Fathers Get Bad Rap in Media, Courts

By Glenn Sacks

Arnold Schwarzenegger. John Edwards. Eliot Spitzer. John Ensign. Mark Sanford. To hear the media tell it, we live in the era of the Bad Dad. Stories about famous, successful men who submit to temptation and harm their family lives in the process certainly make great headlines and internet fodder, as do the divorces which often follow. But lost in the obsession over this handful of episodes is the fact that research shows most fathers are heavily invested in their kids’ lives, and that their presence is vital.

Sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur analyzed data from five different studies in their book Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. They concluded that boys and girls of single parent families are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as their peers with two parents. They’re also less likely to go to college if they do finish high school, and more likely to be both out of school and out of work.

Approximately 750,000 teenagers become pregnant each year, and 3 in 10 teenage girls become pregnant at least once before age 20. MSNBC’s Linda Carroll, in describing a Boston College study on teen pregnancy, explains:

"When it comes to preventing risky teen sex, there may be no better deterrent than a doting dad. Teenagers whose fathers are more involved in their lives are less likely to engage in risky sexual activities such as unprotected intercourse, according to a new study…While an involved mother can also help stave off a teen’s sexual activity, dads have twice the influence."

A Boston College study of low-income minority families found that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of substance abuse, violence, crime, and truancy decreases markedly. Lead author Professor Rebekah Levine Coley, says the study found involved nonresident fathers to be "an important protective factor for adolescents."

Our legal system often fails to recognize fathers’ importance. After divorce or separation, the loving bonds children share with their dads are imperiled. Children’s access to their noncustodial parents (usually their fathers) is often interfered with or blocked by custodial parents. Many dads fight a long, hard but generally unrecognized battle to remain a meaningful part of their kids’ lives, in the face of an indifferent and sometimes hostile family law system.

Professors Kathryn Edin of Harvard and Timothy Nelson of the University of Pennsylvania found that even low-income, unmarried fathers—often stereotyped as uncaring and irresponsible—strive to be good parents, and are often thwarted by the children’s mothers’ interference.

Edin’s subsequent research analyzes data from the large-scale Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing study and found that when a mother moves on to have new partners, her actions are "strongly associated with increases in the probability that the biological father will have no contact with his child." Contrary to anti-father stereotypes, when fathers move on to have subsequent romantic partners and children, they largely retain their desire to be in their original children’s lives. According to Edin:

"[T]he evidence points more strongly to the role of mothers ’swapping daddies’ than it does to the role of fathers ’swapping kids.’"

How can we put dads back in the lives of the children who love and need them? The key is a legal presumption of shared legal and physical custody. This means that, absent a finding of parental unfitness, both parents will have substantial physical time with their children after divorce or separation.

Like millions of other fathers, Shawn Gliklich, MD, a Methuen, Massachusetts emergency-room physician, was allowed limited time with his children after his divorce. He says:

"My kids had one of the two people they love most in the world pushed to the margins of their lives. I have the lives of other people’s children in my hands on a daily basis—why is it I’m not allowed to equally care for my own?"