Wilcox: The Kids Aren’t Alright Without Fathers and Fathers Aren’t Dispensable

June 22, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I return now to Dr. Brad Wilcox’s pre-Fathers’ Day message in which he debunks five popular myths about dads. My first post on that is here.

His second and third myths don’t require a lot of explication. “Women Want Everything 50-50” is well-known to be false. What women and men both want is a firm sense that a relationship is fair, i.e. that neither is pulling too much of the load. That usually means that Mom does most of the child care and Dad most of the earning, or, some version of traditional sex roles. Few couples, if any, attempt to enforce a strict 50-50 sharing of all tasks and, it seems clear to me, anyone who does is incapable of maintaining a serious, stable, intimate relationship.

Wilcox’s third myth, “Cohabiting Dads are Just the Same as Married Dads,” is similarly easy to dispose of. They aren’t and neither are cohabiting mothers. Like it or not, marriage is a great deal more than “just a piece of paper.” Marriage typically means greater emotional commitment of the adults to each other and to their children. That commitment means a longer-lasting relationship and more careful, loving and nurturing parenting of the kids. Much science bears this out.

Meanwhile, Wilcox’s myths Four and Five go together, but he betrays no awareness of the fact. Myth Four claims that “The Kids are Alright.” Again, they’re not. Kids without fathers are indeed far from “alright” and Wilcox makes the point cogently. After skewering the myth-monger and thoroughly loathsome Sandra Tsing Loh, Wilcox offers this:

According to research by Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Paul Amato of Penn State, girls whose parents’ divorce are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, to become pregnant as teenagers, and to suffer from psychological problems such as depression and thoughts of suicide. New research indicates they are also less likely, as they move into adulthood, to attend and graduate from graduate school. Girls whose parents’ divorce are also much more likely to divorce later in life.

We are also increasing hearing the voices of adult children of divorce, who tell us that the loss of their parents’ marriages brings lifelong, though often hidden, suffering.

Fortunately for everyone, at least among college-educated Americans, the divorce rate is falling sharply. Those are the ones who were kids in the 70s and 80s when adults decided divorce was a “no-harm, no-foul” event that freed adults from less than perfect relationships and weren’t a problem for kids. Those kids, now grown up, know the truth about divorce and do their best to avoid it.

But is it divorce itself that harms kids? Or is it the way divorce is done by state laws and the judges who adjudicate child custody cases? Wilcox’s fifth myth that “Dads are Dispensable” is of course far from the truth, but I find it odd that he didn’t notice the quite obvious connection between the importance of fathers to children and the harm inflicted on kids by divorce. Put simply, divorce and the loss of Dad are often one and the same. Does Wilcox really not see that?

This myth fails to take into account the now-vast social scientific literature showing that children typically do better in an (sic) intact, married families with their fathers than they do in families headed by single mothers.

Very true, but Wilcox left out another arrangement altogether – equally-shared parental care post-divorce. Yes, intact families are better than families headed by single mothers (or fathers). But there’s an alternative to both. Another “vast social science literature” demonstrates that children in shared parenting arrangements tend strongly to do better than those “in families headed by single mothers.” Is Wilcox aware of that science? If he is, you’d think he’d mention it in an article about the value of fathers to children. If he’s not, he has no business opining on the subject.

[The myth] also overlooks the growing body of research indicating that fathers bring distinctive talents to the parenting enterprise. The work of psychologist Ross Parke, for instance, indicates that fathers are more likely than mothers to engage their children in vigorous physical play (e.g., roughhousing), to challenge their children—including their daughters—to embrace life’s challenges, and to be firm disciplinarians.

Not surprisingly, children benefit physically, mentally, and emotionally from being exposed to the distinctive paternal style. Sociologist David Eggebeen has shown, for instance, that teenagers are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and delinquency when they have involved and affectionate fathers, even after controlling for the quality of their relationship with their mother. In his words, “What these analyses clearly show is that mothers and fathers both make vital contributions to adolescent well-being.”

That of course is something every judge ruling in child custody cases should be made to read and reread every day. Human beings are a bi-parental species. Unsurprisingly, the sexes tend to parent differently and children need both forms of care. Mothers’ style tends to inculcate self-esteem, something that everyone needs.

But self-esteem needs to be tempered by an understanding that, while your parents may love you unconditionally, no one else does. To the cop on the beat, your first-grade teacher, the teller at the bank, etc., you’re just another person, one of many, no more entitled to respect or special treatment than the next person. Fathers’ parenting tends to inculcate that understanding in kids. It’s necessary to get along in the world. And it’s necessary to counterbalance mothers’ style of parenting.

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