Perhaps the most important book written this decade on our greatest social crisis is Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, by New York intellectual David Blankenhorn. The president of the Institute of American Values, Blankenhorn dissects the insidious and prevalent bias against the value of fatherhood in both elite and popular culture. In this impassioned yet carefully reasoned and researched book, he argues that being a father is "society's most important role for men."
While mothers typically concentrate on meeting children's immediate physical and emotional needs, Blankenhorn writes, fathers tend to "focus on preparation for the future and on children's success in the larger society. Fathers are likely to devote special attention to character traits necessary for the future, especially qualities such as independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to test limits and take risks."
Moreover, Blankenhorn writes, a proper view of fatherhood is essential to the concept of masculinity. "Fatherhood cannot destroy or oppose masculinity, but fatherhood must domesticate masculinity. In a good society, men prove their manhood by being good fathers." But many journalists, academics, and purveyors of popular culture are writing a new "cultural script"-new definitions of what it means to be a man-that fails to serve the needs of children, families, or society. Here are some of the inadequate roles available to today's dads:
The Unnecessary Father. "He may be useful in some ways. He may be a nice guy, perhaps even a force for good. But he is nonessential, peripheral, 'not that important.' His presence may be appreciated, but it is not required."
The Visiting Father. This poor chump writes the checks and strives valiantly to stay in touch with his children after a divorce. Although often romanticized, as in the popular movie Mrs. Doubtfire, "the great majority of visiting fathers are not-indeed, cannot be-good-enough fathers to their children," Blankenhorn writes.
The Sperm Father. He accounts for nearly 30 percent of all fathers of young children. "His is the fatherhood of the one-night stand, the favor for a friend, the donation or sale of sperm. His child is the unintended consequence, the result of the affair that did not work out, the reason for the paternity suit, the baby he never learned about."
The Stepfather and the Nearby Guy. Rosy assumptions to the contrary, "children who live with stepfathers experience outcomes that are no better, and frequently worse, than children in mother-only homes." The Nearby Guy (a coach, a teacher, the mother's boyfriend) provides not fathering but often "ambiguity, complexity, and frequent change."
The New Father. "He expresses his emotions. He is a healer, a companion, a colleague, He is a deeply involved parent. He changes diapers, gets up at 2 a.m. to feed the baby, goes beyond 'helping out' in order to share equally in the work, joys, and responsibilities of domestic life." How can you hate this guy? Blankenhorn doesn't fault dads who change diapers, but he insists that this is not their most important contribution.
In contrast to this cast of losers, Blankenhorn holds up the Good Family Man. He "puts his family first. He is responsible for them. He sacrifices for them" to help prepare them for life in the real world. Sure, this guy also helps his wife care for the children and pitches in with household duties, but he views his role as complementary, not identical, to that of his spouse. This distinction is vital to the masculinity of men and to the future of fatherhood.
That's why, Blankenhorn says, it is crucial that society provide men with the right cultural script, because successful fathering depends more on societal codes of conduct than on biology. If we get those codes wrong, we'll see "the continuing decline of fatherhood and a deepening ambivalence and skepticism toward masculinity." We must get them right, because "fatherhood, more than any other male activity, helps men to become good men."
If you want to be a good father, the single most important thing you can do is to be a good husband. In a landmark study of marriage and parenting styles, Jay Belsky, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University, has found that men whose marriages were in decline tended to exhibit parenting traits that undermine child development.
"Men appear much less likely than women to distinguish between their feelings about their child and their feelings about the marriage," writes Belsky in The Transition to Parenthood: How a First Child Changes a Marriage; Why Some Couples Grow Closer and Others Apart. (The book, by Belsky and John Kelly, is available in paperback from Dell.) "If a man is dissatisfied with the latter, he will usually stay away from his family, even if it means sacrificing the opportunity to get to know and form a close bond with his youngster."
Sadly, it seems marriages tend to be most vulnerable just when they need to be strongest-when children are very young. Belsky found that when children entered the picture, a little over half of all marriages declined. Only 20 percent of couples thought their marriages improved, and the remaining 30 percent of couples found their level of marital satisfaction to be about the same. Research by the National Center for Fathering also shows a "U-pattern" of marital satisfaction. It is high before the birth of the first child, declines when children are young, and tends to rise again as the children grow older and leave home.
Belsky writes that a major area of marital discord is the division of responsibility for child care and housekeeping. Babies are a lot of work, and the mother generally finds she bears most of the burden-by choice or by default. Because a woman will tend to measure her husband's share in domestic duties against her own (she typically does three times more than he does), that perception of unfairness breeds resentment. But men measure their contribution (which averages 15 or 16 hours a week) against what their fathers did. By this yardstick, husbands today are doing 40 percent more household work than men did a generation before. Also, she tends to downplay his contributions as a breadwinner; he regards them more highly. By his calculations, he's a prince; by hers, he's a frog.
The arrival of children provokes spousal conflict in other areas as well, Belsky writes, including money, work, social life, and commitment to the relationship. Obviously, those who would counsel couples in their transition to parenthood must urge them to address unrealistic expectations and conflict over gender roles. Discouraging divorce is not enough; we must foster strong and loving marriages that nurture the healthy development of children.
