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Fathers count, yet many count them out
By Amy Ridenour
The new Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has a family arrangement that shocks Americans.
Nineteen years ago, he and his wife, Kayoko Miyamoto, divorced. He took custody of their two older sons; his ex-wife, their youngest.
None of the children has seen their non-custodial parent since. The Prime Minister has refused his ex- wife's requests that she be allowed to see her two oldest sons. He has refused to meet his youngest son, despite the young man's requests. Media reports about the family often say the Prime Minister has but two sons.
None of this shocks the Japanese. In fact, a Japanese divorce expert told the Washington Post, "I'd be more surprised if there had been regular contact over the years." 1 In 40 per cent of Japanese divorce cases, children have no contact whatsoever with the noncustodial parent after a divorce, and in another 18 per cent of cases, very little contact. 2
This seems alien to Americans...
...or does it?
According to the Texas-based Center for Successful Fathering, 40 per cent of American children with divorced parents have not seen their father in at least a year. Ten years after a divorce, more than two-thirds of children living with their mother haven't seen their father for a year. 3
So Americans are more like the Japanese on this matter than we might like to think.
The United States has approximately 9.8 million single mothers and 2.1 million single dads. 4 Only 74 per cent of white children, 36 per cent of black children and 64 per cent of Hispanic children live in two-parent households. 5 Fifty percent of all white children and 75 per cent of all black children will spend at least part of their childhood living only with their mothers. 6 In 1998, single parent households comprised 27 per cent of households with children, up from 24 per cent in 1990 and 11 per cent in 1970. 7
Experts say this matters. A lot.
Children with fathers are twice as likely to stay in school. 8 Boys with two parents at home are half as likely to be incarcerated, regardless of their parents' income or educational level. 9 Girls 15-19 raised in homes with fathers are significantly less likely to engage in premarital sex. 10 Girls raised in single mother homes are more likely to give birth while single and are more likely to divorce and remarry. Girls whose fathers depart before their fifth birthday are especially likely to have permissive sexual attitudes and to seek approval from others. 11 Paternal praise is associated with better behavior and achievement in school. 12 Father absence increases vulnerability and aggressiveness in young children, particularly boys. 13 Young children living without dads married to their moms are five times as likely to be poor and ten times as likely to be extremely poor. 14 Fatherless children are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse. 15 Children living in households with fathers are less likely to suffer from emotional disorders and depression. 16 When dads don't live with their kids, the children are 4.3 times more likely to smoke cigarettes when teens. 17 A white teenage girl with an advantaged background is five times more likely to be a teen mom if she grows up in a household headed by a single mom instead of with both biological parents. 18 Children with involved dads are less susceptible to peer pressure, are more competent, more self- protective, more self-reliant and more ambitious. 19
What can be done to help children have positive relationships with both parents? A lot of it is personal. Whether mothers or fathers, we can lavish time and attention on our kids, and encourage others to do the same. We can marry before having children, think carefully about our choice of spouse before marrying, and avoid divorce whenever possible. If divorced with children, we can go the extra mile - and then some - to retain or establish cordial relations with our ex-spouse and to make visits with the non- custodial parent as pleasant and frequent as possible.
Institutions can and should do their part. Television plays an important role in shaping society's attitudes toward parenting, and could be a more positive force. According to a 2000 study by the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), one-quarter of all fathers on television are portrayed negatively. The NFI says this overabundance of "bad dads" on television undermines the cultural ideal of responsible fatherhood.
Moreoever, says the NFI, by the time typical American children are six years old, they will have spent more time watching television than they will spend talking with their father over their entire lifetime. For millions of children the primary contact they have with the idea of a father is the time they spend watching television. 20
Political groups can help. Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) can stop viewing the advocacy of responsible fathering as an attack on women. NOW, for example, calls the National Fatherhood Initiative, an organization created to "confront the growing problem of father absence and to improve the well-being of children by increasing the number of children growing up with involved, committed, and responsible fathers in their lives" 21 a "father custody organization" 22 threatening to single mothers. Accordingly, NOW has opposed the nomination of NFI head Wade Horn, a child psychologist, to head the George W. Bush Administration's Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Children and Family Services. 23 Feminists are misguided when they interpret advocacy of two involved parents as an attack on either parent.
A child with two involved parents is better off than a child with one. Few doubt this; yet many of us fail to live it. For the sake of the children, we should do better.
Fathers count. Let's stop counting them out.
1 Kathryn Tolbert, "For Japanese, a Typical Tale of Divorce,"
The Washington Post, May 19, 2001, page A1.
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