Rioting in London spurred PM David Cameron to recall the importance of fathers to children. Here’s one editorial about Cameron’s remarks (Bangor Daily News, 8/11/11). As the whole world knows by now, London erupted in riots for four days this past week, and while the causes of the disturbances are many, one is surely the absence of fathers from the lives of children. According to the article, Cameron admitted as much.
Crime has a context and part of that context is that children are “growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong,’ he said.
“In too many cases, the parents of these children — if they are still around — don”t care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing,’ he said. “The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken.’
The message should have special resonance for the English, coming as it did against a background of not only the rioting, but of a national study of the benefits of involved fathers to children. The study was of 11,000 people who were born in 1958.
A recent study, commissioned in the United Kingdom, coincidentally, shows what many people already knew: an engaged father makes his children better. Specifically, the study showed that fathers spending time with their children resulted in smarter kids.
The differences in intelligence between those with strong father relationships and those without were detectable even when the offspring were 42 years old, the study found. Not only did children with engaged fathers have higher IQs, but they also had more success in their jobs.
A report on the research project published by the London newspaper The Telegraph quoted researcher Dr. Daniel Nettle who directed the study: “What was surprising about this research was the real sizeable difference in the progress of children who benefited from paternal interest and how 30 years later, people whose dads were involved are more upwardly mobile. The data suggest that having a second adult involved during childhood produces benefits in terms of skills and abilities that endure throughout adult life,’ he said.
But it’s not just a father’s presence that helps children, it’s his active involvement in their daily lives that provides the benefits the study, and countless others, found.
The research, which studied more than 11,000 British men and women born in 1958, revealed that it was not enough to have a two-parent household; the father had to be actively involved for the positive impact to be recorded.
The Daily News article goes on to make the obvious point that
Such studies confirm the importance of functioning families and the value of the two gender role models. Such studies can and should have an impact on public policy.
Aye, there’s the rub. We’ve known this for decades. When Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote her landmark piece in The Atlantic Monthly in 1993 on the importance of fathers to children the issue had long been firmly decided. In the ensuing 18 years, it’s only gotten more so. And yet the public policy the Daily News refers to doesn’t change. Only this year, Cameron’s own party turned its back on a presumption of shared parenting that many believed had been promised during the run-up to his election. Indeed, there’s a bill before parliament even now that would do exactly that. Does Cameron support it? If he does, it’s a closely guarded secret. Here in the U.S. President Obama misses few opportunities to rail against absent fathers, much as Cameron was doing three days ago. Both men miss the obvious – that for fathers to be involved in children’s lives, custody law and court practices must change. The British researchers were clear – that fathers must be actively involved with their children in order to confer on them the benefits of fatherhood. What the politicians don’t explain, likely because they can’t, is how a father can be actively involved in a child’s life when he only sees him/her for two days out of every two weeks. For that matter, how can he do that when he’s the subject of a bogus domestic violence restraining order? How can he do it when even his modest visitation is thwarted by the child’s mother? How can he be involved in his child’s life when the mother moves hundreds of miles away? (A British appellate court just approved a mother’s move-away to Australia, reasoning that the father can visit with his child on Skype. How’s that for active involvement?) How can he do so when her gatekeeping behavior keeps him at arms length from his child? How can he care for his child when its mother quits work expecting him to take up the earnings slack and keeping him at work in the process? The questions answer themselves. He can’t. And yet law and public policy continue to treat fathers as unwelcome guests at the child’s birthday party, at best uninterested in and probably dangerous to the child. There are many reasons why fathers aren’t more involved with their children’s upbringing. Doubtless one of those reasons is that some of the dads truly aren’t interested, but those are the small minority, as plentiful social science demonstrates. Far more important are the innumerable obstacles society places between fathers and children. Those obstacles are mostly legal, but there are countless others as well, some of which I’ve discussed on this site. Until we finally start to act on the basis of the science instead of the mythology about fathers, until we finally change law and public policies that separate fathers and children, we’ll continue to face the many problems we know to be associated with fatherlessness – things like drug and alcohol use, poor performance in school, early pregnancy, crime and joblessness. Things, in other words, that are likely causes of the rioting in London. Politicians talk about the value of fathers, but they don’t mean it. We know they don’t. We know that because, if they meant what they say, they’d be backing shared parenting legislation, changes to VAWA and state laws on DV restraining orders, child support reform, alimony reform and a wide variety of other reforms that would sweep aside the barriers currently standing between fathers and children. Until they do that, we’ll know they don’t mean what they say. We’ll know it’s just so much talk.