Fatherlessness. It’s one of the prevailing issues of our generation. Whether it’s a father who’s physically absent, or one who is emotionally distant or hurtful, the lack of a father has left a noticeable mark on our society. RELEVANT talks to Rick Johnson, author of Better Dads, Stronger Sons and founder of Better Dads, a fathering skills program designed to equip men to be more engaged in the lives of their children, about the impact of fatherlessness and what the Church can do about it.
Do you think fatherlessness is a big problem in our society?
As a culture, we tend to think the physical absence is the only form of fatherlessness, but a father can be emotionally distant, uninvolved in their children’s lives, workaholics, abusive or addictive. I believe fatherlessness is a huge problem in our culture. In fact, I believe every problem our culture has can be directly or indirectly traced to fatherlessness in one form or another. Kids from fatherless homes are five times more likely to be poor, and 10 times more likely to be extremely poor. Kids from fatherless homes are twice as likely to be high-school dropouts, girls are three times more likely to be unwed teenage mothers, 90 percent of runaways come from fatherless homes, and three out of four teen suicides come from fatherless environments. About 70 percent of men in prison come from fatherless homes. I speak a lot on the prisons, and when I talk to men, I survey them. When I ask them not only if they came from a home without a dad at all but if they had a poor role model for a father figure, it bumps that number up to about 90 percent. If you look at just that—the consequences, devastation and destruction that men in prison have caused to our culture and families—that’s pretty significant.
Why has fatherlessness become so prevalent today? In your experience, what are some of the major reasons or symptoms?
One of the reasons I think has to do with our culture’s mentality in general. Our culture now has more of an instant gratification kind of mentality. When I talk to young people, they’re frankly a little bit hopeless that marriage can last for a long time. It’s because they’ve experienced growing up in a culture of divorce. Why we’re seeing more of it now is because clearly, the role models we have growing up are things that we tend to emulate. When people have been brought up in a broken home, or a fatherless environment, boys tend to model that behavior, sometimes unconsciously. A lot of men vow to never leave their wife or children, yet because they’ve kind of been programmed that way, they’re almost helpless to be able to stop a chain of events that leads to that kind of conclusion.
The same with young women. For a variety of reasons, they tend to make choices where they end up in a situation where they’re either pregnant and not married or in a broken relationship. Just having had that model, we tend to imitate that. We see generational cycles. I know families where the great-grandmother was a single mom, the grandmother was a single mom, the mom was a single mom and now the daughter is a single mom. Those generational cycles are hard to break sometimes, especially if we don’t recognize that it’s contributing to the problem.
How has this affected the 18- to 34-year-old age bracket? What are some characteristics that define this generation that stem from father issues?
I think there are some specific things that affect the younger, up-and-coming generation, because a lot of them have been raised in environments without a father. When I talk to young men, I feel a real eagerness and need. They want to be good dads and good husbands, but haven’t had that model for them. A lot of them grow up saying, “I’m a dad—now what do I do? I know what I don’t want to do, but an older man has never shown me what I’m supposed to do—what my role as a man, a father and a husband is.” There’s a lot of confusion, and I think a lot of times, especially in males, it manifests itself in anger. I think there’s a lot of angry young men out there, and it’s not because they’re necessarily angry as much as they are afraid. Males typically are reluctant to do the things we possibly are going to fail at, because it’s humiliating to fail. Either we leave, rather than face potential failure, or we become angry to cover that humiliating feeling of failure or fear.
For females, I think there are certain things that manifest themselves in the younger generation as well. I think the way a lot of young women view themselves can be directly related to how they perceived [the way] their father viewed them. If they had a loving father, they tend to feel good about themselves, are more confident and have more self-esteem. If they didn’t have a man growing up, they tend to not have that self-esteem and that kind of self-assessment that they’re worthy and valuable. The common theme of women and girls who did not have a father is an inability to trust a man. It’s a leap of faith for them, because a permanent relationship with a man is kind of theoretical. These women tend to test men who are in their lives by starting fights, finding flaws, expecting to be abandoned—things like that that are pretty destructive to relationships to begin with. We all have cravings for affection in our lives, and I think the women who didn’t have that in a father have a void in their lives. They search for that, not having experienced healthy, masculine affection. Sometimes they’re willing to replace that need in some destructive ways, like confusing sex for love.
How do you think it affects people spiritually? Do you think there is a correlation between the way they view their father and the way they view God?
Studies have proved that people’s perceptions of their earthly father is how they perceive God. There’s a lot of confusion, anger and maybe even turning away from God because of what’s been modeled by their earthly father. The other day my wife and I were driving in the car, and we were listening to Angela Thomas [on the radio]; she wrote My Single Mom Life. She was talking about how her husband left her with four kids. It was really tough, as you can imagine. She was exhausted and was praying to God that she just couldn’t go on. She heard God talking to her, asking her what she could do, encouraging her like a father would do. He called her His sweet baby girl, and my wife teared up, and I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I grew up without a father. I can’t even imagine a heavenly father calling me [that].” I never even thought about that, but she was right. Because she didn’t have an example of that growing up, it was hard for her to believe that there’s a loving, heavenly father who would have that kind of unconditional love for her, because she had never experienced it.
What are some short-term and long-term steps the Church could take to combat the trend?
There are so many opportunities for the Church to reach out to the hurting community out there. One of the things we do a lot of work with is on single moms raising boys. We have mentoring programs for fatherless boys, and we pair them up with college-aged men to hang out with. We have camps for single moms and their families, where they come out and we just serve and honor the single moms while teaching and letting the kids play with men so they can get a healthy example of what healthy masculinity looks like, for both boys and girls. These are great, nonthreatening opportunities for the Church to make a difference as I believe God would have us do as Christians, particularly to reach out to the widows and orphans in our community. My frustration is that I see very few churches who are willing to do that. In fairness, I think the Church is recognizing the problem of fatherlessness, but I think they’re a little overwhelmed by the whole thing and tend to be paralyzed and not do anything. There are a couple of churches that are doing some significant things to reach out to the fatherless community, and I think they’re going to make a huge difference in the world. I think churches could very easily host and encourage ministries like ours that have nonthreatening outreaches to the community that introduce biblical principles in a nonthreatening way, while getting into areas of the community that would never even set foot in a church. Because we’re reaching out and giving them something that they need without any expectations in return, they are going to be much more open to hearing the good news of the Gospel than they might normally.