Good Dad/Bad Dad: Modern-Day Images Of Fatherhood

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CONSIDER the conflicting media images of the American father in 1994:

On Sunday, Father's Day, he will be widely portrayed in newspapers and on TV as the Good Dad - warm and nurturing. His children will shower him with gifts. They will also send greeting cards depicting him as a central figure in their lives, actively involved in their care and well-being. The cards, filled with superlatives, will praise him for his wisdom, his ``sharing and caring,'' his love and generosity.

So generous is the Good Dad, in fact, that his offspring apparently don't mind letting him pay for their annual June wishes to him. AT&T reports that Americans make more collect calls on Father's Day than on any other occasion.

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But on Monday - or by Tuesday at the latest - this shiny image of the Good Dad will begin tarnishing. Sunday's prince of a guy will be dethroned as reporters revert to stories about the Bad Dad.

Headlines will again report on paternal scofflaws who refuse to pay court-ordered child support. News stories on welfare reform will note that over half of all new welfare cases are due to births to unmarried women. And feature stories will quote working mothers who emphasize that many fathers still talk only in terms of ``baby-sitting'' and ``helping'' - sure signs, they say, that women remain the primary care givers.

If these media patterns continue, positive stories about men will largely disappear until next Father's Day.

Wade Horn, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative in Lancaster, Pa., describes the problem this way: ``If fathers are mentioned at all, they're either mentioned as `deadbeat dads' who should be made to pay up, or as abusers who abuse their children. Neither of those images is particularly inspiring to men, giving them reason to want to be good and responsible fathers.''

Some of the negative press is justified by statistics. Dr. Horn himself calls this ``the age of the vanishing father,'' explaining that the United States leads the world in fatherless families.

As proof, he notes that 40 percent of children who live in fatherless homes have not seen their fathers in at least a year. And more than half of all children who don't live with their father have never been in their father's home. So complete is what Horn calls the ``erosion of fatherhood'' that approximately half of children growing up today will graduate from high school having spent some time living in a fatherless home.

To improve these gloomy patterns, Horn says, Americans need to change the messages their culture sends about the importance and rewards of fatherhood. The first ``uncomfortable truth'' they must accept about family life, he says, is that ``fathers and mothers are not interchangeable. Fathers play a unique and irreplaceable role in children's lives.'' Second, Horn says, ``Men are very unlikely to be committed and responsible fathers in the long term outside of marriage. If we want good and committed fathers, they must be married. We have to celebrate the importance of marriage.'' Finally, he says, Americans ``must get rid of the notion that somehow children can benefit from divorce.''

Beyond attitudinal shifts within the family, Horn sees a need for help from outside groups as well. Employers, he says, must understand that fathers who take time off occasionally to accompany children on class trips or drive them to appointments are nurturing the future work force. Churches and civic organizations need to provide more programs for boys to help them understand what it takes to be a father. And those in the media must become more responsible in the images of fatherhood they portray.

As if on cue from Horn, a news report this week has Mick Jagger spending a couple of days in a secluded inn in Wales, hiking and bird-watching with his eight-year-old son, James. If a Rolling Stone can stop rocking and rolling long enough to devote a June weekend to playing the Good Dad, there should be hope this year for fathers - and children - everywhere.

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