The following is a post from Christopher A. Brown, Executive Vice President of National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). Interested in blogging for us? Email here.
I continue to struggle with the fact that so many people in our country deny that fathers play a distinct, irreplaceable role in children’s lives. Despite reams of data to the contrary, people believe that fathers are replaceable—that they simply fulfill a role that any man or any woman can fulfill. Indeed, National Fatherhood Initiative’s Pop’s Culture and Mama Says surveys reveal that a majority of American men and women, respectively, believe that another man or a woman can replace a child’s father. The resulting conclusion that a majority of Americans have reached is that dads are dispensable. As W. Brad Wilcox pointed out in a recent article in The Atlantic, many scholars and writers have come to the same conclusion, which gives further credence to a view that is refuted by decades of research.
Then why does this belief persist? Wilcox, who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says that it “has a lot of intuitive appeal in an era where millions of women have children outside of marriage, serve as breadwinner moms to their families, or are raising children on their own.” He goes on to point out that this belief ignores not only the evidence that fathers are indispensable, it also ignores the evidence that fathers parent differently than mothers and that the difference is good for children. In Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives, a new book that Wilcox co-edited, he covers four distinct ways in which fathers parent, each of which are supported by substantial evidence:
- Physical (“roughhouse”) play characterized by arousal, excitement, and predictability,
- Encouraging risk through embracing challenges and encouraging independence,
- Protection of children through physical size, strength, and “public presence” (a deterrent to would-be predators), and
- More frequent and firmer discipline.
Moreover, Wilcox notes that these distinct forms of parenting lead to positive outcomes for children that are also supported by research. Children with involved fathers are, for example, less likely to engage in delinquent behavior and become pregnant (or get someone pregnant) as teens.
While I agree with Wilcox’s assertion for the persistence of the belief that fathers are indispensable, we have to dig deeper to further understand why so many people ignore the evidence and, frankly, the common sense that fathers are not replaceable. Two additional reasons, one cultural and the other psychological, contribute to this ignorance.
First, American culture is individualistic rather than collectivistic. It is marked by rugged individualism, the belief that individuals can overcome almost any challenge and rise to greatness, and that people should focus on improving their own lives rather than improving society if doing so comes at their own expense. Our constitution and laws are primarily designed to protect and give freedom to individuals. The fact that our culture focuses on the individual does not mean that Americans don’t come together and sacrifice their interests for each other or the common good (e.g. to defend our country against invaders). But when push comes to shove, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.
As a result of living in such a culture, Americans tend to ignore population-based evidence. A body of evidence is necessarily population-based because it considers the impact of an issue on a large group of people to reach conclusions about the impact of an issue on the broader population, country, culture, etc. That’s the problem. It’s not a problem with the evidence—it’s clear. The problem is that we live in a culture that makes it difficult for people to accept even a large body of evidence, not to mention act on it. People rely instead on their own experiences (and, sometimes, those of family or friends) to draw broad conclusions about a variety of issues, not just this one. If their experiences don’t match up with the evidence, they simply ignore it and erroneously conclude that their experiences also apply to our society. They might also use “outliers” (exceptions) to ignore the evidence. If they are a child from a father-absent home and turned out fine, raised a child in a father-absent home who turned out fine, or know of someone from a father-absent home who turned out fine, then, clearly, fathers must not be important.
Second, people are drawn to sources of information that confirm what they already believe and ignore information that doesn’t fit with how they see the world. Psychologists call this tendency “confirmation bias.” As Chip and Dan Health mention in their book Decisive, confirmation bias negatively affects decision-making. “Researchers have found this result again and again. When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisiting attitudes, beliefs, and actions…The tricky thing about the confirmation bias is that it can look very scientific.” The effects of confirmation bias increase with the emotional nature of the issue—the more emotionally-charged an issue is the more likely someone will experience this bias. When people search for evidence that supports the belief that fathers are irreplaceable, they seek out sources that support this belief, which further concretizes it in their minds. They become even harder to convince, especially because this issue is so emotionally-charged.
National Fatherhood Initiative started nearly 20 years ago because its founders recognized and acted upon population-based evidence—evidence that has only continued to accumulate. We continue, and write blog posts like this one, because so many people ignore this evidence. Frankly, I wish this country didn’t need our organization. But we will continue as long as it does and, most importantly, as long as there are children who need their dads.