Fatherlessness: What Happens When Dad’s Not Around?

 

Many Disney princesses grow up missing either a father or mother, and sometimes even both! Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and more don’t get to spend much time learning from and enjoying their dads.

In the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog (1), however, Tiana gets to learn some great life lessons from her dad before he passes away. Throughout the movie, Tiana draws on lessons she learned from her dad: cooking, working hard, and dreaming big. Her life was forever changed because of one very involved and loving father. In this sweet scene (2), he spends time cooking with Tiana, shares some of his wisdom, and passes on his dream of opening a restaurant:

The Epidemic of Fatherlessness

Unfortunately, many American homes look more like the typical Disney princess situation: fatherless. With soaring divorce rates, increasing births out of wedlock, and the general collapse of the traditional family, involved fathers have become a lot harder to come by. In fact, in the United States today, only 1 in 3 kids grows up without their biological dad at home. That’s about 24 million children that have to live life without dad (3).

But what’s the big deal? Is life really all that different for those 24 million kids?

The research actually says yes. Yes, it is.

The Symptoms

This epidemic of fatherlessness does its fair share of damage. Here are just a handful of the disastrous symptoms we see when dads aren’t present and involved:

Poor academic achievement. Children without an involved dad are two times more likely to drop out of high school (4). In fact, about 7 out of 10 high school dropouts are fatherless (5).

Poor emotional health. When dad isn’t around, a child is over two times more likely to commit suicide (6). A father’s involvement (or lack thereof) also impacts a child’s overall emotional security and well-being, according to a report from the US Department of Health and Human Services (7)

Poverty and criminal activity. Kids who grow up without a dad are four times more likely to be poor (8). Without the socioeconomic stability of a two-parent home, kids are also more likely to act out and engage in delinquent behavior (9).

Substance abuse. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Fatherless children are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse” (10).

Acting out sexually. When a girl’s dad isn’t involved in her life, she is seven times more likely to get pregnant as a teen (11). Seven times! Not only this, but girls who don’t have a good relationship with their fathers have difficulty forming healthy romantic relationships and are more likely to participate in risky or promiscuous sexual behavior (12). Turns out that missing a dad doesn’t usually lead to “happily ever after,” unlike what you see in the usual Disney princess film.

As the National Center on Fathering puts it, “In short, fatherlessness is associated with almost every societal ill facing our country’s children” (13).

(For more on the harms of fatherlessness, see these infographics from the National Center on Fathering and the National Fatherhood Initiative and the ones below.)

 

The Cure

Looking at all these harms can be a little depressing — especially considering how many kids grow up without a present and involved father. But thankfully, we don’t have to just sit by and cry. There are things we can do to motivate fathers and help them fulfill their essential role.

And fathers are starting to see their role as an important one, according to recent surveys from the Pew Research Center. In fact, “Dads are just as likely as moms to say that parenting is extremely important to their identity” (14). Like Tiana’s dad, many dads today are showing that they actually want to be involved. So how can we help dads fulfill their desires to be a good father?  

Show dads that they matter. Whether it’s the father of your children or another father you know, make sure dads know just how important they are. Show appreciation for their efforts and let them know what a difference they’re making.

Let dads help out. When it comes to caring for newborn children in particular, fathers can be inadvertently pushed away by mothers and the women who come to help them (15). Even if he does things differently than you would, make sure to let the father be involved and help in everything from getting kids dressed to comforting a crying child. The more he can take part in little daily routines, the more he’ll be able to impact your kids for the better.

Help divorced dads stay involved. Unfortunately, many kids won’t get to live with their fathers because of divorce. But even in unideal circumstances, dads can still stay involved in their children’s lives. The US Department of Health and Human Services gives a few suggestions for dads who aren’t living with their kids: keep your promises, communicate regularly with your kids, still provide discipline, and don’t be a “Disneyland dad” who only spends time doing fun activities with your kids (16).

Making the Best of It

Growing up without a dad really isn’t a dream come true, no matter how it looks in most Disney movies. But when a dad is involved like Tiana’s was, magic really can happen!

While not every child will get to grow up with a loving mother and father, we can do our part to make the best of it. As we show dads just how much they matter and encourage them to be involved, we can help both our children and our communities to become a little stronger.

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*Pictures retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/priceless_video/16207268025

References

1. Walt Disney Animation Studios (Producer), & Clements, R., & Musker, J. (Directors). (2009). The princess and the frog [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.

2. Disney IRL. (2014, July 17). Princess and the frog – Tiana makes gumbo [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2NHYIrAYas

3-4. National Fatherhood Initiative. (n.d.). Father absence + involvement statistics. Retrieved from https://www.fatherhood.org/fatherhood-data-statistics

5-6. National Center for Fathering. (n.d.). The consequences of fatherlessness. Retrieved from http://www.fathers.com/statistics-and-research/the-consequences-of-fatherlessness/ and http://www.fathers.com/statistics-and-research/the-consequences-of-fatherlessness/2/

7. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2006). The importance of fathers in the healthy development of children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human

Services, Children’s Bureau.

8-10. National Center for Fathering. (n.d.). The consequences of fatherlessness. Retrieved from http://www.fathers.com/statistics-and-research/the-consequences-of-fatherlessness/ and http://www.fathers.com/statistics-and-research/the-consequences-of-fatherlessness/2/

11. National Fatherhood Initiative. (n.d.). Father absence + involvement statistics. Retrieved from https://www.fatherhood.org/fatherhood-data-statistics

12. Nielsen, L. (2012). Father-daughter relationships: Contemporary research and issues. Taylor and Francis.

13. National Center on Fathering. (n.d.). The extent of fatherlessness. Retrieved from http://www.fathers.com/statistics-and-research/the-extent-of-fatherlessness/

14. Parker, K., & Livingston, G. (2017, June 15). 6 facts about American fathers. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/06/15/fathers-day-facts/

15. Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. S. (2007). And baby makes three: The six-step plan for preserving marital intimacy and rekindling romance after baby arrives. Crown.

16. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2006). The importance of fathers in the healthy development of children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human

Services, Children’s Bureau.

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