Leading the Fatherhood Brigade
Thousands of men gather in football stadiums around the country to recommit themselves to their wives and children. Vice President Albert Gore attends a national summit on fatherhood, with major news media in tow, and chastises men for walking away from "the most important role that any of us will ever play in life." Hundreds of thousands of African-American men convene in Washington, D.C., to pledge responsibility to their families. Is fatherhood making a comeback in the nation with the world's highest rate of father absence? "There's not a movement," says The Reverend Donald Burwell of Fathers' Education Network in Detroit. "But I do think there is a fatherhood revival or Renaissance." Whatever we call it, something is going on. In recent years, several new groups dedicated to promoting fatherhood have sprouted, and older organizations have reoriented their efforts to this cause. Here are some of the leaders in the fatherhood field-a mix of liberal and conservative, religious and secular-all united in a belief that fathers are vital to their children's well-being.
National Fatherhood Initiative
Web site: http://www.register.com/father/
"What reduces crime, child poverty, and teen pregnancy, and requires no new taxes?" asks the National Fatherhood Initiative. The group's answer, of course, is good fathers. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1993 to spread the "news" that fathers are indispensable to their children's development.
Its goal is ambitious: broad cultural and social change. But it has widespread support, savvy, creative and committed leadership, and a national advisory board that includes William J. Bennett, James Earl Jones, congressman Steve Largent, Willard Scott, Louis Sullivan, and George Gallup. NFI's aggressive media outreach has garnered more than 650 mentions in publications nationwide. With backing from the Advertising Council, NFI will launch a blitz public-service announcements this year to reintroduce fatherhood as a vital concept.
NFI has become a nerve center for various fatherhood groups, sponsoring national and local meetings. Last summer and fall, NFI chairman David Blankenhorn led a "National Fatherhood Tour" to 30 cities to meet with community activists and promote the NFI "fatherhood pledge."
The organization plans an interfaith summit in Washington, D.C., in May, to convene various religious leaders-a more modest version of its 1994 National Summit on Fatherhood in Dallas, which brought together national and local religious, civic, business, and entertainment leaders. Also in the works is a summit addressing the needs of the African-American community, to be chaired by Louis Sullivan, the secratary of health and human services under President George Bush.
NFI president Don Eberly, a former top aide to Jack Kemp, is based in the national office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, while director Wade Horn, a former U.S. Commissioner of Children, Youth, and Families, works out of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Originally conceived as a public-education campaign, NFI has also become a membership organization in response to popular demand. Membership benefits include a quarterly newsletter, a media kit, a guide for community activists, and a catalog of fatherhood-related books and videos. With three full-time and three part-time staff members and a budget of about $600,000, the institute's challenge now is to find the funding to carry out its many ambitious initiatives.
National Center for Fathering
Considered one of the leaders in the field, the National Center for Fathering is a Kansas-based nonprofit organization that trains individuals in the fundamentals of fatherhood. Founded in 1990 by scholar Ken Canfield, the center holds seminars based on Canfield's The Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers (available from NCF in paperback and as an audiocassette or a video seminar)."Where National Fatherhood Initiative is the strategic bomber of the fatherhood movement, we are the infantrymen in the trenches," says NCF spokesman David Warnick. With a budget of $560,000 and 10 full-time staff members, NCF runs programs for fathers from all backgrounds, including corporate personnel, prisoners, military dads, and inner-city fathers, and is actively involved in minority outreach. More than 15,000 fathers around the country have participated in its two-day training sessions.
Its national training program, "Operation Domestic Shield," is often disseminated through church networks, and Canfield works as a trainer for the evangelical Christian group Promise Keepers. But NCF prides itself on being a nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization, working with everyone from California governor Pete Wilson to Vice-President Al Gore.
The National Center for Fathering publishes a quarterly magazine, Today's Father: For Men Who Want To Be Better Dads, which contains parenting advice and lists of books and other resources, and also produces a three-minute radio program carried on more than 300 stations nationwide.
Although technically not a "father" group, this Christian evangelical organization, founded by former University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney, keeps popping up on the lists of leaders in the fatherhood-renewal movement because it promotes the building of strong marriages and families. It has been drawing tens of thousands of men, for $55 a ticket, into sports arenas from Seattle, Washington, to Washington, D.C., for two-day conferences featuring Christian music and inspirational speakers. Men make a series of promises to God, wife, family, friendships, church, and community.
Headed by president Randy Phillips, Promise Keepers now has a staff of 250 and a budget of $64 million, and its 1-800 number averages 20,000 calls a day during its summer registration season. Such success has alarmed some women's groups. In October 1995, for instance, a Glamour magazine editorial referred to Promise Keepers as "among those who still think men can't keep up unless women are kept down." In response, the group contends that being a leader means being a servant to one's family, not a tyrant.
