Bill Muehlenberg

The perils of fatherlessness

An article in yesterday’s press had this headline: “Boys lack role models”. The piece began with these words: “A decline in the number of male teachers is being blamed for rising youth violence. Just 28 per cent of state schoolteachers are men, down from 32 per cent 10 years ago.

Youth crime has soared in that time. Sex attacks, robberies, assaults and weapon offences have increased significantly, and psychologists and family groups told the Herald Sun the loss of male role models was an important factor.

May I suggest that these experts have got things only partly right? Yes, kids suffer when there are no male role models around, and a lack of male teachers is indeed a worry. But this analysis simply does not go far enough. The real problem is more profound and of greater consequence.

The real problem is boys lack fathers. The major cause of all of this is that increasingly children are growing up in broken homes or single parent families, where no father is present. It is not just the lack of male role models that is behind this rise in crime, anti-social behaviour, and out-of-control kids.

The social science research on the importance of fathers is now extremely well-established, and quite convincing. Thousands of international studies have told us the same thing: children do better by every social indicator when a father is present.

While single-parent families (which are mainly mother-headed households) need all the help they can get, the truth is, children need both a mother and a father, and when one of these is absent – and it is usually the father – then kids are greatly disadvantaged, and can get into all sorts of strife.

Consider the issue the newspaper article has been talking about: youth violence. The evidence is in here: kids are more likely to become involved in violent, anti-social behaviour if they are raised without their biological father. Numerous studies have been undertaken which show a very real connection between delinquent and/or criminal behaviour, and broken families and father absence.

One study of 522 teenage girls, for example, found that girls in divorced families committed more delinquent acts (e.g., drug use, larceny, skipping school) than their counterparts in intact families. A family researcher examined a representative national sample of male and female youth aged 12-17 and found that adolescents in mother-only households were more likely to engage in deviant acts.

A study of street-gangs reveals this linkage as well. In an important book on the subject, Francis Ianni found that most gang members in America come from female-headed households. And a study of British communities found a direct statistical link between single parenthood and virtually every major type of crime, including mugging, violence against strangers, car theft and burglary.

Indeed, the very absence of intact families makes gang membership appealing. Many gang members view the gang as a kind of surrogate family. Often they have admitted, ‘It is like having a family’. Indeed, a recent New Zealand study found that 64.6 per cent of juvenile offenders had no birth father present.

A study reported in Psychology Today found that “90 per cent of repeat adolescent firestarters live in a mother-only constellation”. A Michigan State University study of 72 adolescent murderers discovered that 75 per cent of them had divorced or never-married parents. And a 1987 study by Raymond Knight and Robert Prentky of 108 violent rapists, all repeat offenders, found that 60 per cent came from single-parent homes.

One study tracked every child born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955 for 30 years. It found that five out of six delinquents with an adult criminal record came from families where a parent – almost always the father – was absent.

An American author, reviewing the evidence, reports the following: “Poverty alone does not explain all of these effects. Indeed, poverty may not explain any of them”. He cites a 1988 study which analysed victimisation data on over 11,000 individuals from three urban areas in New York, Florida and Missouri. It arrived at this startling conclusion: the proportion of single-parent households in a community predicts its rates of violent crime and burglary, but the community’s poverty level does not. Neither poverty nor race seem to account very much for the crime rate, compared to the proportion of single parent families, the study found.

In Australia, a book on family matters by Alan Tapper highlights this connection between broken families and crime. In a study of rising crime rates in Western Australia, Tapper suggests that “family breakdown in the form of divorce and separation is the main cause of the crime wave”.

A longitudinal study of 512 Australian children found that there are more offenders coming from families of cohabiting than married couples, and there are proportionally more offenders who become recidivists coming from families of cohabiting than married couples. The study concludes, “The relationship between cohabitation and delinquency is beyond contention: children of cohabiting couples are more likely to be found among offenders than children of married couples”.

Those who work with juvenile offenders in Australia confirm these findings. John Smith of Care and Communication Concern in Melbourne has spent decades working with homeless youth and young offenders. He says that “almost 100 per cent” of these kids are from “single parent families or blended families”.

An American FBI agent who specialises in serial killers has said that most of them come from a dysfunctional family with an absent father. A magistrate I happened to dine with not long ago told me that the overwhelming number of youth offenders he deals with in court come from broken homes and/or fatherless families.

Even researchers who are wary of making a connection between broken families and crime have conceded that some relationship exists between the two. For example, Demo and Acock, who reviewed dozens of studies on the subject, concluded: “A tentative conclusion based on the evidence reviewed here is that antisocial behaviour is less likely to occur in families where two adults are present, whether as biological parents, step-parents, or some combination of biological parents and other adults”.

Strong connections between crime and family breakdown have been made by the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, which compared crime rates with out-of-wedlock birth rates from 1903 to 1993. It found that the “percentage of ex-nuptial births correlates significantly with both serious and violent crime at both one and two decades time lapse”.

Such evidence can be produced here at length. Suffice it to say that the social sciences data simply confirm what most of already know by common sense: when we raise a generation of fatherless kids we are asking for, and getting, real trouble.

By all means, we can seek to up the number of male teachers in our schools. But far more important is to ensure, as much as possible, that every child grows up with his or her biological parents. Both mothers and fathers play a crucial role in the development and wellbeing of children. We owe it to our children to help make this is a reality for them.


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