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Why There is No Substitute for Parents

Wade F. Horn
Director National Fatherhood Initiative

Dr. Horn's remarks were delivered during Hillsdale College's Shavano Institute "Educating for Virtue": The New Values Revolution," on January 17, 1997, in Coronado, California.

Don’t worry about what may be lurking under the bed or hiding in the closet. The really scary monsters are the ones who tuck you in at night. Clinical psychologist Wade F. Horn describes how the state has tried to convince children to fear their parents. He also demonstrates how the notion that single-parent households are just as effective and desirable as traditional families has caused an epidemic of violence, pregnancy, drug abuse, and suicide among today’s teens.

In 1960, the total number of children living in fatherless families was fewer than eight million. Today, that total has risen to nearly twentyfour million. Nearly four out of ten children in America are being raised in homes without their fathers and soon it may be six out of ten. How did this happen? Why are so many of our nation’s children growing up without a full-time father? It is because our culture has accepted the idea that fathers are superfluous—in other words, they are not necessary in the “modern” family. Supposedly, their contributions to the well-being of children can easily be performed by the state, which disburses welfare checks, subsidizes midnight basketball leagues, and establishes child-care facilities.

Ideas, of course, have consequences. And the consequences of this idea have been as profound as they have been disastrous. Almost 75 percent of American children living in fatherless households will experience poverty before the age of eleven, compared to only 20 percent of those raised by two parents. Children living in homes where fathers are absent are far more likely to be expelled from or drop out of school, develop emotional or behavioral problems, commit suicide, and fall victim to child abuse or neglect. The males are also far more likely to become violent criminals. As a matter of fact, men who grew up without dads currently represent 70 percent of the prison population serving long term sentences.

Undeniably, fathers are important for the well being of children. So, too, are traditional families. They ensure the continuity of civilization by propagating the species and socializing children. Everyone seems to understand the obvious benefits of propagation, but the important role that parents play in socializing children is widely misunderstood and undervalued.

The Process of Socialization

Socialization can be defined as the process whereby individuals acquire the behavior, attitudes, and values that are not only regarded as desirable and appropriate by society but that have also stood the test of time and proved to be the most humane. Proper socialization requires delaying or inhibiting “impulse gratification” in order to abide by the rule of law and the rule of custom. Well-socialized children have learned, for example, not to strike out at others to get what they want; poorly socialized children have not. Well-socialized children have learned to obey the directions of legitimate authority figures like parents and teachers; poorly socialized children have not.

Well-socialized children have learned to cooperate and share with others; poorly socialized children have not. Much of what is described as “good character” or “virtue” reflects the ability to delay or inhibit impulse gratification. When a child tells the truth , even though he knows that it will result in negative consequences, he is inhibiting the impulse to lie to avoid unpleasantness. When he shows charity to others, he is inhibiting the impulse to behave selfishly. A civil society is dependent upon virtuous citizens who have developed this capacity to delay or inhibit impulse gratification; that is, persons who can control their behavior voluntarily. Without a majority of such citizens, storekeepers would have to post armed guards in front of every display counter, women would live in constant fear of being raped by roaming bands of marauding men, and children would be left to the mercy of those who would exploit them. Fortunately, well-socialized children generally become well-socialized adults. Unfortunately, poorly socialized children generally do not. There are few statements one can make with complete certitude, but here is one: When families fail in their task to socialize children, a civil society is not possible. Herein lies the awesome responsibility of parenting.

Parents socialize children through two mechanisms. The first is teaching through direct instruction reinforced by a combination of rewards and punishments for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The second is teaching by example. Of the two, the latter is the more important mechanism since most complex human behavior is acquired through observational learning. Children are much more likely to do as a parent does than as a parent says. This is why parents who lie and cheat tend to raise children who lie and cheat, despite any direct instruction to the contrary. As Benjamin Franklin once observed, the best sermon is indeed a good example.

Please note that I have not asserted that the state—or as it is euphemistically referred to these days, the “village”—is necessary for the proper socialization of children. Rather, it is parents who are necessary, and this means a mother and a father. There are, of course, thousands of single mothers who are doing a heroic job of parenting and beating the odds. I do not mean to denigrate their efforts. Yet there is a great deal of hard evidence to suggest that when fathers are absent, boys tend to develop poor conduct. They “act out” their aggressive impulses, sometimes quite violently, toward others. Girls also tend to act out when fathers are absent, but in a different way; they become rebellious and promiscuous.

The Importance of Mothers and Fathers

No matter what the advocates of “genderfree parenting” may say, mothers and fathers do parent differently. Mothers tend to be more verbal, whereas fathers are more physical. Mothers also tend to encourage personal safety and caution, whereas fathers are more challenging when it comes to achievement, independence, and risk-taking. And mothers tend to be stronger comforting figures than fathers who are more intent upon establishing and enforcing rules governing the behavior of their children.

The fact that mothers and fathers parent differently is not to say that one group does it “right” or “better” than the other. What children need to develop good character is the combination of what mothers and fathers bring to the parenting equation. Take the fact that mothers tend to be nurturers and fathers tend to be disciplinarians. Parenting experts used to believe that families socialize children best when both parents adopt a nurturing but permissive role, demonstrating high levels of love and low levels of control. Decades of research have shown, however, that when children are reared this way they act out through chronic bad behavior. Permissiveness as a “parenting style” simply doesn’t work. Boys and girls need a high level of nurturing balanced by a high level of control. Those who are reared in families that exhibit this combination are friendlier, more energetic, and better behaved. Those who are reared by single mothers, therefore, are warm and affectionate but have difficulty learning self-discipline. Conversely, those who are reared by single fathers are obedient but often plagued by anxiety and insecurity.

It has also been fashionable for those pushing for gender-free parenting to assert that the physical play of fathers has no beneficial impact on childrearing. Many self-proclaimed child experts exhort fathers to stop playing with the kids and do more housework. Some even claim that the rough-and-tumble play of fathers teaches aggression and should be avoided. But new clinical studies reveal that the physical play of fathers actually gives children much-needed practice in regulating their emotions and behavior and helps them develop the capacity to recognize the emotional cues of others.

The point is not to force a choice between the parenting role of mothers or fathers but to suggest that they work best when they work together. This view contrasts sharply with the “two pair of hands” argument, which holds that when it comes to parenting, two people are better than one and it makes no difference whether they are mothers or fathers. In reality it matters greatly to whom the “two pairs of hands” are attached. Kids don’t need impersonal “caregivers”; they need loving moms and dads.

Fathers are also critical to the proper socialization of children because they teach by example how to keep negative impulses in check. It is through boys’ observation of the way their fathers deal with frustration, anger, and sadness that they learn how men should cope with such emotions. It is also through the observation of how fathers treat mothers that boys learn how men should treat women. If fathers treat mothers with dignity and respect, then it is likely that their sons will grow up to treat women with dignity and respect. If fathers treat mothers with contempt and cruelty, then it is likely that their sons will, too. Fathers are also critical for the healthy emotional development of girls. If girls experience the love, attention, and protection of fathers, then they are likely to resist the temptations of seeking such things elsewhere—often through casual sexual relations at a very young age. Finally, fathers are important in helping children make the difficult transition to the adult world. Boys require an affirmation that they are “man enough.” Girls require an affirmation that they are “worthy enough.”

Given this understanding, what should we expect when fatherlessness becomes the norm? We don’t need a crystal ball to find the answer. As I indicated earlier, nearly four out of every ten children are being raised absent their fathers right now. The result is that juveniles are the fastest growing segment of the criminal population in the United States. Between 1982 and 1991, the rate at which children were arrested for murder increased 93 percent; for aggravated assault, 72 percent; for rape, 24 percent; and for automobile theft, 97 percent. Although homicide rates have increased for all ages, those for teenagers have increased more rapidly than for adults.

The teen population is expected to grow by 20 percent over the next decade, and this is precisely the generation most likely to be reared without fathers. The prospect has led many sociologists, criminologists, and law enforcement agencies to conclude that shortly after the turn of the century we will see an adolescent crime wave the likes of which has never been seen before in this country. If that were not enough, we know that each and every day:

  • 7,700 children become sexually active;
  • 1,100 children have abortions;
  • 2,500 children are born out of wedlock;
  • 600 children contract syphilis or gonorrhea; and
  • six children commit suicide.

Fatherlessness is not solely responsible for these tragedies, but it certainly is a major cause. Indeed, all the available evidence suggests that improving the well-being of our children—and ultimately our nation—depends upon finding ways to bring fathers back into the home. The question is: How?

The Fatherhood Solution

First, our culture needs to replace the idea of the superfluous father with a more compelling understanding of the critical role fathers play in the lives of their children, not just as “paychecks,” but as disciplinarians, teachers, and moral guides. And fathers must be physically present in the home. They can’t simply show up on the weekends or for pre-arranged “quality time.” Children need to know that their fathers are literally there for them.

Second, we need to convey the importance and sanctity of marriage. While most boys and girls expect that they will eventually get married and have children, they no longer believe that there needs to be a chronology to these two events. They should be taught that marriage comes first and that it is not a trial arrangement that can be abandoned whenever conflicts arise. Here’s where religious and moral instruction can make a huge difference, because children need to know that marriage is far more than a state-approved contract between two parties or a box to check on an income tax return.

Third, we must make restoring the rights and responsibilities of parents a national priority. Over the past century, child rearing has increasingly come to be viewed as a public rather than a private matter. As early as 1901, the Supreme Court of Indiana upheld a compulsory education law by arrogantly declaring, “The natural rights of a parent to the custody and control of his children are subordinate to the power of the state.” The assault on parental authority gradually extended to all other areas of life. By 1960, one social worker writing in the prestigious professional journal, Child Welfare, felt free to note that “day care can offer something valuable to children because they are separated from their parents.” [Emphasis added.] School-based condom distribution, “witch hunts” against parents suspected of abuse without sufficient cause, abortion on demand without parental consent—these are all contemporary examples of how the state has chosen to wage war against parents and convince children that the very people they count on most in this world are out to hurt them. In essence, the state is saying to today’s children, “Do not trust your parents—we don’t.”

The tide is turning, however. Even many diehard critics of the traditional family have finally been forced to admit that their ivory tower theories are wrong; in the real world, children need to be raised by two parents. And parents need the freedom to decide what is in the best interest of their own children. Another positive development is the “pro-family movement” that has grown tremendously in the last few years. There are now dozens of national and regional organizations dedicated to championing parental initiatives. And pro-family rallies have attracted stadium-size crowds around the country. What can you do right now in your own home and your own community? You can start by pledging, “I will be a good wife and mother,” or, “I will be a good husband and father.” It is a simple promise, to be sure. But it is a promise upon which a good, just, and civil society depends.

Wade F. Horn is the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, and an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values and the Hudson Institute. From 1989 to 1993, he was the commissioner for children, youth and families and chief of the children’s bureau within the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. He also served as a presidential appointee to the National Commission on Children from 1990 until 1993. Prior to these appointments, he was the director of outpatient psychological services at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University. Dr. Horn received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Southern Illinois University in 1981.

Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College


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