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Five Myths on Fathers and Family
Five Myths on Fathers and Family
Be on the lookout this week for stories with these bogus memes.
By W. Bradford Wilcox
With Father's Day almost upon us, expect a host of media stories on men and
family life. Some will do a good job of capturing the changes and
continuities associated with fatherhood in contemporary America. But other
reporters and writers will generalize from their own unrepresentative
networks of friends and family members, try to baptize the latest family
trend, or assume that our society is heading ceaselessly in a progressive
direction. So be on the lookout this week for stories, op-eds, and essays
that include these five myths on contemporary fatherhood and family life.
1. THE 'MR. MOM' SURGE
Open a newspaper or turn on a TV in the week heading up to Father's Day and
you are bound to confront a story on stay-at-home dads. I have nothing
against stay-at-home dads, but they make up a minuscule share of American
For instance, less than 1 percent (140,000) of America's 22.5 million
married families with children under 15 had a stay-at-home dad in 2008,
according to the U.S. Census. By contrast, about 24 percent (5,327,000) of
those families had a stay-at-home mom. This means that the vast majority -
more than 97 percent - of all stay-at-home parents are moms, not dads.
The focus on Mr. Mom obscures another important reality. In most American
families today, fathers still take the lead when it comes to breadwinning:
In 2008, the Census estimated that fathers were the main provider in almost
three-quarters of American married families with children under 18.
Providership is important to protect children from poverty, raise their odds
of educational success, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed
later in life. Thus, the very real material contribution that the average
American dad makes to his family is obscured by stories that focus on that
exotic breed, the stay-at-home dad.
2. WOMEN WANT EVERYTHING 50-50
Another prevailing media myth is that contemporary women are looking for
fathers who will split their time evenly between work and family life. It
may be true for the average journalist or academic, but it is not true for
the average American married mom.
Most married mothers nowadays do want their husbands to do their fair share
of housework and childcare. But they do not define fairness in terms of a
50-50 balancing act where fathers and mothers do the same thing at home and
work. Instead, contemporary mothers take into account their husbands' work
outside the home when they assess the fairness of the division of labor
inside the home.
Moreover, most women who are married with children are happy to have their
husbands take the lead when it comes to providing and do not wish to work
full-time. For instance, a 2007 Pew Research Center study found that only 20
percent of mothers with children under 18 wanted to work full-time, compared
with 72 percent of fathers with children under 18. My own research has shown
that married mothers are happiest in their marriages when their husbands
take the lead when it comes to breadwinning - largely because his success as
a provider gives her more opportunities to focus on the children, or balance
childcare with part-time work (the most popular work arrangement for married
mothers). So, on this Father's Day, dads who are fortunate enough to hold
down a good job and make a major contribution to their families' financial
welfare should take some comfort from the fact that they are likely to be
boosting not only their families' bottom line but also their wives'
3. MARRIAGE IS JUST A PIECE OF PAPER
With the rise of cohabitation over the last 40 years, a large minority of
American children will spend some time in a household headed by a cohabiting
couple. Experts now estimate that about 40 percent of American children will
spend some time in a cohabiting household, either because they are born into
such a household or because one of their parents cohabits after a breakup.
Faced with this reality, many journalists, scholars, and advocates are
tempted to minimize the differences between married and cohabiting fathers
But the reality is that, on average, cohabiting fathers do not compare with
married fathers. As Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland and Kermyt
Anderson of the University of Oklahoma found in a recent study, married
fathers are significantly more involved and affectionate with their children
than are cohabiting fathers. In fact, from their research, they conclude
"that marriage per se confers advantage in terms of father involvement above
and beyond the characteristics of the fathers themselves."
Married fathers are also much more likely than their cohabiting peers to
stick around. One recent study by Wendy Manning at Bowling Green State and
Pamela Smock at the University of Michigan found that 50 percent of children
born to cohabiting parents saw their parents break up by age five; by
comparison, only 15 percent of children born to married parents saw their
parents divorce by age five. Dad is much more likely to stick around if he
has a wedding ring on his finger.
This is because, for men, marriage and fatherhood are a "package deal," as
sociologists Frank Frustenberg and Andrew Cherlin observed a number of years
ago. By force of law and custom, marriage binds men to their families and
gives them a recognizable role to play in the lives of their children. Try
as they might, unmarried men typically find it difficult to be a consistent
and positive force in the lives of their children.
4. THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Every couple of years, some journalist seeks to revive the myth of the good
divorce - often to excuse his or her own bad behavior. Sandra Tsing Loh is
Exhibit A this week. In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, she spends
several thousand words trying to justify her divorce from her husband of 20
years - a man she admits is a "good man" and "loving father" - under the
cover of a sprawling, incoherent, and frankly disturbing review of five
books on marriage and family life. (Among other things, the reader is
regaled with all too much information about Loh's private life; we learn,
for instance, that one reason she ended up divorced is that she could not
replace the "romantic memory of my fellow [adulterous] transgressor with the
more suitable image of my husband.")
Loh claims that her children appear to be doing just fine. Her two
school-age girls - aged 7 and 9 - appear to be "unfazed" and "relatively
content" in the midst of their parents' divorce. Who knew divorce could be
so easy on the kids?
In reality, Loh is probably deluding herself. The best social science
presents a rather different picture than the rosy one Loh is trying to
paint. According to research by Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and
Paul Amato of Penn State, girls whose parents divorce are about twice as
likely to drop out of high school, to become pregnant as teenagers, and to
suffer from psychological problems such as depression and thoughts of
suicide. Girls whose parents divorce are also much more likely to divorce
later in life.
Moreover, studies indicate that children experience the most harm when their
parents divorce after living together in a low-conflict marriage for many
years (as Loh appears to have done). Why? These divorces come as the most
surprising ones to children who thought that their parents had a good-enough
Though Loh manages to find for her Atlantic piece a bunch of well-educated
friends who are also entertaining thoughts of divorce, she is (fortunately)
in increasingly rare company. The work of sociologist Steven Martin
indicates that since 1980, college-educated Americans have grown less
tolerant of divorce, and the divorce rate among this cohort has fallen off
sharply. Thus, well-educated readers of The Atlantic are unlikely to take
Loh's misleading and self-serving essay to heart.
5. DADS ARE DISPENSABLE
The final myth propagated by journalists in connection with fatherhood these
days is the myth of the dispensable father. Often conjured up in glowing
profiles of women who have become single mothers by choice, this myth holds
that fathers do not play a central role in children's lives.
This myth fails to take into account the now-vast social scientific
literature (discussed above) showing that children typically do better in an
intact, married families with their fathers than they do in families headed
by single mothers.
It also overlooks the growing body of research indicating that fathers bring
distinctive talents to the parenting enterprise. The work of psychologist
Ross Parke, for instance, indicates that fathers are more likely than
mothers to engage their children in vigorous physical play (e.g.,
roughhousing), to challenge their children - including their daughters - to
embrace life's challenges, and to be firm disciplinarians.
Not surprisingly, children benefit from being exposed to the distinctive
paternal style. Sociologist David Eggebeen has shown, for instance, that
teenagers are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and
delinquency when they have involved and affectionate fathers, even after
controlling for the quality of their relationship with their mother. In his
words, "What these analyses clearly show is that mothers and fathers both
make vital contributions to adolescent well-being."
This is not to say that all journalists get it wrong when it comes to making
sense of contemporary fatherhood and family life. This week, for instance,
Sue Shellenberger at the Wall Street Journal had a great piece discussing
the ways in which mothers serve as gatekeepers for fathers to their
children; she also encourages mothers to allow fathers to engage children
with their own distinctive style of parenting. Likewise, Linda Carroll at
MSNBC has written an incisive story showing that involved and affectionate
fathers play a crucial role in steering their daughters away from early
sexual activity; in fact, it turns out that dads are more important than
moms in protecting their teenage daughters from early sex.
In the coming years, we will need more tough-minded and honest journalism
like the kind offered by Shellenberger and Carroll. This is particularly
true because the cultural and economic storms of late - e.g., the
individualistic turn of contemporary life and the recession - have been
eroding the marital foundations of family life in America. Given the social
scientific record on fatherhood, marriage, and family life, the United
States could use more journalists who are willing to confront hard truths
about the roles that fathers and marriage play in advancing the welfare of
our nation's most vulnerable citizens, our children, and the cultural,
economic, and legal forces that are now undercutting marriage and fatherhood
- W. Bradford Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of
Virginia and a senior fellow at the Institute for American Values.
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