The Fatherless Family – Focus on the Family
It may not be typical to begin a letter by quoting a famous English playwright, but I believe the above statement holds some relevance to the subject at hand. As we begin a new year, I’d like to spend a few minutes addressing the issue of fatherlessness, which has become an increasingly difficult problem in our culture. As many of you already know, Dr. Dobson has written for years about the importance of the traditional family and especially the critical role that fathers play in the lives of young children.
But just how widespread is this problem? Sadly, the answer to this question is discouraging. In fact, the United States leads the world in fatherless families,1 with roughly 24 million children (or 34 percent of all kids in the United States) living in homes where the father does not reside.2 Nearly 40 percent of children in father-absent homes have not seen their dad during the past year,3 and more than half of all fatherless children have never been in their dad’s home.4 The number of children being raised by single mothers has more than tripled between 1960 and 2000.5
As distressing as these figures are, they only tell part of the story. We must never forget that each of those 24 million “statistics” represents an impressionable, fragile child that has been denied the guidance, discipline and example that only a dad can provide. Perhaps I feel so passionately about this issue because I am one of those statistics! I’d like to help put a human face on this issue by taking a moment to discuss how my own life was impacted as a result of my relationship — or lack thereof — with my father.
Unfortunately, my dad’s alcoholism took a dramatic toll on our family. I still have vivid memories of the traumatic experiences that characterized my early years. I can remember hiding in my bedroom, with adrenaline coursing through my veins, while my dad, in a drunken rage, chased my mom around the house with a hammer. He never struck her directly, but the walls of our home were pock-marked with ugly, gaping hammer holes by the time the police arrived to intervene. Although rare, violent outbursts such as that one were almost too much for my young mind to handle.
My parents divorced when I was only 5 years old, and my father’s presence in my life diminished significantly. Mom remarried when I was 9, but our stepfather was no better a role model than my father had been. My mother passed away one year after getting remarried. When my siblings and I arrived back home after her funeral, we found our stepdad with his bags packed. He jumped into a cab with the five of us kids peering at him through the living room window. We never saw him again.
With our mother dead and our stepfather out of the picture and after one year in a foster home, my sister and I moved back in with our birthfather. Unfortunately, dad’s struggles with alcohol had not improved in the years since the divorce. I was 11 years old at this point, and actively involved in Little League in Southern California. Most kids in my position would have been thrilled to have their dad in the stands, cheering them on at a baseball game. However, much to my own embarrassment and humiliation, my father attended a game completely drunk. His offensive, belligerent behavior made it clear to everyone in attendance that he was intoxicated.
One year after we had moved back in with our father, my sister turned 18 and decided to strike out on her own. Since I was only 12, my siblings and other extended family members convened a “family conference” to determine whether or not I should stay with my dad. My older brother had offered to take me in if I so desired, and so the choice was ultimately mine to make. I’ll never forget the feeling of having all of my remaining family members — dad included — looking at me and awaiting my decision. I chose to live with my brother.
During the preceding year, my father had experienced four or five serious drunken episodes, including the aforementioned baseball game debacle. However, my decision to move in with my brother was not primarily the result of the pain and embarrassment that dad had caused me personally. In fact, when I stated my intention to move out during the family conference, my dad asked, “Why?” Without hesitation, I told him, “Because of what you did to Mom.” More than seven years after their divorce, the wounds associated with my dad’s drunken mistreatment of my mother were still fresh in my mind. And so, at only 12 years of age, I moved in with my older brother. A year later, my father died intoxicated and alone in a frozen abandoned building, the victim of exposure.
At this point, it’s very important for me to note that, despite the pain to which my father had subjected our family, I did not hate him. Quite the contrary, I had a childlike affection for my dad. During times of sobriety, he was a loving and gentle man who returned my affection. I believe that the Lord gives children a resilience enabling them to look up to their fathers and to love them even amidst the most difficult of circumstances. Throughout my childhood, I can remember times during which I felt genuine love and kindness from my father, although they were certainly offset by the anger and rage of his drunken episodes. It was difficult for my young mind to reconcile those conflicting emotions, and I know that there are millions of other children who have experienced similar feelings.
Dr. Bill Maier, vice president and child and family psychologist here at Focus on the Family, saw the devastating impact of fatherlessness firsthand during the years he worked at a community mental health clinic in Long Beach, Calif. I asked him to share a bit about that experience as I was preparing to write this letter, and this is what he said:
“Most of the children with whom I worked were low-income kids from single-parent homes. Many of these boys and girls had never met their fathers. Others had dads who were living on the street, involved in gangs, in prison or dead. The young boys, in particular, had an incredible hunger for male attention and affirmation. They cherished the one hour each week that I met with them for their individual counseling session. When I visited them at their public school, their eyes would light up and they would excitedly tell their friends, ‘That’s my COUNSELOR — he’s here to see ME!’ Often, their classmates (who were also fatherless) would gather around and ask, ‘Can you be my counselor, too?’ My heart broke for these children — aching for a man to simply talk to them and take an interest in their lives. Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett at Yale University calls this longing ‘Fatherneed,’ and it perfectly describes what millions of boys and girls in the U.S. experience every day of their lives.”
