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Fathers' day

An abandoned generation brings its yearning for father figures into the popular culture

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

In Hollywood, fathers right now are "in." Mothers are "out." After years of portraying fathers as bumbling, ineffectual, or clueless figures, recent movies are portraying fathers as strong, caring, and pivotally influential in a young person's life (Spanglish, In Good Company, Hotel Rwanda). And when the movies are not idealizing fathers, they are idealizing father figures, such as tough-love coaches (Million Dollar Baby, Coach Carter).

Unfortunately, some of these same movies portray mothers in a negative light, as dominating, self-centered, and indifferent to their own children, to the point of outsourcing the job of motherhood by hiring nannies.

This Hollywood view of families no doubt reflects the imagination of the single-parent generation, now coming of age and making movies. The figure of the ineffectual father would be one manifestation of growing up without one. Another manifestation would be the other extreme of idealizing the father, expressing that deep yearning for a father that all children need but that many today just do not have. As for this negative portrayal of mothers, that may be a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

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As Mary Eberstadt has shown, much of the dark and angry music favored by today's teenagers is about the feeling of being abandoned by parents (WORLD, Jan. 29). But what she calls "the abandoned generation" shows up in other ways, not only in the pop culture of the entertainment world but in the culture as a whole.

Abandonment comes in many forms. For two out of three black children, and one out of five white children, their parents were never married at all. A bigger problem for white children is divorce. Having your father walk out is sometimes more traumatic than never knowing your father at all. Rejection hurts even more than abandonment.

Abandonment can occur even when the family is intact. Many parents are just too busy to spend very much time with their children. This is especially true of fathers, who, according to that notorious statistic, spend an average of five minutes a day with their children.

The social consequences are well known. Children born out of wedlock are poor 51 percent of the time, whereas children born to married parents who are poor only 7 percent of the time. Thus, the absence of marriage increases the likelihood of child poverty by 700 percent.

One study of prison inmates in Wisconsin found that 87 percent of those incarcerated were from single-parent families. An important study by Douglas Smith and G. Roger Jarjoura showed that crime rates do not correlate to race, nor even to poverty. Rather, virtually all of an area's crime rate can be explained by the illegitimacy rate. In the words of the study, "The absence of marriage, and the failure to form and maintain intact families, explains the incidence of high crime in a neighborhood among whites as well as blacks."

Of course, abandoned children do not always or even usually face a life of poverty and crime. More often, their feelings are channeled inside, breaking out in different ways.

Growing up without role models of both genders can result in gender confusion: boys not learning how to be men; girls not learning how to be women; neither gender learning how to treat each other. For boys, this can manifest itself in what is called "hypermasculinity," that macho posing of aggression, violence, and predatory sex canonized in rap music.

For girls, this can mean "hyperfemininity," in which-through their clothes and mannerisms-they present themselves as sex objects to boys. The most extreme kind of gender confusion is homosexuality.

Christian families are not immune to these problems. Sometimes churches add to the problem by piling on more activities that prevent families from spending more time together. Christians who themselves are casualties of our culture's family dysfunctions can claim God's promise to be "the Father of the fatherless" (Psalm 68:5). And the whole church can take on the role of Christ's herald, the sign of which, according to the last verse of the Old Testament, is that "he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction" (Malachi 4:6).

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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