Whenever Wade Horn wants to measure changing attitudes toward fathers, he thinks back to the first time he spoke publicly about the essential role fathers play.
In a speech to a national conference of social workers in 1990, he explained that the United States as a culture "has forgotten how important fathers are to the well-being of children."
The response, Dr. Horn recalls, was "tepid, to say the least." Even though many children at the time were growing up without fathers, few people were calling it a problem. So Horn persevered in spreading his message. Four years later, in 1994, he was also instrumental in founding the National Fatherhood Initiative, a group that promotes men's active involvement in children's lives. He served as president.
Today, as Father's Day approaches, Horn reflects on a decade of change.
On the positive side, although fathers continue to be "underappreciated," he finds a far greater public awareness of the consequences of fatherlessness.
"There is an interest on the part of men to be more involved with their kids - certainly here, and certainly in western Europe," Horn says.
Then there's the not-so-good news: a continuing trend toward absent fathers. Horn notes that 90 percent of the parents missing in single-parent households in the United States are fathers.
He also finds many people "still a little fuzzy" about whether fathers are important because of the money they earn or because of the emotional support they give to children.
Horn sees another contradiction. While Americans are increasingly willing to say that fathers matter, he finds many of them still "very reluctant" to say that marriage matters. Many people, he explains, see no differences among married, single, and divorced fathers in terms of children's well-being.
"The fact is, there are differences," Horn says. "If you say unmarried fathers are just as good as married fathers, why would anyone think you've got to get married first?" He calls that question "the real struggle for the fatherhood movement."
A report released last week by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University underscores Horn's concerns. It finds that many single young adults in their 20s are focusing on casual sex and "low commitment" relationships. As more marriages are postponed, nearly half the women in the study say they would consider unwed motherhood as a "socially acceptable option" if they cannot find the right man to marry by their late 30s.
That kind of approach troubles Horn. "We must never give ground on the idea of married fatherhood as the ideal," he says. "If we do, the next generation of males, when it's their turn to become fathers, will not have the depth of understanding about why married fatherhood is better than something else. They won't think it's important to get married before they father children."
He emphasizes that he is not saying the ideal divorce rate should be zero. Rather, he explains, he thinks people "need to be honest that the best situation for a child to grow up in is within the context of their two continuously married parents."
Horn, of Gaithersburg, Md., traces his own deep-rooted interest in fatherhood back to the 1980s. A serious illness forced him to confront the possibility that his two daughters might grow up without a father. After he recovered, he became one of the pioneering voices in a now-burgeoning fatherhood movement.
As fatherlessness increasingly becomes a global issue, Horn finds "a stirring of interest" on the subject in many countries, among them England, Germany, and South Africa.
"The disconnect between fathers and their children and families seems to be a modern phenomenon," Horn says.
Many nations, he finds, are about 10 years behind the US in recognizing the consequences of fatherlessness. This interest typically comes not from "power brokers" in these countries but from individuals and small organizations that are noticing the problem and coming to the US in search of ideas and solutions.
Whatever the culture, Horn says, family advocates must emphasize the need for all fathers, whether married, divorced, or single, to establish good relationships with their children.
He adds simply, "We don't have a father to spare."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society