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June 15, 2007

Fatherhood: Facts and Fiction

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)

Father’s Day has been observed for about 100 years, and its inspiration was Mother’s Day, which has been celebrated in one form or another since the 16th century.

It has always seemed fitting to me that we honor mothers, but odd that we honor fathers, for as any devoted husband and father can attest, there is no greater responsibility or reward than the blessing of children, no greater privilege than the blessing of fatherhood.

The good news is that there is a resurgence of men who are honoring their wives and children as responsible husbands and fathers. Unfortunately, there are too many men who will never know that reward because they have abdicated their responsibility as fathers.

At the invitation of a national ministry to families, I am writing a guidebook about arrested emotional development (AED) – a condition afflicting adults whose emotional maturity was arrested due to either acute or chronic abuse during their childhood.

After researching this topic, one might reasonably conclude that the most common and severe wounds inflicted upon children are not necessarily physical. Children internalize emotional abuse and rejection – particularly rejection by their family of origin – parental separation or divorce, or dissociation from a chemically dependent or emotionally disabled parent.

In other words, in defiance of adult logic, children believe they are somehow responsible for the harm that came to them, whether it was circumstantial, accidental or intended. In the case of divorce, children often believe they must have caused parental dissolution, or were deserving of it.

Divorce is the most common denominator associated with arrested emotional development in children – and the emotional disabilities that they carry into adulthood.

It is no small irony that divorced parents were, in all likelihood, themselves the child-victims of generational patterns of familial dissociation and dissolution. Daughters bear a particularly difficult burden in the absence of fathers. A broken father-daughter trust bond inevitably results in a disability forming a trust bond with a husband in later life. The absence of a healthy marital bond is a primary determinant in divorce.

Indeed, the sins of our fathers are visited upon generations that follow.

Marriage is the foundation for the family, which in turn, serves as the foundation for society. In 295 BC, Mencius wrote, “The root of the kingdom is in the state. The root of the state is in the family. The root of the family is in the person of its head.”

Broken marriages lead to broken families, which lead to broken societies. The most successful fathering is rooted in a healthy marriage. Thus, to be good fathers, we must first be good husbands.

Dr. Jim Lee, a pastor and director of Living Free ministries, writes that the Christian marriage paradigm is built on a foundation of five principles: First, God is the creator of the marriage relationship; second, heterosexuality is God’s pattern for marriage; third, monogamy is God’s design for marriage; fourth, God’s plan for marriage is for physical and spiritual unity; and fifth, marriage was designed to be permanent.

When this paradigm is broken, the exemplarity for children is broken, and the consequences are staggering. Consequently, the greatest affront to the Body of Christ is the most common injury to the family of man – marital infidelity and divorce.

Divorce, which typically results in the absence of fathers from their headship role within the family, is the single most significant common denominator among all categories of social and cultural entropy.

“Maturity does not come with age, but with the accepting of responsibility for one’s actions,” writes Dr. Edwin Cole, a fatherhood advocate. “The lack of effective, functioning fathers is the root cause of America’s social, economic and spiritual crises.”

Currently, only one in three children – and only one in five inner-city children – is in a home with a mother and father. Nearly 25 million children live absent or apart from their biological fathers.

“Children who grow up with their fathers do far better – emotionally, educationally, physically, every way we can measure – than children who do not,” notes family researcher David Blankenhorn. “This conclusion holds true even when differences of race, class and income are taken into account. The simple truth is that fathers are irreplaceable in shaping the competence and character of their children. … [The absence of fathers] from family life is surely the most socially consequential family trend of our era.”

Indeed it is.

Here are some sobering statistics: According to the Center for Disease Control, Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services and the Bureau of the Census, the 30 percent of children who live apart from their fathers will account for 63 percent of teen suicides, 70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions, 71 percent of high-school dropouts, 75 percent of children in chemical-abuse centers, 80 percent of rapists, 85 percent of youths in prison, 85 percent of children who exhibit behavioral disorders, and 90 percent of homeless and runaway children. In fact, children born to unwed mothers are ten times more likely to live in poverty as children with fathers in the home.

The causal link between fatherless children and crime is “so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime,” notes social researcher Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. More to the point is the following comment from a counselor at a juvenile-detention facility in California, which has the nation’s highest juvenile-incarceration rate: “[If] you find a gang member who comes from a complete nuclear family, I’d like to meet him. … I don’t think that kid exists.”

Concerns about marital infidelity, and the consequences for children, are not new. As Founding Father John Adams wrote in his diary on 2 June 1778, “The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families. … How is it possible that Children can have any just Sense of the sacred Obligations of Morality or Religion if, from their earliest Infancy, they learn their Mothers live in habitual Infidelity to their fathers, and their fathers in as constant Infidelity to their Mothers?”

On this Father’s Day, all of us who have been blessed with children should pause not only to count our blessings, but also to commit ourselves to honoring those attendant obligations every day. We should examine the job we are doing as husbands first, then fathers. As my friend, Father Ted Hesburgh, observed early in his pastorate, “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”

If you are a father living apart from your children, Father’s Day is a perfect occasion to promote healing with your children – to own your own failings as a father rather than shift blame to their mother. Most importantly, seek to help your children, including your adult children, work through their own emotionally-arrested behavior. Often that behavior manifests as anger, which is the bi-product of fear, itself, rooted in broken trust bonds.

In the words of William Shakespeare: “It is a wise father that knows his own child.” And of Homer: “It is a wise child that knows his own father.”

(Note to all those fathers who have been forcibly separated from their children: The call for fathers to honor their obligations, starting with our marriage, does not discount the fact that there are many women who live in constant infidelity to their husbands, women who subordinate the needs of their marriage and family life to their own desires – social relationships and activities, alcohol, media immersion, etc. Predictably, the vast majority of those women are, themselves, the victims of marital dissolution, or dissociation from a chemically dependent or emotionally disabled father.)

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