The High Cost of Fatherlessness: To Children

In his book Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn describes fatherhood in Colonial America, just a few centuries ago. At that time, fathers were at the center of the family, the "primary and irreplaceable caregivers." It’s surprising to learn that in the 1700s "child-rearing manuals were generally addressed to fathers, not mothers." And in the rare cases of divorce, "It was established practice to award the custody of children to fathers."David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996) pp. 12-18.

We’ve moved a long way from fathers as the center of the family. As Blankenhorn describes it, the role of fathers first lessened, and then fragmented, splintering into pieces. Today, one out of three children lives without his or her biological father. It’s these children who bear the personal cost as fathers shifted from the center to the margins – even disappearing completely from the lives of their children.

Fathers and Child Development

Yet we know from Scripture, research and experience that fathers play a key role in their children’s lives. In the 1960s and 70s, as divorce, cohabitation and single-parenting increased, researchers began looking at what fathers do for children and at the effects of fatherlessness on children. Here’s just some of what we’ve learned.

  • Fathers are important in their children’s healthy emotional and psychological development.

We take it for granted that mothers are critical for their children’s emotional and psychological development, but fathers contribute a great deal, too. A report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states,

Even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections with peers. These children also are less likely to get in trouble at home, school, or in the neighborhood. Infants who receive high levels of affection from their fathers (e.g., babies whose fathers respond quickly to their cries and who play together) are more securely attached. Jeffrey Rosenberg and W. Bradford Wilcox, "The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children" (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2006) p. 12.

So what happens to a child’s development when the father-child connection is weakened or severed by divorce? Judith Wallerstein spent 25 years studying the effects of divorce on a group of children. She writes, "Hardly any of our subjects described a happy childhood; in fact, a number of children told us that ‘the day they divorced was the day my childhood ended.'" Later, Wallerstein says that divorce is not just "an acute stress from which the child recovers," but it is "a life-transforming experience for the child.Judith S. Wallerstein and Julia M. Lewis, "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: Report of a 25-Year Study," Psychoanalytic Psychology, 2004, Vol. 21, No. 3, p. 361; .

  • Fathers are important in their children’s healthy relational development.

In the 1990s, Doug Mainwaring left his wife and children to live as a gay man. Over time, he realized the negative consequences of this decision – in his own life, but especially in the lives of his wife and children. Later, he returned to his family, primarily because he realized his children needed a mother and a father. He made a conscious decision to put his children’s and wife’s needs ahead of his own desires. He writes poignantly about watching a small moment between his son and his wife, something he witnessed because he re-entered their lives:

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found our decision to rebuild our family ratified time after time. One day as I turned to climb the stairs I saw my sixteen-year-old son walk past his mom as she sat reading in the living room. As he did, he paused and stooped down to kiss her and give her a hug, and then continued on. …

There are perhaps a hundred different things, small and large, that are negotiated between parents and kids every week. Moms and dads interact differently with their children. To give kids two moms or two dads is to withhold from them someone whom they desperately need and deserve in order to be whole and happy. It is to permanently etch "deprivation" on their hearts.Doug Mainwaring, "I’m Gay and I Oppose Same-Sex Marriage," Public Discourse, 2013. 

Mainwaring makes a key point: Children without fathers miss out on hundreds of interactions with their dad each week. Children also need a mother and father who are connected to each other. There is a triad of different relationships taking place here: mother-child, father-child and mother-father. Children learn about healthy relationships through watching and engaging in all three of these connections.

The importance of this is born out not just by personal accounts, but also by a great deal of social research. As Glenn Stanton explains in his book Secure Daughters, Confident Sons, dads and moms relate to their children differently, and children need both. Some of the many relational areas affected by fathers include: language development; verbal and non-verbal communication; empathy; controlling anger and aggression; confidence; and the development of healthy sexuality.Glenn T. Stanton, Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2011) especially Part II. 

  • Fathers are important in their children’s healthy spiritual development.

Scripture enjoins parents to pass on their faith to their children, teaching them to love God with all their heart, soul and might.Elizabeth Marquardt, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (New York: Crown, 2005).  In Ephesians 6, Paul specifically charges fathers, "Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."

So what happens when a father leaves?

Elizabeth Marquardt’s parents divorced while she was growing up in the 1970s. Later, while attending seminary, she began thinking about the widespread nature of divorce and wondered how children’s spirituality and morality might be affected. In her book, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, and in subsequent research and reports.See, for example, Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Ziettlow, and Charles E. Stokes, "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Challenging the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change" (New York: Institute for American Values, 2013). , she examines and explains the impact of divorce on young people’s faith:

One of the things we discovered in our study is that young adults from divorced families were less likely to be religious when they grew up—less likely to say in our survey that they were "very"or "fairly" religious. They were less likely to be a member of a house of worship. They were less likely to hold a leadership position thereElizabeth Marquardt, "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce," Word and World, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 2011, p. 188..

Marquardt goes on to say that not all children will move away from their faith as a result of their parents’ divorce. For a minority, the crisis causes them to turn to God and the church for support and strength.

But father absence affects a child’s image of God as the Father of all. Our current epidemic of fatherlessness has important implications for Christians as we reach out to those who had no relationship or a broken relationship with their biological father. Marquardt explains,

The image of God as a father, where a father is supposed to evoke that ever-present person who’s there for you, protecting you, supporting and providing for you, is an increasingly unfamiliar experience for a lot of young people today.Ibid., p. 189. 

What can I Do?

Christians have an opportunity to help and support those affected by fatherlessness. Here are a few ideas:

For more on this topic: