David Popenoe

Life without Father, Part I

VTR Date: November 14, 1995

Dr. David Popenoe discusses the importance of fatherhood and marriage.


GUEST: David Popenoe
VTR: 11/14/1995

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And over the four decades since I began this program, it has been quite evident that there are trends and fashions in social analysis as there are in almost every other endeavor. But whatever exceptions present themselves these days, it does seem clear that a major cultural and policy imperative for our time is to increase the proportion of our children who grow up with their two married parents, and to decrease the proportion who do not. Why? Because to do otherwise is bad for our youngsters in increasingly measurable degree. Because to place their needs behind those of adults is to damage the young and our nations’ future. Because in the family, in the parent-child relationship, more and more primary emphasis upon seemingly adult self-gratification, self-fulfillment, means less and less likelihood of healthy growth for our young, as well as rising individual and social pathology in our nation at large, which then translates into rising delinquency, crime, and even juvenile suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse, youthful depression, eating disorders, and growing numbers of kids in poverty.

Now, to be sure, this is not the perspective of all contemporary students of the American family. It does, however, characterize the researchers and increasingly popular and respected writings of one of the most astute and highly regarded of my colleagues at Rutgers University, Dr. David Popenoe, professor of sociology, and author of the extraordinarily challenging new Free Press book, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society.

Now, first I would ask Professor Popenoe why he is running so counter to a now longstanding, relativistic psychology, or, in fact, philosophy, of adult self-gratification and self-fulfillment that must be particularly hard to face down. Why?

POPENOE: Well, maybe it’s the philosophy that I grew up with. I’m one of those people who feels that my views have not changed much over the years, and that society has maybe moved in another direction. And I guess the most gratifying thing is that now it seems to be moving back. And maybe this is because society moves in cycles, and maybe, some say, over a 30-eyar period. I don’t know. But obviously there is a great concern in America today that something is wrong, something powerfully is wrong. And that suggests that something in the culture is wrong, that we’ve drifted in a direction that is not desirable in the final analysis, not desired by anybody. So anyway, I’m doing my little bit to speak out on behalf of one dimension of this. And that is what’s happened to children in the last 30 years. Because they’re the one group who seemingly has really gotten the short end of the stick.

HEFFNER: So you don’t feel that you’re still spitting against the wind?

POPENOE: Well, I don’t feel nearly as much as I did five years ago, when almost nobody in academia was talking this way. Articles that I published, seemingly innocuous articles, in one of the academic journals called The Journal of Marriage and the Family, they wouldn’t publish until they had some opponents to slash it. And you had the family issue, mainly a sort of right-wing issue. But since that time more and more academics have come around, the media have come around. Both political parties now are taking a, you might call it – I don’t know what you want to call it – a pro-family line, or a two-parent-is-better line. So, yeah, I think there’s been quite a change.

HEFFNER: What’s happened, though, if it is no longer perceived of as a part of a political agenda? What’s happened? Has there been more research? Has there simply been more soul-searching? What?

POPENOE: You know, one of the most immediate things is that the baby-boom generation grew up, and they got their own kids now, and they look around and they see that life looks a little different when you have your own children than when you’re a child. And it’s a conservatizing trend. You know, you get more family oriented, especially when you have children.

But I think the other main thing – and this, give credit to the social sciences – a large body of data has come out in the last few years which is data that was based on longitudinal studies of the early children of the divorce revolution, the children of the early divorce revolution in the 1970’s. They’ve now been followed up into their teen years, into their young adulthood, and it looks very grim. And this data is extremely convincing that what has happened to the family in the last 30 years has not been good for children. And, of course, Americans don’t listen to a lot of things, but they do tend to listen, as in the case of smoking and so on, to data when it keeps pouring in. And this is the one thing that has changed the minds of a lot of academics that I know, that they’re now willing to say that may well, maybe we’ve been a little bit soft on our family views recently, and maybe we should try a little bit harder to have two parents.

HEFFNER: You know, you say “not good for children,” that perception has been growing. But hasn’t it been a misperception that we are essentially a child-oriented nation? Haven’t we always deluded ourselves?

