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Our essential fathers

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Kathleen Parker
June 19, 2011
— This marks my 24th Father's Day as a columnist, my 26th since my son uttered "Dada," and my 16th since my own father joined the legions of Interesting People in the Hereafter.

Which is to say, there seems hardly anything new to add to the thoughts I've expressed so often before. But then I am reminded that every day, a fresh crop of men become new fathers, and others lay to rest their own. And sadly, more and more children never have a father, at least not the kind that shows up every day to do the things only fathers do.


My decades in the column business inform me that at this point -- right about paragraph three -- single moms start to get huffy and alienated dads get teary. Single moms are heroic, our culture tells us, and any suggestion to the contrary is heresy punishable by a suspension of sisterhood. Note: They (BEG ITAL)are(END ITAL) heroic sometimes, and sometimes not.


As for alienated dads? A shame in some instances, a sham in others. The mere donor who dons the mantle of victimhood belongs to the latter category. The thousands (or millions) of fathers who through no choice of their own -- and often for no good reason -- are denied access to their children are often heroic in their own right.


These observations are so familiar by now that it's wearisome to repeat them, yet despite all we know about the tragedy of fatherlessness, we do very little to change the game. While government agents and bounty hunters feel virtuous for collecting child support, we do little else to improve the lot of fatherless children or to insist that fathers (BEG ITAL)do(END ITAL) matter and that their incremental elimination from the family equation -- physically, emotionally and spiritually -- is the greatest error in modern human history.


It is simply easier to deal with the consequences of fatherless America -- to build more prisons, extend more welfare, track down deadbeats and medicate distracted children -- than to look ourselves squarely in the mirror. We are not suffering a bout of misguided thinking or benign neglect in these matters. Rather, the minimizing of fatherhood as an institution has been amply considered and, at least by some in positions of influence, determined to be not that essential.


This conclusion is so wrong as to be criminal. Fathers are essential in such obvious ways that it's heartbreaking to think anyone doesn't know it. This is not to imply that all men who contribute to the creation of the planet's little darlings are necessarily good fathers. Neither can we insist that all women who bring unto the earth the fruit of their loins are deserving of their own Hallmark day. Such is life in the animal kingdom.


But social science and life demonstrate that children without fathers are at greater risk for all the pathologies parents and societies dread: early sexual experimentation, drug abuse, poor school performance, delinquency, truancy and the low self-esteem that inevitably leads to more problems in adulthood, not the least of which is replication of the broken-family template. On the whole, meanwhile, most men make good enough fathers and (BEG ITAL)all(END ITAL) children but the most brainwashed want one.


It isn't possible to assign blame to one individual or institution for these circumstances. It's the culture. Our general disregard for fathers except on this day is a systemic affliction. We've been paddling around in the men-bad-stupid-and-unnecessary marinade for decades now, instructed by messages from sitcoms to policies that women can do it all. Though technically true, children need more than households where the trains run on time. They also need the chaos of free-ranging males -- messy but fun. (I say this as a once-single mother who, with the subsequent help of a husband/father extraordinaire, raised three boys to manhood.)


Granted, my argument is somewhat diluted by the errant behavior of certain free-ranging males of the political variety. A complete list of offenders is rather longish for this space, but we should resist the urge to indict half the population owing to the behaviors of a relative few.


Thus, with charity toward none of the bad guys, we honor the battalions of good ones who have toiled quietly and valiantly to bring home the bacon, show up at the recital, applaud the score, check the locks, banish the monsters, and solve all the world's problems with a daddy hug.


We (BEG ITAL)could(END ITAL) live without them, but why would anyone want to?


Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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