David Popenoe

Life without Father, Part II

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. My guest again today is a noted colleague at Rutgers University, sociologist David Popenoe, whose extraordinarily challenging new Free Press book is titled Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society. Clearly, his book will not please those who look to the world of scholarship to rationalize placing parental, adult self-gratification, self-fulfillment over the interests of our children.

But I want to press Dr. Popenoe further on his nuclear-family-bound convictions. You know, we didn’t talk last time, and I do want to talk … You claim to a certain amount of optimism. You see a certain shift toward a recognition of the needs for a father present in families. What’s been the impact of the media, the mass media, on this whole configuration of ideas about families, fathers, parents present, not present? And I’m not asking you are you had to do with Dan Quayle, or anti-Dan Quayle.

POPENOE: Well, I start with Dan Quayle. I mean, my colleague, Barbara DeFoe Whitehead wrote the op-ed that the Dan Quayle piece came from, and that was just, what, four years ago and maybe less. And the media reaction at the time was quite remarkable. And I know because I was asked for a lot of interviews and so on. And people could not understand how you could possibly say that two-parent families were better, and that Murphy Brown, there’s nothing wrong with her, you know, she’s got the money, she can raise this child, and what’s so great about having a man around. And there’s been a lot of water under the dam since then, and you don’t hear that nearly as much as you did at that time. I don’t know how much the television industry has changed, but certainly the nation has changed. And I doubt that Murphy Brown could pull that off today and have a child, no father around, and have it celebrated and have dignitaries come in and praise her for what she did. I doubt it. But, you know, I don’t know.

HEFFNER: I’m interested that you doubt that so specifically.

POPENOE: Well, on that kind of a program, you know, obviously, I mean, the programs that worry me today, frankly, and they’re beginning to worry Bill Bennett and others, are the daytime talk shows on television in which – you must have seen some of them yourself …

HEFFNER: Unfortunately.

POPENOE: They’re absolutely unbelievable. And if you sort of sit there examining the moral values that are being purveyed by this group of people, and the audience also, at a time when the kids are just home from school – and these are on major television networks – why, it’s, talk about programs which kind of justify behavior which the adult world, for the most part, thinks is reprehensible, why, it’s phenomenal.

For example, teenage girls, you know, you have five of them lined up in the program all talking about how many men they’ve slept with that week. And, you know, there’s a little bit of concern on the part of the host, that, you know, this wasn’t … There’s no talk about the consequences of any of this. There’s no talk about the children. There’s no talk about … You know. It’s just absolute, pure titillation. But we’re going to watch it. I mean, you know, everybody has a taste for that kind of stuff. And so I kind of feel that the television industry has an obligation to protect us in a way.

HEFFNER: By not reflecting what public taste is?

POPENOE: Yeah. An obligation … I man, all sorts of things people want. You know, the Romans, I mean, people wanted to see Christians eaten up by lions. And people want to see horrible automobile accidents, and all kinds of … But that doesn’t mean that we have to give it to them. I mean, Hollywood lives in a national community, and they have a sense of obligation to, I think, keep the community strong.

HEFFNER: You know, I frequently bait my guests, as I will at Rutgers bait my students. I can’t do it here. I don’t have the heart for it. But if some of my media friends were here, they would be horrified. They’d draw themselves up and say, with great indignity, indignation, I should say, “We only reflect contemporary attitudes. The parents are out there. We’re businesspersons. Let the parents do this if the parents feel that.” And, you know, that’s the theme. And there doesn’t seem to be any indication that, with the exception of Bill Bennett, seriously, there’s going to be any change in that now.

POPENOE: Well, and they even fight a, you know, V-chip or whatever that you’re going to put in your set. I mean, well, that’s something wrong with that. But, I mean, one problem – and I think we have to face it as a nation – is that the parents aren’t home like they used to be.

HEFFNER: So what good will a V-chip …

POPENOE: Well, probably not much. But it might be better than not having a V-chip. You could at least cancel out some programs. But there is just no way around the fact that, until people in the organized entertainment industry have some sense of obligation … And, by the way, they do have standards. I mean, they’re not putting out on afternoon television women being raped and mutilated …

HEFFNER: Wait. Wait. Give it the time.

POPENOE: … at least on talk shows, or children being sexually molested or something. I mean, there is a limit. But the point is they’ve passed the limit of decency already.

