Fathers Day — celebrated this Sunday — is rapidly becoming the most meaningless holiday of the year. Or, for too many kids, the saddest.
U.S. government statistics tell us that over a third of all American children are not living in two-parent homes: forty per cent of children are born out of wedlock and between 33-50 per cent of children of divorce lose complete contact with one parent within three years. Usually it’s the father.
Not every separated father wants to stay connected. But for those who do, the relationship’s failure to thrive is often directly linked to draconian time constraints imposed on the father’s “access” (dreadful word for one’s own children) by mother-biased family courts. One researcher in the field estimates that “U.S. family courts create a fatherless child every single minute of every single day.”
Fatherlessness is a greater predictor than poverty for negative outcomes in children. It is the common denominator for adolescent murderers (72 per cent), imprisoned rapists (60 per cent), and juveniles sentenced to state institutions (70 per cent). Other amply researched negative outcomes strongly linked with fatherlessness are poor scholastic achievement, low self-esteem and gang association.
Associate professor of psychology William Fabricius at the University of Arizona, is the lead author of a soon-to-be published study, Effects of the Inter-Parental Relationship on Adolescents’ Emotional Security and Adjustment: The Important Role of Fathers.
The study looked at hundreds of adolescents, a balanced mix of those living with biological dads and those with stepdads, studied in three waves, from Grades 7 to 12, across ethnic and gender lines. The thrust of the study was to measure adolescents’ perception of how much they “matter” to both parents.
Fabricius and his team found that four things impact the mental health of adolescents: parent conflict; intimate partner violence (IPV); “marital quality” — i.e. level of parental love and closeness; and — originally — “mattering to father.”
Fabricius told me in a telephone interview that most studies in this realm look at the influence of mothers, and that “fathers are understudied in child and family research.” As well, while other research measures non-violent parental conflict, IPV and demonstrated affection, his, he says, is the only one to measure all three in one study.
The bottom line is “that the amount of time spent (with both parents) in daily activities during adolescence is a strong predictor of how much a child feels he matters to his parents.”
It would seem obvious, as confirming research like this mounts, that shared parenting should be the post-separation default rather than the failed and morally retrograde adversarial system we cling to, especially since polls consistently show popular approval of 70 per cent and over for shared parenting in both Canada and the U.S.
In fact, even though the Canadian Conservative party’s platform in theory supported equal shared parenting, it shot down a bill that would have enacted it here. And in the U.S., only one state — Arizona — has passed a shared-parenting bill, and that only in 2013.
Before the law passed, Arizona lawyers would tell their “good dad” clients they had only a 50 per cent chance of equal parenting time. Now they tell them they have a 90 per cent chance.
In 10 years I believe we’ll see a reduction in Arizona’s juvenile crime rate and in other negative youth behaviours. Because children who believe they matter to their parents are far less likely to act out in self-destructive ways. Indeed, as the Fabricius study notes, “it is the father-child relationship that accounts for changes in the severity of mental health symptoms from ages 13-16.”
Our public debates on social issues focus almost exclusively on concerns that primarily affect women and minorities. Racial and gender-rights policies are processed at the speed of summer lightning. But children are the most vulnerable members of society. What about their needs? What about their rights? They need significant time with their fathers. It’s their right. So it’s time to get over the fact that what benefits kids also benefits men.
Barbara Kay is a columnist for Canada’s National Post, where this article was first published. It is reproduced with permission.