Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2006

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Make No Mistake About It...
Dads Are Necessary

By Patrick Mitchell
I apologize in advance for the sports metaphor, but I need to tell you about the time back in college in 1981 when the University of Idaho Vandals basketball team was ranked 16th in the nation and looked like they could go all the way. That was big news for our school, and it was perhaps even bigger news that I became an ardent sports fan that fabled season--something I hadn't been before and haven't been since.

Our boys couldn't lose. Every week, they smashed their opponents with ease. The team's rise in prominence nationally was linked to their proven track record and ability. They enjoyed a long winning streak, but they became overconfident, and another team beat them. Their national ranking fell, and the fans were devastated.

I feel the same thing could happen to the "fathers matter" message as an accepted truth backed up by 20 years of research showing that dads reduce negative outcomes in children's lives. The fact that children's cognitive, emotional, educational, and social development is enhanced via father involvement has enjoyed a long "winning streak," you might say, just like my college alma mater basketball team did. I fear the "Father Involvement Team," representing an affirmative message of the positive outcomes associated with father presence, might lose to an opposing team that's gunning for them.

The message that dads matter is under subtle attack, the opposing team comprising those who don't believe fathers matter much at all. Good Morning America (audience of 4.3 million) recently did a lengthy feature report on the book Raising Boys without Men, by Peggy Drexler. The book, subtitled, How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men, suggests that boys who are raised without their dads (or even "a man in the bedroom" as the author puts it) turn out just fine and, moreover, that they excel at life.

The book's suggestion that fathers aren't necessary and that boys just need a male role model replacement for their fathers is deeply troubling. Boys raised in households headed by mothers not only can grow up emotionally stronger, the book says, they can become more empathetic and independent than boys raised in traditional two-parent households.

Such a position--and it isn't just this book; it's an increasingly vocal opinion--largely ignores the fact that a significant percentage of children growing up without involved fathers are at an increased risk for growing up poor, getting into trouble with the law, abusing drugs and alcohol, becoming a teen parent, dropping out of school, and committing suicide. I worry that the "father involvement" message will be muffled and that the mountain of research supporting father involvement might be ignored in favor of the superficially "new idea" that dads don't really matter.

To help caring professionals "prepare the team" to play ball, so to speak, here are four father involvement facts:
  • Compared with living with both parents, living in a single-parent home doubles the risk a child will suffer physical, emotional, or educational neglect. 1

  • Boys born to unwed mothers are 2.5 times more likely to become incarcerated. 2

  • A child living in a household absent a father is 32% more likely to smoke, drink, and use drugs. 3

  • In studies involving more than 25,000 children, children living with only one parent had lower grade point averages, poorer attendance records, and higher drop-out rates than did students who lived with both parents. 4
Perhaps the past decade of simultaneously raising the bar for dads and raising the public image of fathers has positioned the spotlight so intensely on dads that some want to illuminate moms instead. One of the first things I tell my audiences is, "Moms matter supremely!" That's true. I then segue to the benefits of father presence because that's why I'm there. Our "team" needs to support mothers, and we also need to cheer loudly for father involvement.

Sports metaphors notwithstanding, this much is true: Children stand the best chance of winning when their dads are involved, and we need to help children win. Anything less risks a devastating loss.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.


  1. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. (1997). America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being. Table SPECIAL 1. Available online. Washington, DC: Author. back
  2. Harper, Cynthia C., & McLanahan, Sarah. (1999). Father Absence and Youth Incarceration. Working Paper #99-03. Available online. Princeton, NJ: Center for Research on Child Well-Being, Princeton University. back
  3. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2001). National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse VI: Teens. Available online. New York: Author. back
  4. McLanahan, Sarah, & Sandefur, Gary. (1994). Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. back




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