Recent attacks on the family often become attacks on fatherhood. For instance, figures from Hollywood have embraced alternative family structures, questioning or mocking the importance of a father figure. Actress Jennifer Aniston in August 2010 said that fathers are unnecessary, especially since now there is no need “to fiddle with a man to have that child.” Another example is the positive portrayal of a lesbian couple raising a family in the movie “The Kids are Alright.” There are too many television shows that portray dads as dunces to bother listing them.

The trend has also extended into public law and institutions with the granting of full marriage status, including adoption rights, to homosexual couples and neglecting the child’s need for both a father and mother in providing IVF treatments. In 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics made it their policy to support the granting of adoption rights to gay couples, claiming that “children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual.” In Britain, the House of Commons rejected a clause for an IVF law that would have required fertility doctors to consider a child’s need for a male role model before giving treatment.

Yet, there is considerable evidence that fathers play a crucial role in the development of a child. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative in the U.S., not having a father is a larger predictor of crime than race or income. For example, 70 per cent of juvenile delinquents are fatherless and 72 per cent of teens who commit murders are deprived of their dads.

A report by the Heritage Foundation, “Married Fathers: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” states that 35.6 per cent of families headed by single parents are poor, while only 6.4 per cent of intact families face poverty. This is especially the case for non-married mothers, who tend to earn less than fathers. “In fact, if poor single mothers were married to the actual fathers of their children, two-thirds would immediately be lifted out of poverty,” the study noted.

Fatherless families also have children with higher rates of behavioural problems, substance abuse, and aggression. Data from the U.S. National Institute of Health shows that fatherless teenagers are twice as likely to suffer from depression, four times as likely to face expulsion from school, and three times as likely to repeat grades as teens from stable, married families. A 2003 study published in the Child Development journal found girls without fathers in their early childhood had seven to eight times higher rates of pregnancy.

Studies also show, however, that a father within a traditional family structure benefits the child most. In a 2008 article for the Toronto Sun, researchers Rebecca Wahlberg and Andrea Mrozek, co-authors of an Institute of Marriage and Family Canada study on family break-up, wrote that, “according to one British study, a live-in boyfriend or stepfather is the most serious risk factor for child abuse, increasing that risk by up to 33 times” and that “family breakdown and unmarried childbearing costs all of us through poverty.”  The National Fatherhood Initiative in the U.S. reports, for example, that the federal government spends over $99.8 billion on fatherless homes.

Researchers have identified certain qualities that each parent brings to the relationship that make the father, along with the mother, indispensable for the care of the child. In a presentation given at the 2011 Family Policy Conference at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada last month, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, outlined that a mother and father each have their own talents. A mother’s talents are understanding, communicating with, and nurturing the child, as well as breastfeeding. A father is crucial for providing income, discipline, play, and challenging the child.

In a 2007 article for the IMFC, researcher Kate Fraher listed the ways fathers contributed to the child’s development. “Fathers are more likely to use unfamiliar words with their children and request clarification when they do not understand what their child is saying, challenging children to reformulate their thoughts in order to be understood. Fathers are more likely to give direct commands related to problem-solving, compared to mothers who are more likely to take children’s problems into their own hands,” she writes.

Moreover, fathers engage in rough, physical play with children, which develops the child’s cognitive abilities and encourages risk-taking, obedience, and competition skills. Jeffrey Rosenberg and W. Bradford Wilcox  write, in a 2006 report for the U.S. Children’s Bureau, that through father-child play, “children learn how to regulate their feelings and behavior. Rough-housing with dad, for example, can teach children how to deal with aggressive impulses and physical contact without losing control of their emotions.”

Yet, according to David Quist, executive director of IMFC, fatherhood is not valued enough in society and public policy. He told The Interim that TV shows, for example, tend to depict the father as “a dunderhead” and “somebody that needs to be straightened up.” The father is also neglected in court divorce cases, where “dads are not given equal parenting opportunities with their kids.” These cases moreover pose financial difficulties for children and their caretakers.

Quist speculated that the role of fatherhood has been diminished by “the changing role of men and women in society” and a mindset established over the past 30 years that children do not need fathers. Now, however, there is better sociological research that is leading to an “attitudinal shift in the perception of the roles of moms and dads.”