HEFFNER: What’s the limit, though? The limit is the bottom line. The bottom line is the bottom line.

POPENOE: Maybe. Right.

HEFFNER: You’re simply saying what has not happened yet. So what do you do?

POPENOE: I’m afraid so. You appeal to them, and ultimately maybe have some kind of mass discussion of the issue, possibly a consumer boycott, use of V-chips, ostracize people the way Bennett ostracized the Time-Warner management. By the way, they shifted a little bit. I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s something that, you know, it’s very hard to organize a nation this size, but it’s much easier in Europe where this stuff doesn’t go on. I mean, you can organize things around it. But it’s possible.

HEFFNER: But I guess the first question for me to put to you is to what extent do you feel, as a student of the family, that mass media content has impacted negatively upon what it is we do or don’t do as parents? To what extent does this extraordinarily frightening study of life without father, to what extent can you attribute life without father to media influence?

POPENOE: You know, it’s very hard to pin down in any systematic way in the area of violence. There have been zillions of studies, and the television industry can still claim that, you know, mostly correlation and so on. But all the evidence, almost every study, indicates that television has having effect on creation of more violent behavior.

HEFFNER: You accept that.

POPENOE: I do. And similarly, it has undoubtedly, in my mind, an effect on the behavior of people in their sexual and family lives. I mean, it presents a permissive environment. When you see – and now let’s not talk daytime talk shows, but just sitcoms in the evening – when you see 95 percent of all sex acts taking place outside of marriage, to take an example, somebody estimated, and only five percent within the marriage, I mean, what are you going to do about the code of premarital sex. I mean, obviously, it all, in the final analysis, has to have the effect of making this seem much more okay than it was before.

HEFFNER: Then how do we come to a shift? Would you feel – Certainly, there has been no substantial, easily identifiable shift in media content. Certainly the percentages that you just offer of sex taking place outside of marriage, those are real figures as far as the media are concerned. How do you account for any shift at all back to the concept of life with father?

POPENOE: There has to be a national discussion generated by books like mine and hopefully zillions of others, possibly get it in the political campaigns, certainly get it in their religious institutions where, by the way, it already is, one of the few places on the so-called religious right. We debate it, we see what’s happening, we come to grips with it, and we put pressure on the organized entertainment industry to modify the messages that they are sending.

HEFFNER: So, if I gather, you’re saying that what has happened is that the academic community has come to recognize, more than before, the disastrous qualities of life without father. You’re not saying that we as a people have come to recognize that and to act upon it.

POPENOE: Well, I think, you know, it remains to be seen how widely the academic community accepts my, what their thought about my book is, but …

HEFFNER: But you’re not spitting against the wind quite as much as you were.

POPENOE: Not quite as much as I was. And there’ll be a lot of sympathetic voices. But, and I think there’s a lot more sympathetic voices out there in America today. I mean, the key here, of course, is the so-called cultural elite that write all the journal articles or write the columns and the journalists and the reporters and so on. And they’re the ones who I see shifting. And that’s very important. Every time you have a column, let’s say, in Parents magazine that says, “Well, Daddy has left, but you’re going to have just as good a family as you did before if you work hard at it,” versus “Daddy has left and he shouldn’t have, and it’s going to be difficult,” that’s a shift. And for a long time we had a, just an enormous spate of elite-written materials coming in the mass media which was virtually celebrating alternative family forms. And, of course, the reason they were doing it was, you know, a fair one, a humanistic one that these people were suffering and they wanted to sort of bring sympathy to them, and, you know, they’ve still got to live, and there’s children in those families. But the point is the underlying message, you know, what are you supposed to say to the dad who is walking out the door? He’s just met a chick down the street, and he’s walked out the door and he’s going to live with her instead, and he turns to you and says, “Well, I mean, I read in the media that alternative families, they’re just as good. You know, I mean, be difficult for awhile, but the kids’ll be fine and no problem.” And the wife will say, “Well, I guess I’ve read that too, but …” I mean, that the kind of thing. The point is that he now has a body, that she now has a body of data that she can point to which tells a different story, and that is that the dad should stay, and the two-parent family is much preferable in terms of risk factors for child outcomes than alternative family forms.

HEFFNER: Would you detail those risks?

