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The Essential Father


Thirty years ago it was believed that poverty and discrimination were primarily responsible for juvenile crime and other behavioral problems. Now we know that family disruption is the real culprit.


Boys are in serious trouble today and many of them are experiencing emotional pressure that contributes to violence, drug abuse, early sexual activity, and other forms of rebellious behavior. Even some teens that play by the rules and seem to be doing fine are struggling quietly with problems of identity and meaning. On behalf of them, and for the little boys who have not yet encountered these difficulties, we need to examine the specific forces that have created such an unhealthy environment for kids.

Chief among the threats to this generation of boys is the breakdown of the family. Historically, when the family begins to unravel in a culture, everything from the effectiveness of government to the general welfare of the people is adversely impacted. This is precisely what is happening today. The family is being buffeted and undermined by the forces operating around it. Alcoholism, pornography, gambling, infidelity, and other virulent infections have seeped into its bloodstream. "No-fault divorce" is still the law in most states, resulting in thousands of unnecessary family breakups. Clearly, there is trouble on the home front. And as we all know, it is the children who are suffering most from it. In cultures where divorce becomes commonplace or large numbers of men and women choose to live together or copulate without bothering to marry, millions of kids are caught in the chaos.

The following statistics should be put in neon lights: Seventy percent of African-American babies and 19 percent of white babies in the United States are born out of wedlock. Most will never know their fathers or experience what it means to be loved by them. Only 34 percent of all children born in America will live with both biological parents through age eighteen. This is a recipe for trouble, especially when we consider the fact that 62 percent of mothers with children under three are employed. The number was half that in 1975! Fully 72 percent of mothers with children under eighteen currently hold jobs. This busyness of mothers combined with the noninvolvement of fathers means that too often, there is nobody home. No wonder boys are in such a mess. Behavioral scientists have only recently begun to understand how critical fathers are to the healthy development of both boys and girls. According to psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, the author of Fatherneed, dads are as important to children as moms, but in a very different way. While children of all ages both male and female have an innate need for contact with their fathers, boys suffer most from the absence or noninvolvement of fathers. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, boys without fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to go to jail, and nearly four times as likely to need treatment for emotional and behavioral problems as boys with fathers.

Repeatedly during my review of the latest research for my book Bringing Up Boys, I came face-to-face with the same disturbing issue. Boys are in trouble today primarily because their parents, and especially their dads, are distracted, overworked, harassed, exhausted, disinterested, chemically dependent, divorced, or simply unable to cope. Chief among our concerns is the absence of masculine role modeling and mentoring that dads should be providing. Mothers, who also tend to be living on the ragged edge, are left to do a job for which they have had little training or experience. Having never been boys, women often have only a vague notion of how to go about rearing one.

Dr. William Pollock, Harvard psychologist and author of Real Boys, concludes that divorce is difficult for children of both sexes but it is devastating for males. He says the basic problem is the lack of discipline and supervision in the father's absence and his unavailability to teach what it means to be a man. Pollock also believes fathers are crucial in helping boys to manage their emotions. Without the guidance and direction of a father, a boy's frustration often leads to violence and other antisocial behavior.

Thirty years ago it was believed that poverty and discrimination were primarily responsible for juvenile crime and other behavioral problems. Now we know that family disruption is the real culprit. Despite all the red flags that warn us of the dangers, cavalier attitudes abound with regard to premarital pregnancy, divorce, infidelity, and cohabitation.

Don Elium, author of Raising a Son, says that with troubled boys, the common theme is distant, uninvolved fathers and, in turn, mothers who have taken on more responsibility to fill the gap.

Sociologist Peter Karl believes that because boys spend up to 80 percent of their time with women, they don't know how to act as men when they grow up. When that happens, the relationship between the sexes is directly affected. Men become helpless and more and more like big kids. We now know that there are two critical periods during childhood when boys are particularly vulnerable. The most obvious occurs at the onset of puberty, when members of both sexes experience an emotional and hormonal upheaval. Boys and girls at that time desperately need their father's supervision, guidance, and love.

But according to Dr. Carol Gilligan, professor at Harvard University, there is another critical period earlier in life one not shared by girls. Very young boys bask in their mother's femininity and womanliness during infancy and toddlerhood. Fathers are important then, but mothers are primary.

At about three to five years of age, however, a lad gradually pulls away from his mom and sisters in an effort to formulate a masculine identity. It is a process known as "disconnection and differentiation," when, as Don Elium writes, "the inner urge of the male plan of development nudges him out of the nest of the mother over a precarious bridge to the world of the father." It is typical for boys during those years, and even earlier, to crave the attention and involvement of their dad and to try to emulate his behavior and mannerisms.

When fathers are absent, or if they are inaccessible, distant, or abusive, their boys have only a vague notion of what it means to be male. Whereas girls have a readily available model after which to pattern feminine behavior and attitudes (except when they are raised by single fathers), boys living with single mothers are left to formulate their masculine identity out of thin air. Writer Angela Phillips believes, and I agree, that the high incidence of homosexuality occurring in Western nations is related, at least in part, to the absence of positive male influence when boys are moving through the first crisis of child development.

With all this in mind, it should not surprise us that prisons are populated mainly by men who were abandoned or rejected by their fathers. Motivational speaker and writer Zig Ziglar quotes his friend Bill Glass, a dedicated evangelist who counseled almost every weekend for 25 years with men who were incarcerated, as saying that among the thousands of prisoners he had met, not one of them genuinely loved his dad. Ninety-five percent of those on death row hated their fathers. In 1998, there were 1,202,107 people in federal or state prisons. Of that number 94 percent were males. Of the 3,452 prisoners awaiting execution, only 48 were women. That amounts to 98.6 percent males. Clearly, as Barbara Jackson said, "it is far easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

Some years ago, executives of a greeting-card company decided to do something special for Mother's Day. They set up a table in a federal prison, inviting any inmate who so desired to send a free card to his mom. The lines were so long they had to make another trip to the factory to get more cards. Due to the success of the event, they decided to do the same thing on Father's Day, but this time no one came. Not one prisoner felt the need to send a card to his dad. Many had no idea who their dads even were. What a sobering illustration of a father's importance to his children.

This is Meaghen Gonzalez, Editor of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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James Dobson "The Essential Father." Excerpt from Bringing up Boys, 2001.

This article is excerpted from his new book, Bringing up Boys; copyright James Dobson, Inc. All rights reserved.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. James Dobson.

The Author

James C. Dobson, Ph.D., is founder and president of Focus on the Family, a non-profit organization that produces his internationally syndicated radio programs, heard on more than 3,000 radio facilities in North America and in nine languages in approximately 2300 facilities in over 93 other countries. He was for 14 years an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, and served for 17 years on the Attending Staff of Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles in the Division of Child Development and Medical Genetics. He has an earned Ph.D. from the University of Southern California (1967) in the field of child development. Dr. Dobson is married, the father of two grown children, and resides in Colorado.

Copyright © James Dobson, Inc.

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