Absent Dads

Absent Dads

Bettina Arndt is not a person from whom I would have expected to hear that children are better off living with both parents.

Maybe it’s my preconceived ideas. Arndt became “famous” (or should that read “notorious”?) for her editorship of Forum, a sex education magazine in the 1970s. Arndt trained as a clinical psychologist specialising in sexual therapy. As I recall she was quite a controversial figure who didn’t have too much credibility among conservative Christians. But time does move on and Bettina Arndt has broadened her interest to include the well-being of families.

In the Weekend Australian of August 23rd she had a feature article entitled, “Society wedded to fallacies on families.” The article pointed out that sixty years ago in Australia less than 9% of children lived in lone mother families by the time they were 15 (6.3% due to parental separation). By the mid-1980s almost 25% of children lived in lone mother families by the time they were 15 (18.4% due to parental separation).

Arndt made this telling comment. “The casualization of families is one of the major factors entrenching disadvantage for children in this country. Yet no one wants to talk about it.”

She was writing in the context of the television drama series, ‘Offspring’. I’ve not seen this program but apparently it began as a light-hearted look at relationship but has evolved into a celebration of dysfunctional families. Arndt relates how in a recent scene one of the characters in the series is toying with the idea of having a baby by her new boyfriend. She professes to have feelings for him (even strong feelings) but she reasons that maybe she doesn’t need to love him because many mismatched people have kids together and those kids survive. Arndt’s article highlights though, that while they do survive they don’t survive anywhere near as well as children from two-parent families – particularly married parents.

Today it is not politically correct to make those sorts of claims. Liberal senator, Cory Bernardi discovered that recently when he was howled down by the media and opposition parliamentarians for his comment that research showed poorer outcomes for children in single parent families. Opponents were quick to dismiss this as rhetoric from the far right and as claims based on out of date prejudices. However US scholar, Kay Hymowitz, has shown beyond doubt that children in two-parent families do better at school, suffer less mental health problems and are less likely to be abused and become single parent themselves. While researchers like Hymowitz acknowledge that there are good exceptions that nevertheless the overall trends are worrying. Arndt concludes that Aussies shouldn’t celebrate dysfunctional families and that in any case the drama series ‘Offspring” is not typical since it is filled with doctors and other professionals who have resources that the average single parent family has no hope of replicating.

I write these words in the week before Father’s Day. We who are dads ought to be especially concerned about the trends I have just outlined. And let’s face it… there are some additional concerns. In many two-parent families dad is still too often the absent figure. A dad who works 60 hours per week is not going to have much time left for his children… and if he does find the time he won’t have the inclination due to weariness from working long hours. If what Arndt and Hymowitz are saying is true then we should not only work for strong marriages and support our single mums but we should also practice the kind of fatherhood that is involved in the life of the children.

Men… let me say this as bluntly as I can: we only get one go at fatherhood and if we stuff it up then it really doesn’t matter too much what else we do well. We Christian dads have an additional incentive to do well at fathering and that is to produce godly offspring that have been nurtured in the ways of the Lord.