POPENOE: The best studies, those which follow kids over time into adolescence and into young adulthood, find that the chances of a child coming from a non-intact family – and that means either a single-parent family or a stepfamily – and by the way, there’s little to choose among those two, unbeknownst to many people …

HEFFNER: In terms of danger signals.

POPENOE: Right. In terms of risk factor. That those kids have two to three times the risk of becoming an out-of-wedlock mom, girls, a juvenile delinquent for a boy, dropping out of high school, going through a divorce in their own adult years. And a two-to three-time risk is not insubstantial. I mean, if, let’s say, 10 percent of kids from an intact family end up a juvenile delinquent, 20 to 30 percent of kids from single-parent and stepfamilies end up as a delinquent. And if you stop to think about how many additional kids that is, it’s enormous. And it’s on the order of smoking cigarettes. And you know, I’ve never actually formally compared the two, but the risk factors are not much different. I mean, there are plenty of people who smoke cigarettes all their lives and they die at 100, you know. But, if you look at risk factors, which is what we’re talking about here, why, you ought to stop.

HEFFNER: You make the interesting point, and you make it here, that needs to be said, that stepfamilies and single-parent families, that the risk factors are not significantly different.

POPENOE: Right. Which is interesting, because you’d think, on the face of it, that that goes against the grain of my thesis that the father and the man is so important.

HEFFNER: No, because you always say “natural father.”

POPENOE: I say “natural father,” and of course, many stepfamilies are very successful. But, by and large, in terms of risk factors, they’re not. One of the big reasons they’re not, by the way, is that they break up at a much higher rate than the original family. So you have kids going through two breakups. And believe me, for a child in adolescence it’s about the worst thing that can happen to you, one divorce, and then a second divorce. And another thing is we find that the stepdads just aren’t as involved with the children as the biological father was. And part of that, you know, is maybe arguable due to the fact that the new wife won’t let him or the kids won’t let him or whatever. But I think there’s a biological basis for it, and that just, other things equal, the natural father just has more of an incentive to go the extra mile with the kid than somebody who is not related.

HEFFNER: You say “biological basis.” And you’ve used that formulation a couple of times in our discussions. Tell me about that.

POPENOE: You know, that’s another thing that’s coming back into conversation both in the academic and in the popular world. And, of course, biology, especially in the social sciences, was just, absolutely couldn’t even breathe the word or you were out the room. And that’s quietly coming back. And, after all, we are biological beings. And talk about evidence, there is evidence pouring through the transom now that men are very different from women even in almost every cell of their brain, and that human beings have evolved to be certain things and not other things, that there is a kind of universal human nature that … I mean, sure, I’m a sociologist, and believe me, I don’t overlook all the cultural diversity in the world, but there’s also a common core that we all have. And I think one of the common cores, which I go into a lot in the book, is that you have, in humankind – and, by the way, most of the animal kingdom – a rather strong bond between mother and child. It’s very rare to hear of a mother, who, you know, just abandons a child. In fact, it’s so rare that it makes the newspapers. But it’s not at all rare for a father to abandon a child. The tie for the father of the child is weaker than it generally is through the mother. So, throughout history, societies, in recognition of this wisdom, have devised a neat little institution, and it’s called marriage. And the function of marriage, the main purpose of it, is to hold a man to the woman so that he will take care, help to take care of the child. And every single society has had marriage in roughly that form. And because there are a lot of people interested in how those kids turn out. But, of course, today these groups are splitting away and this relationship between husband and wife is pretty fragile, and marriage is weakening, which is one of the main themes of my book. And once it weakens, that man is out the door, and those kids are left without a father. And we have seen in the last 30 years in America more than doubling of a kid’s living apart from their biological fathers precisely because the institution of marriage has declined. These men are not dying like they did once. They’re all out there. They’re just not married to the child’s mother anymore, and for the most part that means they don’t see the child.

So just to give you a quick figure, 17 percent of kids lived apart from their biological fathers in 1960, and today it’s 37 percent and climbing.

HEFFNER: And you’re also saying that it’s not enough to say, “Well, kids, take it, they do it, they get along,” because you’re saying they don’t get along anywhere near as well.

POPENOE: Exactly.

HEFFNER: You’re addressing your book, then, Life Without Father, to men?

POPENOE: Well, it’s addressed both to men and to women. I mean, marriage, after all, which is the principal theme of the book, is a joint decision. And, you know, you hope men and women, especially young men and women, in the younger generation, will realize that fatherhood is very important for children, that the way to fatherhood is to marry, marry well, and stick with it, and they will take marriage more seriously. And that’s roughly the message.