POPENOE: It’s a major delusion. And, of course, I’ve spent a lot of time living in Scandinavia. They’re child-centered. And they do all kinds of things that America not only wouldn’t think of, but would be opposed to. For example, separating pedestrian and automobile traffic as much as you can. Kids can get run down. A lot of suburbs don’t even have sidewalks. Just to take the built environment; forget the family. But there’s just a lot of things that nations can do to be much more child-oriented. And I would say probably that America, of the industrialized nations, is the least child-oriented of all of them. Go to the other extreme, away from Sweden. Go to Spain. Go there on a weekend. And, you know, you look in every park is filled with families with their kids. And they adore them. They idolize them. And you go to America on the weekends, and you’ve got, you know, a few people holed up in a TV room, and others at a football stadium with no kids. And I mean, you know, it’s just an increasingly late 20th Century America is a kind of, you know, I hate to use too much hyperbole here, but it’s just a bad scene for growing up. And believe me, the kids are, once they get to the age where they can think about these things, they know it’s a bad place.

HEFFNER: Then you’re talking about a generation of youngsters grown up who don’t want to repeat for their children what happened to them?

POPENOE: That’s the hope. You know, there’s two theories. One is that they don’t want to put their kids through what they’ve been through, and they will turn the culture around. Unfortunately, the other theory is that they have been so, kind of, zonked out by what they’ve been through that they will be unable to form, for example, strong, permanent relationships, which is absolutely essential. And it remains to be seen. You know, who can tell just how much the human animal is capable of a kind of redemption of this kind. I’m hopeful.

HEFFNER: But what’s your … You’re hopeful.

POPENOE: Well, I mean, you know, some think it’s in the nature of people to be hopeful.

HEFFNER: You’re not really that hopeful …

POPENOE: I often say that I’m professionally pessimistic but personally hopeful. (Laughter) In other words, I’m professionally pessimistic. You look at the trends and project them ahead, which is sort of the easy way to do it, it looks terrible.

HEFFNER: Well, now, those who can attribute it to the increase in the numbers of families splitting up, of fatherless homes, were generally, as I understand it , saying, “We watched our parents fight, battle, create for us something we didn’t want. Therefore, we are not going to burden our children that way. We are still concerned for children. We’ve taken a lesson from our lousy childhood and will not impose upon our children that way.” What’s the response to that?

POPENOE: Well, the question you’re really asking, which is a very, very interesting one, that I address in the book, by the way, and that is: How did the children of the ’60’s come from these wonderful families of the ’50’s? And there are really, you know, there are two basic angles of attack on that. One is that the family of the ’50’s was a kind of a late version of the Victorian family in an environment which was increasingly anti-family and anti-child. And, you know, you think of the ’50’s as a very family-oriented period. But actually these suburbs were, in many … You know, they’re not small towns. They’re not even cities. They’re isolated areas where often the woman is by herself, raising these kids. And so you can go on and on about the environment in which children were raised in the ’50’s, and that’s one of the big reasons why those families split up. The women were not happy in that sort of situation. They didn’t want to be stuck out there where life was going on everywhere else.

The other version is that these families, in a way, were strong enough, and there were enough of them that were strong, that the children of that era were given a rather strong kind of sense of family attachment that they could rely on and go off and do their own thing and take the family for granted. And that’s my view that a lot of them did that. You know, the families, we just take that for granted. It’s not something that you have to particularly work on. We’ll do something else.

And this is the generation shift that tends to come in maybe 30-year cycles or something. And so you find these bizarre children, you know, for example, hippies, many of them coming from families that, well, there was not a whole lot wrong with those families. You know, maybe the husband and wife were fighting, but they were intact, they had a nice home, and the family ate their meals together and so on. And these people just, “No, I don’t want that. I’m going to go off and do something else.” And you add to that the affluence of the times, and America had never seen anything like this before, the amount of money that was floating around. So it enabled these kids to go off. And they didn’t live in poverty in any real sense. They didn’t suffer. They could always go home and get money. And so we had an entire generation, in fact, it was a huge generation, let’s add that to it, the biggest generation in American history, and they decided to just do something very different from the kind of bourgeois lifestyle that had fully evolved in the ’50’s. And now I think that, as you talk to this group grown up, it’s remarkable, the turnaround. You know, so many are disowning their own, you know, early lives. And I mean, that’s really, this is the group that’s turning America in a conservative, familistic direction, for better and for worse. Not always for …

HEFFNER: What’s the “for worse” aspect of that?

