Monday, June 16, 2008

Programs vs. Dads

For Father’s Day, my wife and children gave me two photographs. It’s difficult for me to imagine any earthly gift they could have given that would have been more wonderful than these two photos.

One photo is a magnificent and cheery portrait of my beautiful wife and daughter. The other photo is a breathtaking portrait of my four sons standing in a line, dressed in age-appropriate Scout uniforms, and saluting while solemnly looking off into the distance. Those that haven’t tried to get well coordinated portraits taken with five children in tow have no clue how much effort went into these two pictures.

I’m even more surprised that none of the children spilled the beans before the gifts were given. All of this is a testament to how wonderful my wife is. She knew that these portraits would greatly honor me. I am also blessed with wonderful children.

I have just written an eight-part series to honor the memory of my father.

My wife, my children, and I have all been blessed to win what is becoming one of life’s greatest lotteries: being born into and raised in a family with a functioning father and a functioning mother. While the number of children raised in homes without a functioning mother is relatively small, the percentage of children raised without a functioning father has increased by about 1,000 percent during my lifetime.

As explained by NPR’s Juan Williams in this WSJ op-ed, the majority of our nation’s poor, drug addicts, illiterates, and criminals — in short, most of society’s dysfunctional people — grew up (or are growing up) without a father. Of course, not having a father doesn’t mean that a child will necessarily fall into any of these categories, but the chances of a child falling into one of these categories increases by orders of magnitude if the child is raised without a father.

Williams writes, “Having a dad, in short, is now a privilege, a ticket to middle-class status on par with getting into a good college.”

We have plentiful government and private programs that are aimed at helping at-risk children. But the sad fact is that all of them put together cannot adequately overcome the lack of an actual dad.

I have a silver maple tree in my front yard. Each year it drops thousands of seed pods onto the lawn. Some of them get blown into neighboring yards. Each year I treat the maple sprouts with broadleaf herbicide. I could mount a huge and expensive effort to pluck the seed pods before the tree releases them. But nothing would be as effective as killing the tree at the root.

The programs I mentioned above are a lot like trying to treat the problem after the seed pods have already grown. What is really needed is to treat the root cause of fatherlessness.

Our good intentions are simply insufficiently effective in countering the sense of worthlessness that comes from “feeling like "throwaway people."” It is not the child’s fault that she or he has no father figure. But many fatherless people still grow up with a deep-seated sense of guilt and inferiority. Another dilemma is that some of our treatment programs actually exacerbate the root problem.

This presents a quandary. How do you get men to step up to the responsibility of fatherhood, especially when an increasing number of them have no role model to use as a basis for positive fathering? Some men that had no father figure amazingly make this jump. Most do not. Many men become biological fathers, but never become caring dads.

The answer is to change the culture, but all indications are that culture is going the opposite direction. There is no quick fix to this problem. We seem to be on a divergent path to a society of haves and have-nots: those that have a dad and those that don’t. This increasingly taxes our nation’s institutions that strive to address societal dysfunction.

The answers to the problem are quite simple and can easily be arrived at with some consideration. That does not mean that the answers are easy. Many of them contradict myths we have come to cherish. And for that reason, few are willing to go there.

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