O Father, Where Art Thou? Part 2 of 3

Written by David R. Sprayberry, MD

In my last post, I introduced the problem of absent fathers in the U.S. and described the magnitude of the issue. What I hope to do today is to present a strong case for why fathers need to be very intentional about staying involved in the lives of their children.

This topic is important to me for several reasons. First, I am a father of three children (hopefully four sometime in the next year or so) and I want to be the kind of father they need. Second, I am tired of seeing friends separate and/or divorce. If these posts do anything to help just one father decide not to leave, it will have been a worthwhile endeavor. Third, I see kids who are suffering the consequences of father absence in my office very frequently and I am often called upon to help the kids deal with them. I see these kids spiral downward in the wake of their parents’ divorces and would love to see less of it.

So, what are the consequences to children when their fathers are absent from the home?

Let’s start with poverty.

Young children living with unmarried mothers are five times more likely to be poor than other children and ten times more likely to be extremely poor. Nearly 75% of children living in single-parent homes will experience poverty before the age of 11. Only 20% of children from two-parent homes will do the same. Homelessness is more common among children from broken homes. Finally, children of teen mothers are more likely to be unemployed when they become adults.

Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs.

Children who live apart from their fathers are 4.3 times more likely to smoke than those who grow up with their fathers in the home. Adolescents living with both biological parents less frequently engage in heavy alcohol use. Latchkey children, children who have daily unsupervised periods at home after school, are more common when the father is absent from the home. These children are more than twice as likely to abuse drugs as children who are not left alone after school and begin abusing substances at younger ages. Latchkey children are also at greater risk for teen pregnancy and are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse.

Emotional and Behavioral Consequences

Children from single-mother homes have a greater risk for psychosocial problems, an effect which is over and above the impact of coming from a low-income home. Young girls experience the emotional loss of a father as a rejection of them. Continued lack of involvement by the father is experienced as ongoing rejection.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is significantly more common in youths with an absent parent. Children with eating disorders and children who self-mutilate (e.g., “cutting”) often come from homes where fathers are absent. Antisocial symptoms are also more common in kids with absent fathers, a risk that is not mitigated by the presence of a stepfather. Even more frightening is this: three out of four teen suicides occur in households where a parent has been absent.

Education and Development

Children living with a single parent have lower GPAs, lower college aspirations, worse attendance, and higher drop-out rates. Fatherless children are 1.7-2 times as likely to drop out of school. Father absence has also been associated with delayed motor skill development in preschool children. I would suggest that this is due to the fact that the way fathers interact with their kids is different than mothers. Play with dads is often characterized by physicality – wrestling, tickling, tossing, spinning, etc. This physical play certainly contributes positively to the motor development of children.

Criminality

Given what we have already discussed, it is likely no surprise that criminality is more common among children with absent fathers. Delinquent behavior is more likely in father-absent homes, especially when combined with socioeconomic disadvantage. Children born to teen mothers are 3 times more likely to be incarcerated during their adolescence and early twenties than children of older mothers (as you will recall, children of teen mothers frequently have absent fathers). Boys born to unmarried teen mothers are 8-10 times more likely to become chronic juvenile offenders.

Sexuality

Children with an absent parent have been shown to be more likely to be perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse. Teens from two-parent households have been found to be less likely to be sexually active. Studies have shown that about 70% of teen pregnancies are to children of single parents.

Girls from father-absent homes tend to begin puberty earlier, have sex earlier, and have their first children earlier than girls from father-present homes. According to a study conducted in the U.S. and New Zealand, the risk of increased sexual activity is greater the earlier in a girl’s life that the father becomes absent. Higher socioeconomic status does not protect the girl from these effects.

Medical Consequences

Unmarried mothers are less likely to obtain prenatal care and are more likely to have a low birthweight baby. Infant mortality rates are higher for unmarried mothers and teen mothers (roughly 50% higher for teens). Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has also been shown to be more common in children of unmarried and teen mothers. Asthma and obesity are both more likely in children of single mothers, and blood sugars are more poorly controlled in diabetic children of single mothers.

For married men and women, hopefully this post will help strengthen your conviction to stay married and help maximize the positive impact you can have on your children. For divorced men and unmarried fathers, I hope this will convince you to stay as involved as possible in the lives of your children in order maximize your positive influence. For mothers who are not married to the father of their children, my desire is that you will encourage the fathers to remain involved, so long as they do not pose a threat to the children.

My final post on fatherhood will summarize the positive things that occur when a father is present and some practical ways that pediatricians can encourage fathers to remain involved.

Dr. Sprayberry is a practicing pediatrician and believes there is more to medicine than shuffling patients in and out the door. To read more about Dr. Sprayberry’s medical trips to Kenya, visit his blog, Pediatrics Gone to the Dawgs.

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