POPENOE: Well, in my view – and we get a little bit political here – in my view, they’ve become unbelievably anti-government, they have generated a sense that we can just kind of decentralize everything and expect the society to function. In some cases they are grasping at traditional values which no longer really are very, that no longer fit very well into the modern times. And on and on. I mean, I’m not an arch-conservative in that sense, but I mean obviously you can go too far in this direction.

HEFFNER: Aren’t you sometimes accused of being too conservative in your approach to family matters?

POPENOE: Well, I certainly am by the academic left. But really, many of them are pretty far out. I think in probably American society as a whole and pretty mainstream, maybe even to the left of a lot of Americans.

HEFFNER: What’s the argument against, to the degree that you are an academic and fair-minded and look at all sides of an issue, or as many sides as you can, what’s the argument against your concern about life with father?

POPENOE: A main argument is that we are drifting away from this family forum, there’s little we can do about it. If you constantly say that terrible things are happening and start favoring two-parent families in order to get fathers back, that by the same token you will be maligning, stigmatizing all those other families out there that don’t have fathers. And since you can’t do anything to bring fathers back, that’s a terrible thing to do. And moreover, what you should be doing is doing everything you can to make those families as comfortable as possible and forget about, you know, restoring two parents. That’s the main …

HEFFNER: Now, I was going to be nasty and say you’re quite persuasive.

POPENOE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: How do you deal with that criticism?

POPENOE: Well, you deal with that criticism by the fact that, by my viewpoint, and looking at the data, those families, even though many are, of course, quite successful, are as, let’s say, a kind of risk factor, seriously detrimental to children. In other words, you cannot just look at anecdote here, anecdote there, “I know this family, I know that family.” You have to look at the aggregate data and see how children turn out raised in these alternative families and see how they turn out in two-parent families. And there’s no comparison. I mean, the risk factors are two to three times in the alternative family forums for a child turning out to be a juvenile delinquent or a teenage mom out of wedlock or dropping out of school than they are if you’re growing up in an intact family. And I don’t think that’s going to change much. Because I think that there is something fundamental and basic and biological about having two parents, and that’s another reason why I’m set in my argument and not persuaded by the alternative. And I think we can organize a society in a way that favors two parents, promotes two parents on the grounds that this is what children need and what’s best for them, by the way, what they all want, and not unduly stigmatize families, many of whom, through no fault of their own, find themselves in families that aren’t intact. I mean, that’s been that way throughout history.

HEFFNER: But if you use the notion of the two-parent family being good for children, it is conducive to their healthy growth and to their happiness, what do you do with the other side of the coin that for so many people is not conducive to adult happiness?

POPENOE: Well, I think, first of all, that it’s – I hate to use the word “myth” – but it’s, the negative side there has been greatly overrated. If you talk to many marriage counselors today, they will tell you that maybe on the order of 80 percent of the cases they see, the couple, in the long run, would be much better off staying together and working things out.

HEFFNER: From the expert’s judgment, or opinion?

POPENOE: From the expert’s judgment. And seeing, following these families over time. And so, sure, there are cases where divorce is absolutely the best thing. And, you know, serious cases of wife-beating, and why not say wife-swapping and alcohol, you know, on and on.

HEFFNER: But we’re really pushing things aside, I think.

POPENOE: Right. And there are other cases where people are just utterly mismatched and can’t get along. But there seem to be an enormous number of cases in which the match is, you know, not great, but, you know, you’re there together, the kids are counting on you, you’re only together for like 20 years, that’s about the time it takes the kids to grow up. Surely we can design a society, or think about a society in which, in my view, people wait to get married until they’re in their late 20’s or 30’s, so they make a good choice, make a commitment to stay together for maybe 20 years at least. And by the way, by that time they’re not likely to get divorced anyway, so it has a kind of a come-on. Stay with the kids, do the best by the kids, and ultimately, it seems to me, they will have achieved fair goals in life, and society will have achieved what it wants, which is for them to take care of their own kids.

I think it’s very important in this kind of message not to focus on people who already have divorced or separated and so on. I mean, the issue is: How do we create an environment where the next generation, the young people, will take marriage more seriously than their parents did, be more careful in marrying, marry later, and make a commitment when they marry to stay together for the sake of the children?