Father to Father
On Father's Day last year, Vice President Al Gore announced a new nongovernmental initiative to promote paternal involvement through community-based mentoring programs. The goals and structure of Father to Father are so ill-defined that it is difficult to tell where this initiative is going, but Gore's high-profile support will bring welcome attention to the issue. This loose federation, under the direction of Martha Farrell Erickson of the Children, Youth and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota, offers kits to communities and organizations that want to reach out to fathers, providing lists of resources and strategies for starting their own mentoring group.
An electronic version of this effort is called FatherNet, a free 24-hour-a-day electronic meeting place that provides the latest information and resources about and for fathers.
The Fatherhood Project
Under the mantle of the liberal Families and Work Institute since 1989, the Fatherhood Project was founded in 1981 by director James A. Levine as a national research and education program to increase male involvement in childrearing.
Programs include the Male Involvement Project, directed by Edward W. Pitt, which works with Head Start and other early childhood and family support programs. The MIP sponsors community-based social programs in Baltimore, Minneapolis, and the San Francisco Bay area, and a national training program for early-childhood administrators such as pre-school directors. Publications include Getting Men Involved: Strategies for Early Childhood Programs and New Expectations: Community Strategies for Responsible Fatherhood. The Fatherhood Project also oversees a program called Fathers and Work, which promotes family-friendly workplaces and presents seminars on how to deal with "daddy stress."
A caveat: Critics argue that the project's emphasis on separating men from the role of breadwinner could inadvertently erode paternal involvement and provision. Some claim that directors Levine and Pitt have bought into a feminist agenda that aims to turn fathers into substitute moms.
The Institute for Responsible Fatherhoodand Family Revitalization
Tel.: 216-791-8336 (Cleveland office)
Tel: 202-789-6376 (national office)
Hailed as a "modern-day prophet" and a "visionary" by others in fatherhood circles, Charles Augustus Ballard began the institute 13 years ago to help young, directionless black men in Cleveland, Ohio, become involved in their children's lives. (See his article, "Prodigal Dad: How We Bring Fathers Home to Their Children," in the Winter 1995 Policy Review.) Most fathers who have gone through Ballard's program finish high school, get jobs, and legally establish their paternity.
Ballard's emphasis on reuniting fathers with their children--grounded in thoroughly biblical themes of family and responsibility-has appeal across the political spectrum. The institute's national office is housed in the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan liberal think tank. His urban program got a tremendous boost in early 1995 when the Ford Foundation gave the group $2 million to reproduce its efforts nationally. The institute has opened five new centers: in Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Atlanta, and Yonkers, N.Y., each to be headed by a married couple. The institute's strategy is to saturate one blighted neighborhood at a time.
Some question whether a group headed by a single charismatic leader can replicate and institutionalize its programs. We'll see: Each new location will be headed by men and women who have been trained by Ballard in Cleveland.
Six years ago, 18 African-American men in Omaha, Nebraska, decided they would no longer tolerate gang violence and drug-dealing in their neighborhoods. So they created M.A.D. D.A.D.S. (Men Against Destruction-Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder), a community-based group that organizes street patrols, paints over gang graffiti, confronts drug-dealers and gang members, sponsors activities for youth such as block parties and car shows, and to counsels young people in local jails.
"We started out of pain-the pain of our children dying in the streets of their own communities," says a recent M.A.D. D.A.D.S. publication. "We realized that we could hold no one responsible but ourselves. . . . So we united as a handful of community fathers who now know that we must be the force behind change."
From this handful grew an organization of more than 25,000 volunteers, with 41 chapters in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas.
The group has logged more than 87,000 volunteer hours on the streets-more than half after midnight. For its work on the front lines of impoverished minority communities, M.A.D. D.A.D.S. has won national recognition from Presidents Bush and Clinton, the National Education Association, and Essence magazine. Fathers who want to open a chapter of M.A.D. D.A.D.S. in their community can contact the national office in Omaha and ask for John Foster, Bishop Robert Tyler, or Eddie Staton.
Fathers' Education Network
Can ex-cons be good dads? The Reverend Donald Burwell, whose organization works with fathers newly returned from prison or first-time offenders hoping to avoid jail time, has answered that question at least 5,000 times. Since 1990, that's how many men his Detroit-based group has trained in the interpersonal skills they need to reconnect with their families. In the process, the organization has cut recidivism rates in half for its participants. FEN also offers instruction to women to help them reinforce at home what their husbands or boyfriends have learned in class.
A tax-exempt nonprofit funded solely by donations, FEN will soon be taking Burwell's innovative curriculum to four new locations in Michigan, and opening branches in Chicago, Brownsville, Texas, and near Memphis, Tennessee.
A Father's Library
The Father Factor: What You Need to Know to Make a Difference, by Henry B. Biller and Robert J. Trotter (Pocket Books). Examines the contributions that only a father can make to parenting.
Fatherhood: An Owner's Manual, by Doug Spangler (Fabus Publishing). Aimed at fathers of children up to age five.
The Gift of Fatherhood, by Aaron Hass (Simon & Schuster). Explains how men's lives are transformed by their children.
The Five Key Habits of Smart Dads, by Paul Lewi. (Zondervan). Offers a simple model of effective fathering. From the 1995 Fatherhood Resource Catalog, published by the National Fatherhood Initiative. For more information, call 717-581-8860.