This “Fatherneed” is clearly what drives many fatherless kids (and remember, there are currently more than 24 million of them in the U.S. alone) to turn to sex, alcohol, crime and the other dangerous and deadly behaviors outlined in the statistics I quoted earlier. It is only by the grace of God that I was not swallowed up by these destructive forces. But make no mistake, the fact that I am currently president of a family ministry, rather than in prison, does not mean that I was not damaged by my father’s behavior. Our chaotic relationship certainly wounded my spirit, to the point that it is difficult to talk about even today. However, I learned at an early age, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him…” (Romans 8:28, NIV).
At the same time, I pray that my story might offer hope to the many children who are currently growing up in fatherless homes, and that it will encourage the readers of this letter — particularly men — to take up the baton on their behalf. In the absence of a positive father figure, I credit several male mentors in my life with coming alongside me and helping to turn me from the path of self-destruction. My older brothers, of course, were a source of tremendous encouragement and strength during the years when our relationship with our dad was disintegrating. But I’m also thankful for several Christian football coaches who, during my high school years, served as positive male role models to me. Although I attended a public high school, these men came alongside me and modeled the love of Christ in a way that contributed significantly to my own emotional and spiritual development. I’m truly grateful that God introduced these wise and godly men into my life during a time of such critical need.
A discussion of this nature inevitably brings to my mind the heroic efforts of the many single parents in our midst who quietly and admirably lead their families. Theirs is a heavy burden. If you are a single mother or father, we applaud your devotion and unfailing commitment to your precious and beloved children. As with all of us, the Lord will sustain you regardless of circumstance, if you place your trust in Him.
What about you? Because we have already established that the problem of fatherlessness is so widespread, I would be very surprised if there isn’t a child — or two, or three, or four — perhaps outside your immediate family but within your own circle of influence who could use a positive male presence in his or her life. I hope you’ll prayerfully consider reaching out to these kids who don’t have someone that they can call “dad.” They might look happy and whole on the outside, but I can assure you — without a positive male mentor, a very significant piece of the puzzle is missing. Perhaps God is asking you to be that missing piece.
You might be thinking, “I don’t have the hours in my day or the expertise necessary to make that kind of commitment.” However, mentoring doesn’t always have to involve the huge investment of time and energy that you might think. You don’t have to go to college to obtain a four-year “mentoring degree” in order to make a positive impact on children around you! Ample opportunities exist to simply share what you know with fatherless kids, whether in church, or through nonprofit organizations such as the Boy Scouts, or through your own child’s school, and so on. Even investing an hour a week with a child — taking her out for ice cream with your family, helping him with his math homework, sharing Scripture and ultimately just loving him or her — can make a world of difference. It certainly did in my life.
In his book Bringing Up Boys, Dr. Dobson compiled a list of additional ideas for those who wish to invest themselves in the lives of children — and particularly males — who don’t have a father figure at home. I have included that excerpt below; perhaps it will provide you with some food for thought as you consider how you might become involved in this issue.
As a single mother, you must make an all-out effort to find a father-substitute for your boys. An uncle or a neighbor or a coach or a musical director or a Sunday-school teacher may do the trick. Placing your boy under the influence of such a man for even a single hour per week can make a great difference. Get them involved in Boy Scouts, Boy’s Club, soccer or Little League. Give your boys biographies, and take them to movies or rent videos that focus on strong masculine (but moral) heroes.6
It should be noted that, while the primary caregivers in 84 percent of single-parent homes are mothers,7 there is also a significant number of single fathers out there who are struggling to raise children on their own. If your family knows one of these hard-working dads, you might also want to think about how you could come alongside him and his children. Motherless daughters, in particular, could benefit greatly from the influence of a Christian family and a godly wife and mother.
Before closing, we should also remember the many children in the United States and around the world who are both “fatherless” and “motherless.” Now, more than ever, the privilege of adoption is something that Christians, in particular, need to consider. This is an especially important point during Sanctity of Human Life month in January, when we remember the millions of babies who have been lost through the tragedy of abortion. For an orphaned or abandoned child, being adopted into a loving, intact family can literally mean the difference between life and death. As followers of Christ, there can be no higher calling than for us to extend our hands to one of “the least of these” — the overlooked and marginalized in our society — and invite him or her into our home as a son or daughter. After all, in a very real sense, that is what God has done for each of us through His own Son, Jesus Christ.
For more information and resources on mentoring, adoption and single parenting, please visit Focus on the Family’s Web site at http://www.family.org or call us at (800) A-FAMILY (232-6459). Looking back on 2005 and ahead to 2006, we are grateful for your generous support. Your ongoing partnership allows us to help the number of families we hope to reach in the months to come.
More than anything, we covet your prayers as we endeavor not only to reach out to children from broken homes, but to strengthen marriages and families so that the crises and trials that lead to divorce and familial disintegration are averted in the first place! Please pray, too, for the millions of fatherless children discussed in this letter — and the many millions more all over the world — that desperately need someone to take an interest in them. We know from Scripture that, “The Lord your God … defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). Perhaps He wants to use you and your family as a means of fulfilling that promise!
On behalf of Dr. Dobson and everyone here at Focus, a happy new year to you and yours. May God’s richest blessings surround you in 2006.
President and CEO