Tue | Jan 26, 2021

The cost of absent fathers

Published:Sunday | May 26, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Martin Henry , Contributor

Fatherlessness is an albatross around the neck of this nation, weighing us down and choking development. We have elevated the single mother to near national hero, right up there near Nanny of the Maroons. But this sentimental elevation does not change the harsh facts of the negative impact of father absence.

The best data on the impact on children of father absence comes out of the United States, and there sociologist David Popenoe has made quite a name for himself studying Life Without Father, the title of his flagship book on the subject. The Americans are more concerned with father absence from the rising divorce trend there, although African Americans lead that country with 65 per cent out-of-marriage births, while managing to remain at the economic base of the society, a condition usually and conveniently blamed on race rather than on family.

Our fatherlessness problem is being a world leader in fathering children outside marriage or even permanent committed relationships, something which we have glorified and normalised. The 2011 census says 68 per cent of Jamaicans over 16 (why starting at 16?) have never married, against a mere 24 per cent which have and remain married. Over 80 per cent of Jamaican children are born out of wedlock. The majority of these used to not even have their father's name on their birth certificate, the most basic association with a father. The Registrar General's Department has been trying to change this, and it would be good to hear what the current figure is.


This extraordinary national lack of commitment to formal marriage would be bad and not too bad if stable and permanent alternative relationships were the order of the day. But we know that the loose visiting relationship starting early in life, with multiple sequential partnerships over the prime childbearing and child-rearing years, is a main feature of man-woman-child relationship here.

Writing late last century, the sociologist of fatherhood, David Popenoe, declared, "The decline of fatherhood is one of the most unexpected and extraordinary social trends of our time. In just three decades - 1960 to 1990 - the number of children living apart from their biological fathers [that is: natural fathers] nearly doubled. By the turn of the century, almost 50 per cent of North American children may be going to sleep each evening without being able to say good night to their dads."

Popenoe is talking about divorce in the United States. We are talking about fathers who have never made the commitment of marriage or even of sticking around.

There was a time when fatherlessness was high on account of death. But: "A surprising suggestion emerging from recent social-science research," Popenoe points out, "is that it is decidedly worse to a child to lose a father in the modern, voluntary way than through death. The children of divorced and never-married mothers are less successful by almost every measure than the children of widowed mothers ... . And there is reason to believe that having an unmarried father is even worse for a child than having a divorced father."

And the statistical analyses of the US data are showing that children from a fatherless home are:

20 times more likely to end up in prison;

32 times more likely to run away.

20 times more likely to have behavioural disorders.

14 times more likely to commit rape;

Nine times more likely to drop out of high school;

10 times more likely to abuse drugs;

Five times more likely to commit suicide;

Nine times more likely to end up in a state-operated institution;

Two times more likely to have children during their teenage years;

The litany of disaster continues in the US statistics:

85% of all children that exhibit behavioural disorders come from fatherless homes;

90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes;

71% of all high-school dropouts come from fatherless homes;

71% of teenage pregnancies are to children of single parents, so the cycle continues;

75% of all adolescent patients in chemical-abuse centres come from fatherless homes;

63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes;

80% of rapists come from fatherless homes;

70% of juveniles in state facilities come from fatherless homes;

85% of all incarcerated youths grew up in a fatherless home.

Edward Kruk, writing about father absence, father deficit and father hunger in Psychology Today, produced his own list of woes from the literature:

Children without fathers actively in their lives have diminished self-concept, and compromised physical and emotional security. These children consistently report feeling abandoned when their fathers are not involved in their lives, struggling with their emotions and bouts of self-loathing. Jamaican children do not articulate well their feelings, perhaps because of cultural constraints against doing so, but there is no question that these feelings exist, and with devastating personal, social and economic consequences.

Kruk underlines the behavioural problems. Fatherless children have more difficulties with social adjustment, and are more likely to report problems with friendships, and manifest behaviour problems; many develop a swaggering, intimidating persona in an attempt to disguise their underlying fears, resentments, anxieties and unhappiness. Gangs and violence and the adoration of the gun as power spring out of this condition.


Fatherless children show greater truancy from school and poorer academic performance. Some 71 per cent of high-school dropouts, Kruk points out, again, are fatherless. Fatherless children have more trouble academically, scoring poorly on tests of reading, mathematics, and thinking skills.

Fatherlessness is a driver for delinquency and youth crime, including violent crime, Kruk notes, with 85 per cent of youth in prison having an absent father.

Promiscuity and teen pregnancy are much worse for children without father presence. Fatherless children, Continued from F3

Kruk notes, are more likely to experience problems with sexual health, including a greater likelihood of having intercourse before the age of 16, foregoing contraception during first intercourse, becoming teenage parents, and contracting sexually transmitted infection.

Girls, in the language of psychology, manifest an object hunger for males, and in experiencing the emotional loss of their fathers egocentrically as a rejection of them become susceptible to exploitation by adult men.

And drug and alcohol abuse rises for fatherless children, who are much more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and abuse drugs in childhood and adulthood.

Somewhat surprisingly, fatherless children experience more exploitation and abuse. Fatherless children are at greater risk, Kruk says, of suffering physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, being five times more likely to have experienced physical abuse and emotional maltreatment, with a 100 times higher risk of fatal abuse. One study reported that preschoolers not living with both of their biological parents are 40 times more likely to be sexually abused.


Physical and mental health is affected negatively by fatherlessness. Fatherless children report significantly more psychosomatic health symptoms and illnesses such as acute and chronic pain, asthma, headaches, and stomach aches. Father-absent children are consistently over-represented on a wide range of mental-health problems, particularly anxiety, depression and suicide, and they even die younger, on average, Kruk shows. Fatherless children live an average of four years less over the lifespan!

Their life chances are poorer. As adults, fatherless children are more likely to experience unemployment, have low incomes, remain on social assistance, and experience homelessness.

And this terrible cycle tends to perpetuate itself as father-starved children have poorer and weaker relationships. Father-absent children tend to enter partnerships earlier, are more likely to divorce or dissolve their cohabiting unions, and are more likely to have children outside marriage or outside any stable partnership.

Even if there are mitigating factors like the celebrated grandma factor in our parenting, when these disastrous outcomes are transposed to the Jamaican situation where stable two-parent families with strong father presence have never been the norm, even without our own hard data, it is frighteningly clear that we are confronted with a major social disaster. Some of our biggest problems: crime, low educational performance, poor social relations, and, yes, weak economic performance have their roots in family structure.

As Popenoe puts it: "Men are not biologically attuned to being committed fathers. Left culturally unregulated, men's sexual behaviour can be promiscuous, their paternity casual, their commitment to families weak. In recognition of this, cultures have used sanctions to bind men to their children, and of course the institution of marriage has been culture's chief vehicle.

"Our experience in [contemporary] society shows what happens when such a sanction breaks down. The decline of fatherhood is a major force behind many of the most disturbing problems that plague us."

The benefits of actively engaged fatherhood are not only for the children, Popenoe points out. "Child-rearing encourages men to develop those habits of character - including prudence, cooperativeness, honesty, trust and self-sacrifice - that can lead to achievement as an economic provider."

And women benefit, too. Poor women and their children are more likely to escape poverty in a stable relationship with a man who is an active father of the children. "Just as it seems to play a role in assaults on children, the sociologist notes, fatherlessness appears to be a factor in generating more violence against women. Partly this is a matter of arithmetic. As the number of unattached males in the population goes up, so does the incidence of violence towards women," the sociologist of fatherhood reasons.

Clearly, we shall have to fix the family to fix the nation.

Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.