthy, happy adolescents and adults.
As previously stated, the government alone cannot address the deeply rooted problems that result from fatherlessness. According to Scripture, the community of faith is designed by God to play an important role in fathering the fatherless. To answer this important call, many churches are finding ways to regularly connect fathers from within the church community to the children of single mothers. Through programs like this, men in the church can care for these children by spending time with them at baseball games, church services, and other activities. Having another adult, specifically a father figure, present and willing to encourage and inspire them can make the difference between surviving and thriving through adolescence.
Ultimately, the hope of this sort of church mentorship program, as well as government policy, is simple: that all children would have a greater chance at living healthy, productive lives, unburdened by feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. As Christians, we have the responsibility to not only care for children from fatherless homes, but also to advocate for policies and programs that provide them with the support they need. Both institutions — the church and the state — require our support because they are key facilitators of healthy communities, families, and children.
When approaching the issue of fatherlessness, we must recognize that no organization, government body, or church leader can fix the problem on its own. In a 2010 speech the day after Father’s Day, President Obama said, “I can’t legislate fatherhood.” As we work together and make use of the productive power of multiple institutions, change is possible. We must advocate for the kind of change that heals families, helps moms and dads, and ultimately gives children the chance at better, brighter futures.
-Gabriella Siefert is a junior at Wheaton College studying Political Science and Spanish. When she is not talking, thinking and writing about political issues and their intersection with her faith, Gabriella enjoys traveling, reading and cooking elaborate meals for her family.