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When Children are Better Off Fatherless

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June 4, 2013

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on June 3, 2013.

By Michele Weldon

The 24 million American sons and daughters growing up without fathers are not all doomed. Nor are the children of lesbian parents. Nor the children whose fathers were killed in the line of duty as policemen, firemen, soldiers. Nor the children who have lost fathers to disease, accidents or suicide. Our society must be careful not to assume these sons and daughters are damned.

In the cases where the father is far from heroic – even abusive – his absence is also the absence of the chaos, anger, pain and disruption he would bring to his family. Americans encourage women to leave abusive partners, but mothers who do this end up in a class we shame and pity. The government itself sends the message that children are better off with a father. The reality is, many children are better off without their fathers.

Michael Lamb, a Cambridge psychologist, wrote in 2010, “We think it is misguided to see increased paternal involvement as a universally desirable goal.” Certainly it is optimal to have two parents who love and nurture their children, but rather than insist that all men can be good fathers, we should fill the lives of children with love and support from untraditional directions.

In the 2013 book “Fathers in Cultural Context,” Joseph Pleck of the University of Illinois writes: “The notion that fathering is essential to children’s social and personality development seems to be a uniquely American preoccupation. Current research actually provides little support for … this popular conception of paternal essentiality.”

The myth is personal to my family, because I raised my sons as a single mother. And they are not doomed because of that. Now men at 24, 22 and 19, I talk to them about successful men who have grown up without a father: President Obama and Bill Clinton, for two easy examples. I could also mention Aristotle, John Hancock, Gerald Ford, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglas, Stephen King and a fraternity of other historical heroes … but I don’t want to overdo it.

In time for Father’s Day movie bonding, Will Smith stars in “After Earth” with his real-life son, Jaden. But a 1994 episode of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” shows a much younger Will Smith in a scene that is more real to many American boys. The Smith character’s father runs out on a promise to take his son on a trip, and Smith shouts: “I’m gonna get through college without him. I’m gonna get a great job without him and marry me a beautiful honey and have me a whole bunch of kids. And I’m gonna be a better father than he ever was.” And then he chokes, “How come he don’t want me, man?”

I know there is no possible answer to that question. But I also know it is time to stop damning the children who need to ask.

- Michele Weldon is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University.