HEFFNER: You’ve used that expression, “marry well” before. You’ve got to explain yourself.

POPENOE: Well, I mean the worst possible thing you can do is to meet somebody that you are infatuated with and run off to a LasVegas wedding chapel the next weekend. Those marriages are about as likely to survive as a snowball in Hell. And so it means that, marrying well means that marrying someone that you can see is going to be a, you know, lifetime partner in raising children. Of course, not everybody thinks they’re going to have children when they marry, and, you know, it’s not the main thing on their mind. But it’s something they should be thinking about. So marry someone that you think is going to be a good parent to those children. That’s probably the most important thing you can do.

The second most important … That’s for the children, anyway. The second most important thing you can do, and the most important thing for yourself, is marry someone that you’re going to be best friends with for a long, long time. And, you know, these both run against the grain a little bit of the way some people marry, especially marrying time after time of the latest attractive person. And, by the way, it’s another thing that television is just murdering America in terms of.

HEFFNER: Good looks …

POPENOE: The television, I mean, the organized entertainment, the Hollywood community, their married lives, by the way, and their family structure, is very little different from what it is in the ghetto. I mean, the dads are abandoning their kids, they’ve got multiple, serial monogamy, and multiple spouses over time. You know, they don’t see their kids, and so on. Of course they have all kinds of money, and they can buy all these things, so arguably maybe the kids turn out a little bit better. But that’s the family structure that is popular culture in America today. And it’s bombarded on us day in and day out. So that’s another thing that we can throw in, that the entertainment industry has to clean up its own personal life. But anyway, I won’t push that …

HEFFNER: When that happens, will you call me, please?

POPENOE: (Laughter) Exactly.

HEFFNER: But I thought you were going to say something else. I thought you were going to say, you were going to emphasize the emphasis we place, and the media in particular place, upon attractiveness, good looks, upon that which is surface rather than down deep.

POPENOE: Right. Of course, it’s pretty hard to get around that. That may be almost built into our …

HEFFNER: But isn’t that so, when you start talking about the criteria for a good marriage, or a criteria for being able to stay with your kid …

POPENOE: Yeah. But, you know, if you ask people what criteria they use, they don’t usually rate attractiveness very high, if asked. Of course, you know that privately they probably do. But I think it, you know, it has to be arguable, mate selection has to be a mental process that you’re thinking about long-term consequences, as much as a sort of romantic and emotional thing. But, I don’t want to downplay that. You know, it’s a mysterious … why we choose the mates we do is a very mysterious phenomenon, which, by the way, biology is contributing an awful lot to evolutionary psychology as it’s now called, contributing an awful lot to in recent years, a lot of books out on it now and people can read up on it.

HEFFNER: If you take your crystal ball, look into the future. Now, let’s forget the word “optimist,” let’s forget the word “pessimist.” What do you see as a sociologist? What do you see as a scholar? What do you see as someone who reads, not the tea leaves, but reads the research reports?

POPENOE: Well, if you just project existing trends …

HEFFNER: that’s our trouble, I guess.

POPENOE: … for the last 30 years, you’re in big time trouble. But, you know, existing trends very seldom hold over time, especially in the cultural area. So let’s put it this way. I think there are grounds for being hopeful. I mean, I guess I would have to say that life in America looks increasingly grim in a lot of respects. And it’s not hard to have a sense of hopelessness about what’s happened. But, on the other hand, think of the amazing turnabouts in our lifetime in civil rights and in the women’s movement and in communism. I mean, you know, these things are … Who would, nobody ever predicted that they would happen, really. So all sorts of things are possible. One, for example, is a kind of religious revival that maybe is widespread. I mean, I guess I don’t really see a basis for that very strongly, but it’s possible. And people just get utterly filled up with life as it is, and they retreat. There is a new concern for voluntary simplicity. People could arguably start, you know, turning off their TV sets and going back to a simpler life. They could become more spiritual. They could sit there every morning reading Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues. I mean, all these kinds of things are conceivable. I guess we shouldn’t hold our breath. But there’s hopeful signs.

HEFFNER: Good. That’s the point at which we end the program. There are hopeful signs.

Dr. David Popenoe, thank you so much for joining me tonight, today on The Open Mind.

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.”