CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Fatherlessness and the Two-Parent Family

Jun 3, 2002

Fatherlessness is a growing problem in the Western world. Whether caused by divorce and broken families, or by deliberate single parenting, more and more children grow up in Australia without fathers. Concerned groups have argued that a mother and father are crucial in the raising of children. Father absence has been shown to be detrimental to the well being of children. The following is a summary of the evidence for the importance of fathers and mothers.

One expert from Harvard medical school who has studied over 40 years of research on the question of parental absence and children’s well-being said this: “What has been shown over and over again to contribute most to the emotional development of the child is a close, warm, sustained and continuous relationship with both parents. Yet this vast body of research is almost totally ignored by our society. Why have even the professionals tended to ignore this research? Perhaps the answer is, to put it most simply, because the findings are unacceptable.”

Educational performance

A number of studies show that children from mother-only families obtain fewer years of education and are far more likely to drop out of school than children from intact families. For example, American children from intact families have a 21 per cent chance of dropping out of high school whereas children from broken families have a 46 per cent chance.

Moreover, the presence of fathers seems to strongly impact on the educational performance and intelligence of children. Research shows that school children who became father-absent early in life generally scored significantly lower on measures of IQ and achievement tests.

One study examined the academic records of more than 18,000 students. The researchers concluded that “one-parent children on the whole show lower achievement in school than do their two-parent classmates”.

Criminal involvement

Studies show a connection between delinquent and/or criminal behaviour, and broken families. One study found that girls in divorced families committed more delinquent acts (e.g., drug use, larceny, skipping school) than their counterparts in intact families.

A British study found a direct statistical link between single parenthood and virtually every major type of crime, including mugging, violence against strangers, car theft and burglary.

A 1987 study of adolescent murderers discovered that 75 per cent of them had divorced or never-married parents. Another study of violent rapists, all repeat offenders, found that 60 per cent came from single-parent homes.

Or consider a study which tracked every child born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955 for 30 years. It found that five out of six delinquents with an adult criminal record came from families where a parent – almost always the father – was absent.

One study even arrived at this startling conclusion: the proportion of single-parent households in a community predicts its rates of violent crime and burglary, but the community’s poverty level does not. Neither poverty nor race seem to account very much for the crime rate, compared to the proportion of single parent families.

Involvement with drugs

Offspring from non-intact families are more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use than offspring from two-parent families.

Fathers, it seems, play a particularly important role in prevention of drug use. A 1987 UCLA study pointed out that inadequate family structure makes children more susceptible to drug use “as a coping mechanism to relieve depression and anxiety.” Another study concluded that, although “mothers are more active than fathers in helping youngsters with personal problems…with regard to youthful drug users, the father’s involvement is more important.” Among the homes with strict fathers, only 18 per cent used alcohol or drugs at all. In contrast, among mother-dominated homes, 35 per cent had children who used drugs frequently.

Psychological/emotional well-being – mental and physical health

Studies show that the absence of a parent contributes to many forms of emotional disorder among children, especially anger, rebelliousness, low self-esteem, depression, and antisocial behaviour.

Children of divorce make up an estimated 60 per cent of child patients in clinical treatment and 80 to 100 per cent of adolescents in in-patient mental hospital settings. From nations as diverse as Finland and South Africa, a number of studies have reported that anywhere from 50 to 80 per cent of psychiatric patients come from broken homes.

Marriage is an important factor in all of this. Indeed, one of the most consistent observations in health research is that married people enjoy better health than those of other marital statuses. Compared to married men and women, the divorced and separated suffer much higher rates of disease morbidity, disability, mental neuroses and mortality.

A study of countries like Japan, Sweden, England, Singapore and New Zealand found that “in all cases, despite any differences in marriage behavior that may exist, married persons experience a lower mortality rate” compared to single, divorced and widowed peers.

Suicide rates also tend to be higher amongst those from broken homes. A 1987 study linked the increase in suicides in America to the proliferation of single-parent households. Another study found that youths who attempted suicide differed little in terms of age, income, race and religion, but were more likely to live in nonintact family settings.

Children having children

Children from mother-only families are more likely to marry early and have children early, both in and out of wedlock, and are more likely to divorce. Also, age at the first marriage will be lower for the children of divorced parents who marry, when sex, age, and maternal education are controlled.

For example, a recent British study found that girls brought up by lone parents were twice as likely to leave home by the age of 18 as the daughters of intact homes; were three times as likely to be cohabitating by the age of 20; and almost three times as likely to have a birth out of wedlock.

Conclusion

Broadly speaking, several trends can be observed from the evidence: 1) a child’s development, by every indicator, is best served in the context of a natural, two-parent home; 2) the absence of a parent seems more devastating for a child than poverty or bad neighbourhoods; and 3) single-parent families are more likely to produce a new generation which has the same or even worse problems than the last.

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