Open Letter to the New York Times: There is No “Room for Debate” About the Value of Fathers

In its June 4th “Room For Debate“, the New York Times insulted fathers by questioning their purpose, role and potential contribution to families. My rebuttal to the very question, and my commentary on the contributors’ writings.

Dear New York Times-

SMH. I expect more from the “Newspaper of Record”

The New York Times questions whether fathers have a role in modern families. Really?
The New York Times questions whether fathers have a role in modern families. Really?

I don’t know where to begin.

After a week in which I was so encouraged by the mostly positive mainstream media attention to dads and, more specifically on issues about fathers, work and family, I find it highly discouraging that you would ask:

“So what is the purpose of men in modern families? We’re approaching the holiday that celebrates dads, but do fathers bring anything unique to the table?”

Why Your Very Question is Flawed

The first sentence of your piece might be your least well-informed.

In almost half the American households with children, mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners.

That statistic is true, but as I explained in detail, is very misleading*. The recent Pew Research Study found that 40% of households with children have “Breadwinner Moms”, but they arrive at this number by combining three very different groups:

  • The 11% of households that are led by single, never-married mothers
  • The 14% of households led by divorced mothers
  • The 15% of dual-parent families in which the mother out-earns the father (22.5% of dual-earner couples rely on the mother for the primary income)

It would have required actually reading, oh, the second paragraph of the report instead of just mouthing its misleading headline, but who am I to tell you about good journalistic practices? But, while we’re on the subject, it is not considered great journalism to characterize 40% as “almost half”- 40% is more accurate and takes up less ink (or pixels or whatever).

But, even worse is your implied question:

If fathers are no longer primary breadwinners (which, as I just showed you is an incorrect premise), then what are fathers good for?

I could respond with the reams of research showing that present and involved fathers benefit children, spouses, families and society, but I’ll just supply you with two quick links (from the US Department of Health and Human Services, and this summary of over 30 years of research into paternal involvement with their children). I’m sure you can find even more information about fathers on your own (even if your Parenting Blog is non-inclusively called “The Motherlode“).

So, what are fathers for? My fellow fatherhood blogger, Robert Brown Grundulis, gave the best answer of all:

Easy answer! Fathers are for… fathering.

Your very question is invalid. Pew found that fathers were the primary providers in 85% of dual-parent families. But fathers are more than a paycheck. You should know that. Shame on you.

The New York Times thinks I may have no purpose, besides a financial one, in the life of my family. My son and I disagree.
The New York Times thinks I may have no purpose, besides a financial one, in the life of my family. My son and I disagree.

Your debaters all had more accurate and nuanced commentary on the role of fathers in family and society (well, all except “End of Men” gender troll Hanna Rosin). I’d like to highlight two of your debaters who, unlike you, used data in their argument, and demonstrated why fathers are vital.

W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project in his own words:

“The view that men are superfluous in today’s families is dead wrong. While it is certainly true that some children raised without fathers turn out just fine (I did), on average, girls and boys are much more likely to thrive when they have the benefit of a father’s time, attention, discipline and especially affection.

Boys are more likely to steer clear of trouble with the law when they grow up with their father in the home. One Princeton study found that boys raised apart from their fathers were two to three times more likely to end up in jail before they turned 30.

Dads matter for daughters as well. Another study found that girls whose fathers disappeared before the girls turned 6 were about five times more likely to end up pregnant as teenagers than were their peers raised with their fathers in the home.

And we know that kids — especially boys — are more likely to excel in school, and to steer clear of the principal’s office, when they are raised in a home with a father who takes their homework and school conduct seriously.

So, even though many men cannot or need not serve as the primary breadwinners in their families, modern couples need to recognize that fathers’ contributions to their children’s welfare extend well beyond money.”

Brad Harrington of Boston College’s Center for Work and Family, in his own words:

“The role of men is evolving even in the three-quarters of dual-parent families in which fathers are the primary breadwinners. They are far less likely these days to be just an economic contributor. Our research (with mainly college-educated, white-collar fathers) shows that today’s fathers spend an average of 2.5 hours per workday with their children and more than 3 out of 4 would like to have even more time with their offspring. Those fathers reported that being a breadwinner was less important to them than providing their children with love and emotional support, being present and involved in their child’s life, or being a good mentor and role model.

In spite of their longer paid working hours, fathers have doubled their time doing domestic tasks and tripled their time on child care over the last generation, although they do still do significantly less than their spouses in both categories. The number of at-home dads has also doubled in the last decade.

