Viewpoint: Divine Role of Fathers
For a couple of decades now, social scientists, journalists, and other observers of the human condition have been expressing alarm about social ills attendant to a growing notion that fathers are expendable.
In an influential magazine article published in 1993, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead declared, “Divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth are transforming the lives of American children” (“Dan Quayle Was Right,” The Atlantic, Apr. 1993).
It isn’t a change for the better, she went on to show. She cited a study that indicated children in single-parent homes are six times as likely to be poor and are apt to stay poor longer and that they are two to three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems and more likely to drop out of high school, get pregnant as teenagers, abuse drugs, and be in trouble with the law.
She concluded: “Over the past two and a half decades Americans have been conducting what is tantamount to a vast natural experiment in family life. … The results of the experiment are coming in, and they are abundantly clear. … This is the first generation in the nation’s history to do worse psychologically, socially and economically than its parents. Most poignantly, in survey after survey the children of broken families confess deep longings for an intact family. … Whether Americans will act to overcome the legacy of family disruption is a crucial but as yet unanswered question.”
So here we are, nearly 20 years later. Have we learned from the past?
Writing in the Deseret News national edition of October 21, Janet Jacob Erickson of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University observed: “Decades of research have documented the challenges faced by children growing up without fathers. But you would never know it looking at some of the recent arguments in favor of ‘genderless parenting.’ ”
Like the author of the Atlantic article, she cited studies showing an array of adverse consequences: boys from fatherless families twice as likely to end up in prison before age 30; girls raised in homes without fathers much more likely to engage in early sexual behavior and end up pregnant; children more likely to experience depression, behavioral problems, and school expulsion.
“These challenges can partly be explained by the fact that these children are more likely to grow up in poverty,” she acknowledged. “But that, too, reveals the importance of dads, as married fathers are the primary breadwinners in almost 70 percent of married families—providing resources that benefit children in a host of ways.”
The reality is that many children do grow up without fathers, and arguments that the father’s role is nonessential may reflect an effort to accept that fact, she wrote. “But surely a more effective and compassionate approach would be to acknowledge the unique contributions of mothers and fathers in their children’s lives, then do what we can to ensure that becomes a reality for more of our children.”
One of the things we can do, particularly as Latter-day Saints, is resist an all-too-common attitude today that would ridicule and disparage the traditional role of the father in the family.
Speaking to the brethren assembled for the priesthood session of general conference last month, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve observed, “In their zeal to promote opportunity for women, something we applaud, there are those who denigrate men and their contributions.”
He added: “They seem to think of life as a competition between male and female—that one must dominate the other, and now it’s the women’s turn. Some argue that a career is everything and marriage and children should be entirely optional—therefore, why do we need men? In too many Hollywood films, TV and cable shows, and even commercials, men are portrayed as incompetent, immature, or self-absorbed. This cultural emasculation of males is having a damaging effect.”
Some men, he explained, “have taken the negative signals as an excuse to avoid responsibility and never really grow up.” He then declared: “Brethren, it cannot be this way with us. As men of the priesthood, we have an essential role to play in society, at home, and in the Church. But we must be men that women can trust, that children can trust, and that God can trust.”
A major purpose of the Church is to perfect and exalt the family. Latter-day Saints recognize that home is a place in which resides a sacred trust and responsibility for the family. Faithful members strive to pattern their mortal homes after their first home—their celestial home. A family led by a righteous holder of the priesthood is the loftiest spiritual unit that can exist on earth.
In a document that seems more wise and prophetic with each passing day, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve declared in 1995: “Marriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. … By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 2010, 129).
In his general conference address, Elder Christofferson gave a number of points in which holders of the priesthood are obligated to measure up to their responsibilities—including education, family life, service, missionary work, and redemption of the dead. We endorse his admonitions and at the same time call upon men, women, and children to respect and honor the divinely mandated role of fatherhood.