Bringing Up Fathers

The Boston Globe
August 28, 2004

CHILDREN without fathers dream of reconnecting with them. Policy makers say fathers shield children from poverty. But can public policy provide the country with better dads?

It's a question that was elegantly asked by Jason DeParle in last weekend's New York Times Sunday Magazine article about Ken Thigpen, former pimp and drug dealer and current devoted dad to 2-year-old Kevion. Thigpen's girlfriend wants to wed. He wants to wait, in part to be able to afford a tropical island wedding like one he saw on a sit com. It's a story of hope that comes with a warning: Nearly 40 percent of cohabiting parents break up by the time their child is 3.

It's hard to "legislate a dad," as DeParle puts it, especially when the dads are teenagers, high school dropouts, in jail, or ex-convicts. One answer is to experiment. Family Service of Greater Boston was part of a national three-year pilot program that helped noncustodial fathers gain economic independence and become better parents. The young men received job training, health care, help with child support payments, and social services.

"Lights of responsibility beamed out," said Randal Rucker, head of Family Service, speaking of fathers who established paternity, found jobs, and wanted to get married. Rucker says the problem isn't deadbeat dads but dead broke dads.

Rucker is wisely cautious about ringing wedding bells. He says young people must carefully assess their own marriageability as well as their partner's. It's better to help parents fulfill their own personal and professional potential. For example, young parents need to deal with their own experience of abuse or neglect both to heal and to end intergenerational cycles of these problems. Once young people have achieved their own stability, they can make their own marriage decisions.

Currently, Family Service works with the state's Department of Social Services to help fathers - work that helps the state prevent child abuse as well as respond to it. Researchers at Princeton and Columbia call for a package of family-friendly welfare and tax policies as well as services - help with jobs, child support, and social issues - starting before babies are born, when unmarried couples in fragile families tend to have strong emotional bonds on which to build.

As for Thigpen's desire for a tropical wedding, it isn't uncommon. Research by the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit Washington think tank, notes that struggling couples often want three >things before they marry: financial security, assets (a car or house), and money for a wedding and reception. Marriage isn't seen as a start but as a sign of economic success. This shows the need for a national conversation, not on laziness or values but on the advantages and considerable challenges of marriage and parenting.

Policies can't do it all. But they can help create a more father-friendly environment.

Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company - The Boston Globe








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