Why Men Need Family Values

WITHOUT DOUBT, THE MOST TERRIFYING AND fulfilling part of my life is being a father. The terror is that, somehow, I am failing my children (aged 6, 9 and 11) in ways that will become clear only in retrospect. The joys defy words. Sociologist David Popenoe of Rutgers University knows all this, but to him the real problem of modern fatherhood is that too many men are missing it. In an important new book, he now extends the debate about "family breakdown" beyond the familiar lament that children and women are its chief victims. Family breakdown, Popenoe argues passionately, also hurts men.*

The erosion of marriage and fathering, he says, helps cause low incomes, unhappiness and even crime among men. Usually, the argument runs just the other way. Men's low incomes, selfishness and crime are cited as causes of family breakdown and single parenthood. Some men are less attractive as husbands, being poor earners and unreliable partners. Qualifying popular wisdom, Popenoe says that "family life is a considerable civilizing force for men"--and, therefore, its absence can be crippling.

Often, men "will give up certain deviant or socially irresponsible behavior only when they have children, for they feel the need to set a good example," he writes. "[M]arriage encourages the regular work habits and sacrifice required to meet the family's material needs." Without that pressure, many men slide.

All this was once folk wisdom, but it dissolved in the contemporary obsession with sell-gratification, as if individual well-being could be achieved as easily outside the family as inside. We now know that this is usually not true. In a recent article, demographer Linda Waite of the University of Chicago summarized much of the massive research also covered by Popenoe:

Married couples have higher incomes and assets than singles. In 1992, for example, couples 51 to 61 had average individual wealth (assets) of $66,000, almost twice the level of divorced individuals ($34,000) or the never-married ($35,000) of the same age.

Children of single-parent families (after adjusting for parents' education, race and place of residence) are twice as likely to drop out of school and two to three times as likely to live in poverty as children from two-parent families.

Married men and women (again adjusting for education, race and place of residence) are healthier and live longer than the unmarried. Among married 48-year-old men, about 85 percent will live to 65; among singles, the proportion is only about 62 percent. The experience for women is similar.

Married couples report themselves happier and, specifically, more content with their sex lives than singles. The frequency of sex is about twice as high among the married as singles, though slightly lower than among those cohabiting.

Grant all the obvious qualifications. A lot of marriages stink; some are abusive. Many couples are better off divorced. Many single parents excel at raising children; many married couples don't. Many children overcome their parents' vices; some children defeat their parents' virtues. Still, we are talking about averages, and the averages decisively favor marriage.

The hard question is whether such comparisons fail because so many people who might have been in bad marriages are single or divorced. If those people were married, matrimony might look less satisfying and useful. But both Popenoe and Waite argue-convincingly, but not irrefutably-that marriage and parenthood independently confer benefits and alter behavior.

They surely did for me. It's not that I changed from an evil drug dealer into a dull scribbler. But fatherhood is a powerful antidote to self-centeredness. It educates about responsibility, which can be avoided but not denied. It made me do things--for example, coaching a soccer team--that I would never have considered before. It has connected me more with others, not just my children, because parenthood creates common concerns and conversations. And it has made me happier.

Of course, family life is often the pits. There's fighting, screaming, striking and blaming. Television, homework and boredom ("I don't know what to do") generate constant conflicts. Probably, worse is to come. In our household, "It's all Daddy's fault" is a regular refrain that explains almost any unhappiness. Naturally, Mom's faults make her a close runner-up. But we give our children something--unconditional love--that no one else can, and mostly it's returned. This is not just a good bargain; in life, it is the best you can get.

By now, the social benefits of successful parenting are widely acknowledged. Among girls, those with healthy ties with their fathers have fewer out-of-wedlock births than those who don't. One reason is that they feel confident in a relationship with a man and are less vulnerable to predatory sex. But there's a broader benefit that children take from two parents. In today's world, making marriage work requires commitment and compromise. Success is an object lesson to children in trust and obligation.

The decline of marriage and fatherhood stem from the breakdown of traditional roles in the nuclear family-the man as sole breadwinner, the woman as mother and homemaker. Women can pursue careers and are not confined to the home; they can more easily survive independently. Men feel less essential and are less powerful; they can more easily rationalize indifference or sexual browsing. Within marriages, conflicts multiply. Almost everyone has too much to do and too little time to do it, because almost everyone juggles the demands of family and jobs. In 1994, nearly 70 percent of married women with children were in the labor force.

Though a family advocate, Popenoe doesn't think the old nuclear family can be or should be restored. But he hopes that we can adapt better to its transformation. For we are at war with ourselves: a culture too obsessed with individual satisfaction loosens the collective bonds that often bring precisely that. ..MR.-

* "Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society" (275 pages. The Free Press. $25). ..MR0-