COMMENTARY: Being a father is good for a man

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Charles W. Colson, former special counsel to Richard Nixon, served a prison term for his role in the Watergate scandal. He now heads Prison Fellowship International, an evangelical Christian ministry to the imprisoned and their families. Contact Colson via e-mail at 71421.1551(AT)

(RNS)-All the talk we hear about fatherhood these days is mostly negative: deadbeat dads, divorced dads, deserting dads.

It seems that many men have bought into the idea that the ties to wife and kids are constricting their freedom. Disturbing numbers of men continue to buy into the Playboy philosophy, creating a legacy of chaos.

What a tragedy-not only for the family, but for men themselves.

As Rutgers University sociologist David Popenoe writes in his important new book,"Life Without Father"(Free Press), the departure from marriage often leads to an erosion in a father's well-being."Family life is a considerable civilizing force,"Popenoe writes, and without it, men often fall into destructive and irresponsible behavior.

Popenoe's message, to be sure, has a firm foundation in common sense and common observation and also echoes other work in this area by social scientists.

Men do tend to behave differently when they have children to raise. They often work harder, for one thing. They also tend to avoid behaviors that may negatively influence their children. This is not only good for the kids. It may help explain the contention of some social scientists that married men have a longer life expectancy than single men do.

When a man loves a woman-and stays true to his marriage vows-he may find that his children do better in school and are less likely to engage in anti-social behavior. Married people, Popenoe also points out, have better sex lives than singles.

This may all come as a shock in a culture that has become accustomed to hearing harangues about the terrors of wedlock, the very mention of which sends shivers up the spines of those dedicated to the advancement of their unencumbered selves. As well it might.

Wedlock is, after all, an arrangement in which adults are expected to act like adults: restrained, responsible and ready to make the sacrifices necessary to give their children the best lives possible. We have, over the last several decades, picked that lock-and unleashed a Pandora's box of societal ills.

Besides the harm to children, wives and to men themselves, the absence of fathers in many families has contributed, quite predictably, to a very serious societal problem: a terrifying increase in crime by juvenile males. Keeping in mind that young males commit a hugely disproportionate amount of violent crime, demographers tell us that we are at the threshold of the mother of all crime waves.

By 2005, the number of males aged 14 to 17 is expected to rise overall by about 25 percent. But how many of those young men will grow up in the same home as their fathers? According to the 1994 Statistical Abstract of the United States, nearly one child in three was born to an unwed mother. And the illegitimacy rate keeps rising.

There has been a tendency by some to deride the notion of traditional families. One hears a great deal of sneering these days about the values of Ozzie and Harriet and the poor Cleaver clan.

Given today's economic climate, not every family can have a stay-at-home parent to raise children. And few would argue that single mothers are incapable of doing an excellent job raising children in very trying circumstances. But let's hope that the tendency to belittle traditional families and fatherhood has run its course.

Sociology and common sense have reached a consensus: Every family needs a dad, and just about every dad needs his family. The disconnect between the two is responsible for many of the problems we face today.

So go ahead, dads, enjoy Father's Day. The evidence shows that being a father is good for you-and good for the rest of us, too.