Fredrick Douglas said, "It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." This quote is well known in fatherhood circles, but it doesn't tell the whole story. It can even point in the wrong direction. I want to add, "And the best way to build strong children is to repair wounded fathers." Are we willing to look at our need for self-repair?
The Problem: The Profound Effects of Fatherlessness
24 million children will go to sleep tonight in a home where there is no father. Some of those children still have an engaged dad who loves them and is proud of them, even though he does not live with them. Although these fortunate children, such as my three teenage sons, may not have an ideal situation with two parents who live together and love each other, the reality is that many children who live with a mother and father don’t experience that ideal either.
The striking and sad truth, however, is that most of those 24 million children are truly at risk, kids who do not have a caring father involved in their lives every day. The statistics are staggering.
Fatherlessness is linked to:
- 63 percent of youth suicides;
- 71 percent of pregnant teenagers;
- 85 percent of all youth who exhibit behavior disorders;
- 71 percent of all high school dropouts;
- 75 percent of all adolescents in chemical abuse centers;
- And 85 percent of all youths sitting in prison.
The Root of the Problem Lives in Us Dads
You might be surprised to learn that one of the significant factors producing these disturbing statistics of father absence is the deep wound that many men still live with from their relationship with their own father. This is especially true among the poorer communities in our nation. I worked with over 600 incarcerated fathers in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system over a period of six years. I can count on one hand the number of men who told me they had a good, strong, and loving relationship with their dad. Instead, most shared heartrending stories with me about being belittled, ignored, or abandoned by their fathers. Some were abused. Their broken hearts, messed up lives, and often non-existent relationships with their children revealed a tragic legacy of father-wounding relationships.
How about you? Can you relate in any way to some of what these men so honestly shared with me? I sure did. Sadly, many dads can.
In my work with men over the last fifteen years, many dads on the “outside” have shared similar stories of neglect, pain, rejection, and abandonment. Very few “free” men seem to be able to tell stories of loving relationships with their dads, of knowing and feeling their dad was proud of them, and of hearing words of praise and affection throughout their childhood. If you had a dad who gave you these gifts, you are blessed. Many of us didn’t experience a relationship like this with our dads.
Without being fully conscious of it, at least not on a day-to-day basis, many of us still feel the void, wishing we felt loved by our dad, knowing deep within that our dad felt and still feels proud of us, and being able to talk with our dad about anything. This yearning for our father’s approval, attention, and affection is a common result of a father wound.
The father-wound hurts, and we avoid the pain. The father yearning seems endless, and we avoid feeling hopeless. That is natural. I don’t blame anyone for avoiding pain. I tried to do it for many years. The problem is that our kids pay the price. So many men—myself included—struggle with feelings of inadequacy, not measuring up, not being good enough, and not feeling loved. There is hope. But when we check out—and that is the easiest way to go—we turn on the TV, or grab a beer, or get lost in technology, then we are just not present. We may go further into damaging or even dangerous activities and relationships.
As this happens, we substantially lose time with our children, our emotional capacity to connect with them, and our hope to become the dad we wish our father had been for us. As we avoid our pain, our kids miss a dad they’re sure loves them, a dad they know is proud of them, a dad they can talk to about anything.
I have no doubt you love your kids. But do you help them know it and feel it every day? That's hard to do when much of our energy and attention is going to avoiding the pain of a father-wound. As long as we avoid our pain, we pass it on to our kids. I wish I could offer a simple fix. I can tell you that there is a solution—but it is not easy.
The Solution: Self-Healing
When wounded fathers stop avoiding our pain, we begin to heal. It hurts to heal, but it also has immediate benefits, for our kids and for us. When we are free to love our children, to easily affirm them, and to openly show affection for them, we aren't just reducing the risk of theoretical statistics, we are filling them with security, giving them a strong self-esteem, and helping them feel truly happy as kids. And it feels fantastic for us as dads. It is so fun to have this kind of closeness with our kids.
What would the world be like if every dad did this? When dads who did not have great relationships with their fathers find freedom from pain and resulting issues of the past, the next generation—our children—are strengthened. We give them a gift that will produce the kind of legacy we all wish for every child. This is what halts and even reverses the staggering statistics of father absence. This is the path to healing the next generation and our society. As fathers, we must heal our own wounded hearts to fully enjoy and raise our children well.
Frederick Douglas may well be right that it's easier to build strong children than to repair broken fathers. But fathers are the ones who can best build strong children. We become free to do that with joy when we face our own father wound.
What do you think? Please share your reflections about how a father wound affects being close to your kids. And what you think about the need to heal our wound in order to be great dads to our kids.
Keith Zafren is the founder of The Great Dads Project. Men who want to be great dads love the stories Keith Zafren tells, the practical skills he teaches, and the personal coaching he offers. Keith has spent seventeen years learning firsthand how to raise three great teenagers and stay close to them, no matter what. He coaches busy dads to not repeat the mistakes their fathers made, but instead, to create fantastic relationships with their kids. Check out his free video training course for men who want to be great dads.