Last Sunday morning, my daughter Penny helped me make breakfast for her dad. He likes it simple: coffee, OJ, a bowl of cereal with raisins. We assembled it all on a tray, complete with the newspaper and a card: "Happy Father's Day I love my dad" in 4-year old block letters. While I was retrieving her little brother, Penny snuck away and climbed into bed with her dad and shouted, "Wake up! I made you breakfast in bed!"
According to recent sociological studies, this scene is less usual than it used to be. One in three children in the United States live apart from their biological fathers. Moreover, according to a recent piece in The Atlantic, our Father's Day breakfast may have been insignificant to Penny's development. Pamela Paul asks, "Are Fathers Necessary?" She cites evidence that lesbian couples are the most effective parents, and she concludes: "The bad news for Dad is that despite common perception, there's nothing objectively essential about his contribution" (my italics). Scenes such as the one described above might be subjectively essential, but apparently the data doesn't support my sense that Penny's relationship with her father is a crucial one. Paul isn't suggesting that single-parent households are best for the kids. She's just saying that fathers in particular don't matter. My husband might just as well be replaced by another woman. Our kids would be fine.
Bruce Feiler, author of Council of Dads, responded to Paul's article in the Washington Post: "Science can't prove fathers matter. That doesn't mean we don't." He writes, "if social science has not proved that having dads present is helpful, it has demonstrated that not having them around is dreadful for the kids." He cites a host of statistics that imply the problems kids face when their fathers are absent: crime, obesity, poverty, and trouble in school. So how do we make sense of these contrasting claims?
The data itself is not as conclusive as Paul implies. As W. Bradford Wilcox, of the University of Virginia, writes: "the vast majority of the published studies they relied upon are deeply flawed from a methodological perspective." Wilcox details some of the studies' flaws at familyscholars.org.
But even if the statistical and sociological data did support Paul's conclusions, we'd still have a problem. Men comprise a biological necessity for child bearing. And the majority of households with children consist either of a single-parent or a heterosexual pair. Given the prevalence of men, in other words, fathers are here to stay. And for Christians, given the biblical witness to the significance of fathers within a family unit, the fact that so many fathers are absent from their children's lives, and this recent suggestion that fathers don't matter, poses a spiritual problem above and beyond the sociological one.
The household codes in the New Testament include admonitions for fathers: Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4); Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. (Ephesians 6:4). These passages envision fathers as spiritual mentors, teachers, and coaches, actively involved in their children's lives, modeling and explaining how to live a godly life.
Biblically speaking, fathers matter, as a crucial source of stability, encouragement, and spiritual leadership. Moreover, the central image of God in the New Testament is that of a father. From Jesus' parable about the two sons and their father (Luke 15) to his suggestion that we pray to God as our "Abba" (Daddy) (Matthew 6:9) to his own words about his relationship with God in John's Gospel (John 15), God is depicted as a good and gracious father. Of course there are other passages in Scripture that depict God as a mother (see Psalm 131). The point remains that earthly fathers (and mothers) are meant to model, even if imperfectly, the kind of love and care God demonstrates for his children.
Fathers are often absent in our culture. And with the rising economic power of women (see another Atlantic article: "The End of Men"), fathers have found their roles changing, and they aren't sure where they fit anymore. Much as the recent sociological studies that undermine the role of fathers demonstrate research bias, Christians must also pay attention. Christian men need to step up as fathers who model God's love, grace, and faithfulness to children. Christian women need to recognize the value their husbands provide within the family. For years to come, I hope my children will honor their father on Father's Day. And I hope he will offer them a glimpse of the love, support, and the faithfulness of God.