You've Come a Long Way, Daddy

By Horn, Wade F. | Policy Review, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

You've Come a Long Way, Daddy


Horn, Wade F., Policy Review


The greatest social tragedy of the last 30 years has been the collapse of fatherhood. Propelled by the twin engines of divorce and illegitimacy, the percentage of children growing up in a home without their father nearly tripled between 1960 and the early 1990s. By 1994, 24 million American children were living without their biological fathers. But not to worry, we were increasingly told, all family arrangements were equal and children could do just fine without their fathers. Put simply, the modern family might need a village, but it no longer needed a dad.

Then something remarkable happened. Suddenly and unpredictably, fatherlessness began to be cited as the most disturbing and consequential social trend of our time. Soon, football stadiums were filling with Promise Keepers, busloads of African-American men were arriving in the nation's capital for a "Million Man March," and news stories began to highlight regularly the connection between absent fathers and such social ills as crime, educational failure, and welfare dependency. Some observers were even talking about the birth of a new social movement on behalf of fatherhood.

Collapse of Fatherhood

The retreat from fatherhood began in the 1960s, gained momentum in the 1970s, and hit full stride in the 1980s. Driving this collapse of fatherhood were three ideas about parenting, fathers, and children. Ideas do have con- sequences, and the cultural and social consequences of these ideas were profound. Moreover, these notions became so entrenched in American culture that, until recently, they obscured the obvious cause of so many social dis- orders: absentee fathers.

The myth of the androgyny ideal. For much of the history of Western civiliza- tion, differences between men and women were widely recognized and even celebrated. As late as the 1950s, social scientists largely accepted that men and women had biological differences that produced behavioral differences. Men and women, it was thought, formed a natural complementarity wherein each sex supported and strengthened the other. This idea was so ingrained that, for much of this century, educators routinely reinforced male and female dis- tinctiveness and sex-role behavior.

But beginning in the 1960s, our recognition of gender distinctiveness gave way to the ideal of androgyny. Out of a concern for greater social equity, androgyny advocates preached that men and women ought not only to be treated exactly the same, but to behave the same as well. Social psychologist Sandra Bem was particularly influential in spreading the gospel of androgyny, arguing that persons freed from traditional sex-role behavior would be better adjusted, more adaptive, and psychologically healthier. By 1980, according to a survey published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72 percent of mental-health professionals described a "healthy, mature, socially competent" adult as androgynous.

The ideal of androgyny found fertile soil in the field of parenting advice. Experts jettisoned the complementary model of childrearing and exhorted mothers and fathers each to parent in exactly the same way. According to many parenting gurus of the 1970s and 1980s, mothers and fathers should parent so that a child would neither know nor care whether it was mom or dad in the room.

Androgyny became the basis of the New Nurturing Father ideal, in which a good father was defined as a man who shares equally in all childrearing activities from the moment of birth. The New Nurturing Father was expected not only to cry at movies, but to change precisely half the diapers and fix his baby's formula as adeptly as he could fix a flat tire.

This view is now deeply ingrained in American culture--especially among social-service providers. At a recent workshop I conducted on restoring fatherhood, I was lectured by a social worker that it is not just incorrect, but dangerous, to use the word "father." The correct term is "parent. …

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