Families are better off in virtually every way when there are two parents present. When it comes to income to support family well-being, it matters less whether the woman earns more than her husband or vice versa. This shouldn’t be a competition pitting women against men. The progress that really matters is whether all American families are doing better. When we once again see the trend toward greater prosperity for all American families, then we will have a cause for celebration.”

But I feel I am going on too long. Let me sum up with a comment from one of my blog readers, Heidi Radunovich, who says it better than I ever could:

I have seen a lot of these stories lately on the Internet and in the paper, questioning the necessity of fathers. Because of course, what better way to honor fathers for Father’s Day than to question their utility? It is patronizing, and I find the whole concept offensive.

You, the venerable New York Times, should be better than this.

Sincerely,

Scott Behson

What do you think about this NYTimes debate? About the role of fathers beyond breadwinning? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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* Harrington also analyzed this correctly:

“As the Pew study rolled out in newspapers, on television and in social media, the main reaction was to celebrate it as a sign of women’s greater economic empowerment. But the dirty little secret is that in 5 out of 8 of these households, the woman was not just the primary breadwinner; she was the only breadwinner, without a partner.

That’s not the “end of men,” and it’s certainly not an economic victory for American women. When unmarried women are the breadwinners, which is now the case in 25 percent of U.S. households, the family’s average income is only $23,000 a year. More than half of the children in these homes are living in poverty. Glossing over this fact ignores the importance of having fathers in the picture. The female breadwinners who are making more than their working husbands are in a whole different income bracket; their median household income is $80,000.”

19 thoughts on “Open Letter to the New York Times: There is No “Room for Debate” About the Value of Fathers

    • Hi John- thanks for reading and for providing the link.

      I expect a LOT of silliness in the media, but thought that the NYTimes would (a) at least have its facts straight, and (b) not be quite as silly as the rest of them.

      When I shared the original NYTimes piece with a group of dad bloggers on facebook a lot of the simply said that “the Times must be [retty des[erate to so baldly troll for links and clicks”…

  1. This is a great commentary about this debate. When I was reading it I kept thinking that the two sides were talking past each other. The side that seemed to argue that father’s were not necessary were making the point that children without fathers are not doomed, and that those families can make it. Which in my mind wasn’t the question at hand. The question was do good fathers contribute value and all the data points to yes.

    • Hi Christopher- thanks for reading and for writing.

      I agree- the debate seemed to me that Harrington and Wilcox were addressing the question, and the others mostly making a tangential point.

      In my original 2400 word piece, I went through each debater’s essay, but it was too long and took me in too many directions. Believe it or not, this is the very shortened version.

  2. Put the shoe on the other foot and the merit of this argument ends up being pretty limited. This conversation is taking place because moms are earning more and are now more often considered the Head of HH. But even questioning if women were less valuable when they earned less (or nothing) would rightly be viewed as sexist – so logic dictates this is nothing more than a pendulum that’s swung too far in the other direction. Horsesh*t, I say.

    • Very well said!!!

      I often look at gendered writing and play the “switch the gender game” to see if it is, in your vernacular, horsesh*t. Most of the time it is- and it cuts both ways. “Female executive”- wouldn’t say “male executive”- so let’s get the gender out. “The end of (wo)men”, etc etc etc.

  3. Great post, Scott.

    Recently my website hosted a bloghop for our contributors to write about their fathers. It was shocking to me how ambivalent, angry and sad many of our (middle-aged) contributors became about this topic. I certainly didn’t have a perfect father, but some of their stories were horrifying and tragic. The amount of emotional upset, as compared to our bloghop last month about our mothers, was astonishing.

    Fathers are absolutely essential to the well-being and happiness of children as they grow up. A good and caring father can send a child into the world feeling confident and protected – a neglectful and difficult father can leave scars that last a lifetime. I thank the fate that brought my husband and I together, because’s he’s been an amazing father AND provider for me and our children – they are truly lucky to have him.

    • Thank you, Sharon, for reading and commenting.

      Your comment makes me sad- I feel very fortunate that I (I guess I’m technically middle-aged now) can look back on my childhood with a great father.

      You also make a great point that the absence of fathers, or the presence of non-involved ones, can negatively impact people’s lives. Part of what I’m doing here is trying to help dads who want to be involved but feel unable to extricate themselves from work demands to find ways to be more present.

  4. The NY Times should spend a day in my life, a former NICU Dad or read some of the stories on my friends blog that I contribute to about life as a NICU or Preemie father.

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