WASHINGTON — Behind the stereotypical American child there stands "Dad" - showing how to swing a bat; forcing the wrenching honor of telling the truth; returning home from a long day's work.
But for a growing number of children with no father at home, the golden-glow image of the paragon father is becoming a cruel illusion.
The proportion of fatherless homes is steadily rising, say experts.
This Father's Day, the American home wakes up to some harsh facts:
* Only 67 percent of youths currently live with their fathers, according to a 1997 Gallup Youth Survey;
* The absence helps explain why only half of America's children will spend their entire childhood in an intact family, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg, Md.
* Compared with children in a two-parent household, children living without their biological fathers have more often been poor, broken the law, suffered from abuse, and confronted health, psychological, and educational problems, say parenting experts.
"I wish I could say there were optimistic signs, but the trends just keep getting worse," says Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative - a group that seeks to promote effective fathering through publications and conferences.
Experts say many forces are tearing down the American Dad.
Some pinpoint culprits like no-fault divorce. Others point to sweeping social trends. They note the decline since the 1960s of a sense of obligation to family and community and a rise in a creed of "self-fulfillment."
Americans, they say, tend less toward giving and more toward taking. Many men shirk fatherhood because it is a long-term investment demanding immediate sacrifice. To many men it pales next to the consumer culture's carnival of instant, push-button gratifications.
Still, there is a growing awareness of both the decline in American fatherhood and the myriad problems from a shortage of hands-on fathers, say family experts.
"All over the country there seems to be an awakening in terms of the absence of dads, but there is still a growing [fatherlessness] trend dating back to the 1960s," says Ron Klinger at the Center for Successful Fathering Inc. in Austin, Texas.
More than a parenting issue
The decline in fatherhood is especially jarring when posed against the vigor of the US economy. Indeed, the world's most competitive economy is also No. 1 among industrialized countries in fatherlessness, say experts.
"It is the best of times and the worst of times," says Ken Canfield, president of the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City, Mo.
Such a contradiction can't stand for long. "Any capitalist knows that to truly help the system survive, you will have to have a heart for the fatherless, the unfortunate, the weak," says Mr. Canfield.
A work force raised without the love and discipline of both mother and father will probably falter, experts say.
"Fatherlessness is a predictor of every bad thing you can imagine when it comes to children, and almost everything you can imagine when it comes to social pathologies in general," Mr. Horn says.
In contrast, good fathering in most cases is a sure-fire path to well-being - for children, society, and fathers.
Kids help Dad succeed
Men who are close day-to-day to their children tend to do better in their careers, Horn says He adds that they are also happier, healthier, and wealthier than men who are distant from their children. (The same holds true for women with children, despite long-standing claims to the contrary, says Horn.)