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The Father Factor


What Should We Do About Men?

question mark resized 600The latest sortie in our culture’s “men are unnecessary” phenomenon has come from a Boise State University biologist named Greg Hampikian.

In an op-ed published recently in the New York Times, Dr. Hampikian makes a biological argument against men: because the male role in reproduction has been made obsolete by technology, men are unnecessary.

However, he uses this biological argument to make a cultural one. He does a cost-benefit analysis and concludes, based on the fact that men are more violent and live fewer years than women, that we don’t need men anymore. Another underpinning to his argument is research that shows that children being raised in single-mother households are “doing fine.”

Dr. Hampikian’s argument is flawed for several reasons, but I will address two of the more important ones.

First is the lack of logic in the whole thing. If what Dr. Hampikian argues is true – that men contribute nothing unique or valuable to the human race – then wouldn’t his very article be dismissed as irrelevant and unnecessary? After all, he is a man and had his opinion published, implying that there is something unique and valuable that he has contributed to society. Therefore, his argument is self-defeating.

Second, and most important, is Dr. Hampikian’s glossing over of the three-plus decades of social science research that have all but proven that fathers play a unique and irreplaceable role in their children’s lives. He cherry picks research from Sarah McLanahan, which, when inspected closely, is not as cut and dried as Dr. Hampikian wants you to believe. Dr. McLanahan’s research was on low-income, high-risk families – referred to as “fragile families” – so, of course, poverty was a primary concern for these families. But in her large body of research over many years, McLanahan explores, in depth, the contributions of fathers beyond another paycheck.

Furthermore, there is an enormous body of academic research out there, readily accessible by someone like Dr. Hampikian, that shows that across every measure of child well-being, independent of family income, fathers contribute something important. We cite a small sample of that research here.

The most troubling part in all of this is where this sort of logic can lead us – ideas have consequences. Could we not argue, using Dr. Hampikian’s scary and flawed cost-benefit analysis model, that there are “unnecessary” races or groups on the planet that could be eliminated? Isn’t that the calculus the Nazis used to justify the elimination of the handicapped? As a black man, this sort of thinking sounds all too eerily familiar.

Or can we afford, in a world where hundreds of millions of children are growing up in father-absent homes, to give men yet another reason to check out of their responsibilities as dads, even if those responsibilities are only financial? Take the black community. In too many of our neighborhoods, astronomical rates of father absence – over 80% in the worst cases – are making life very challenging for too many children. They are more likely to be poor, use drugs, fail in school, be abused, and face a whole host of other risks. If Dr. Hampikian takes a closer look at those neighborhoods, I am certain his vision of a men-free, and consequently father-free utopia, would take a big hit.

Since the chances of us ever seeing a women-only world are extremely low, the important question is not “are men necessary?” but “what does society require of the men who inevitably will exist?” It is a binary choice – we either encourage and inspire them to take seriously their responsibilities to society and to their families, or we expect nothing of them because they are essentially useless. I would not want to live in a world in which we decide the latter.

But, then again, if Dr. Hampikian had his way, I won’t have to.

Just the Father Facts

Having worked at National Fatherhood Initiative for over 10 years now, I sometimes take for granted why our issue is so important. But every once in a while, I get a good reminder; this time it was from Father Facts, our research compilation on the causes and consequences of father absence.

ff6 resized 600I was flipping through the 90-page volume to locate some of the old print PSAs that we placed throughout the book. But as I flipped, I was once again struck by the boatload (that is the scientific term) of data on why fathers matter to children.

Since 1995, when we published the first edition of Father Facts on one side of a sheet of paper, we have cited research from thousands of academic and government studies that show, without any doubt that on average fathers play a unique and irreplaceable role in their children’s lives, and that children do best, on average, when their mother and father are married to each other. If you have a problem with that statement, I will put it another way: there is no evidence that growing up in a fatherless home, on average, confers any benefits whatsoever on children. If you have access to such evidence from a reliable academic source, please send it to us. 

If we had this much conclusive data on any other topic, we would start a multi-billion dollar campaign to “save our children.” Think of what we’ve done with smoking. Not everyone who smokes dies of lung cancer or heart disease. But because we have research that shows the increased risks smokers face, we have deemed smoking unhealthy (we are comfortable generalizing based on the data) and spend billions to get people to quit or never start.

I hope we can get to the same point when it comes to family structure. Despite the fact that we have 30-plus years of social science research that shows the clear risks children face when they grow up in father-absent homes, there are still debates about how important dads really are. For some reason, naysayers always point out the exceptions – “I know someone who grew up without a father, and she is fine. Therefore, fathers are not important.”

Would we do this with smoking? Would anyone say, “I knew someone who smoked her whole life and lived to age 85 and died of natural causes. So, smoking is not unhealthy.” No one would say that, because, again, it is about risk. The research helps us understand the risk, and we take action to reduce it.

So, why is it different with fatherhood? Why do people always point out the exceptions and conclude that we should base our behavior on the exceptions rather than on the rule?

Take this article that was just published in the New York Times denying that there is any problem with the institution of single motherhood. The thing that frightens me most is the attitude that decades of social science research can be dismissed in favor of someone’s “gut feeling.” How do we typically characterize people who dismiss academic evidence about climate change? And how about smoking… what would you think of someone who denied the research on smoking because they didn’t “feel” like smoking was unhealthy? The author of the Times piece, Katie Roiphe, takes issue with a researcher from Princeton University. So, her opinion is more reliable than Princeton University research? What nerve.

She also commits the fallacy of reducing fatherhood to money. She implies that the only thing missing in father-absent homes is a second income. Is that the only thing children without dads are missing out on? Money? Dads don’t contribute anything else to their children? Nonsense.

If you have some ideas about why folks act in this irrational way around the “family structure issue” please share them.

Is it because telling men they should be good fathers and telling women they should enable good fathering is more “personal” than telling them not to smoke? Is it because people have more control over whether or not they choose to smoke than whether or not they raise their children in a two-parent home?

What do you think?

Learn more about Father Facts and the research on families and fatherhood.

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