HEFFNER: Aren’t you, in saying that – and I’m not being critical at all; I’m inquiring – aren’t you, in saying that, sort of positing the notion that this isn’t really such a great estate, marriage, bite the bullet if you’re going to bite the bullet, bite it late, when you don’t necessarily, or as necessarily bite it the wrong way, agree to stay, to take your medicine for 20 years, you seem to be describing, not a state of bliss, but a state of singular obligation?

POPENOE: Well, I think it is a state of partial obligation. But the other side of the coin is that people who are married, if you do a survey today in America, are much happier …

HEFFNER: Than what?

POPENOE: … than the people who are not married.

HEFFNER: Is that largely because of dollars and cents?

POPENOE: You know, the real issue is: Is it because they were selected, and the ones who remain married are the happy ones? But all the studies that I know of have tried to do away with that so-called selection factor. And they still find that marriage is, by golly, a really important institution for personal happiness, for both men and women. I mean, people have the protection and the security and the continuity and the personal kind of bonding and groupingness that most people ultimately want.

HEFFNER: So is that just a matter of saying the only thing that’s worse than being married is being single?

POPENOE: (Laughter) I don’t think so at all. And, you know, certainly there are miserable marriages. And if you’re going to take this line of argument, I think you have to take the position that some of them should be staying together that are now breaking up. But I think for most people marriage is the happiest thing in their life. It’s certainly what people want more than anything else. And if you ask people at the time of death, you know, what’s brought them the most satisfaction, it’s usually their personal relationships in the family, if they’ve had a good marriage, with spouse, or with children. So that’s something that’s, by the way, also getting a lot of play from the academics now. The President of the Population Association of America, in her presidential address, this was a woman, the other day, gave this long paper about how marriage is the best thing that a person can have in their life if they want to live a long time, be healthy, be happy.

HEFFNER: That’s all statistically demonstrated, isn’t it?

POPENOE: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: How do you make that jibe and with what you said at the beginning of our discussion, that there is a movement in that direction? Now, I really have to ask whether I understood that correctly. Are you suggesting that we as a people are coming to embrace the notion that marriage is better? Or are you saying that the academic community, thanks to its researches, is coming to understand that?

POPENOE: Well, certainly the academic community is. And I’m not so sure the nation ever thought differently. I mean, if you take a survey of Americans, you find that almost everyone wants to marry. The one thing they want …

HEFFNER: But stay married, staying married …

POPENOE: Well, staying married is the issue. But just the institution of marriage and its value is something that is out there.

HEFFNER: Okay, but we …

POPENOE: Staying married, I mean, the problem is that we have drifted to a situation, for better or worse, and a lot of it’s for better, in which marriage is held together today on one reed, one slim reed, and that slim reed only, and that is the reed of the interpersonal relationship between husband and wife. And never before has it been held together only on that reed, or even on that reed. And so, given the fact that, you know, people’s emotions are changeable, and given the kind of environment that we live in today where there are, at all times, hundreds of alternatives available that look good to you and look conceivably better, I mean, I think we have to get the message out there that actually those people who stay married – which I’m repeating a little bit of ground here – but those people who stay married are the ones who, in the final analysis, are the best off.

HEFFNER: But they’re staying together for personal, private, self-satisfaction, self-gratification. I gather what you’re saying …

POPENOE: Well, they are, but they aren’t I mean, we obviously have to rebuild into our society more than we have right now, I think, a sense of obligation and commitment to these social institutions without which we cannot survive in the way that we want.

HEFFNER: Okay. You’re talking about what we must do for survival.


HEFFNER: And I would ask you whether we are doing that, whether indeed there is a growing sense that life without father is a life that is much less to be desired than life with father.

POPENOE: Just recently you’ve had, let’s say, for the sake of being politically correct, a million men marching on Washington. Part of their message was this, that fathers count. You have a national fatherhood initiative in America which is getting a lot of support and making a lot of noise and getting a lot of interest. You have promise-keepers, which is meeting from time to time, men, committing themselves. And so, you know, that these kids of signs, you have people in your own neighborhood who are now saying that, “By gosh, I think maybe you’re right, that we should really work harder for two parents and get these fathers back.” So I think, you know, you try to be hopeful.

HEFFNER: Okay. Let’s be hopeful. There is much more to be said about this. Stay where you are. We’ll do a second program that’ll be on next week. Okay? David Popenoe, thank you so much for joining me today.

POPENOE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $4 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”