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Jeff Zenger column: Fatherlessness

By Jeff Zenger

We are living in an unprecedented time in American history. Never before have we had so many social issues or ills. From gun violence, teen pregnancy, incarceration, drug abuse, the list goes on and on. As you read this, you are adding to the list yourself. If you just stop and think about it for a minute, it is overwhelming. All of this, after we have spent trillions of dollars on every program you can think of. Now, if you step back and look at it from a distance, there is one overwhelming common denominator in all our social issues — fatherless homes.  All of these issues have grown exponentially since 1960 and right along with it, so has fatherless homes.

A child who grows up without a father is more likely be incarcerated, abuse drugs, be in a gang, drop out of school and become a teen mom. Fatherless individuals are four times as likely to live in poverty for life. It is like that across every social issue you can think of. As I talk to folks about this, the response is the same: “No question about it.” Fatherlessness affects everyone in the same way. The rate of fatherlessness is an indicator for the participation rate of different groups in the social issues. Asian Americans have the lowest fatherless rate at 15%, White Americans are around 24.5%, Hispanic Americans are at about 31% and African Americans at 66%. Yet with this kind of data out there that points right at the problem of fatherlessness we see everything from teachers, to the police, to the system to toxic masculinity being blamed.

Rep. Jeff Zenger

What has exasperated this trend? Generational fatherlessness. It is extremely difficult to overcome the obstacles that come with growing up fatherless. A first-generation fatherless child generally has some role models close to walk alongside them to help rear them to responsible manhood. If not, they become likely to repeat the pattern. What this does, is make it even harder for the second generation and by the time it goes beyond two generations, it becomes “normal.” This new normal produces perpetual adolescence which continues to leave social wreckage in its wake and puts us into a cycle of fatherlessness.

As a society, we blame the police, teachers, the system and much more but never blame fatherlessness. If we truly want change in any of the social issues, we must change the fatherless rate. In order to do that, we need to restore manhood and fatherhood to a place of honor, not just a holiday in June. We need to have great expectations for men and call them to live up to those expectations. Manhood does not simply come because boys grow older. Throughout history, most societies had a rite of passage to acknowledge the transition to manhood and communicate the expectations. We, as a society, need to embrace investing our time into young people to lead them out of the dead-end road of fatherlessness and teach them how to be an honorable man. Many try the approach of entertaining kids with programs to keep them busy so they don’t get in trouble. However, that is mostly ineffective unless there are those involved who see it as an opportunity to walk alongside kids and pour into them. The way for real impact is life-to-life, person-to-person mentoring — being an adult friend to fatherless kids. Part of that time is just loving and caring for them, part of it is having fun with them and the last part is modeling and teaching them how to be a responsible adult. When love is felt, the message is heard. It is simple but requires a big investment. At this point, in our society we need an army of mentors. People engaging one life to another. I had the privilege of doing this decades ago in Baltimore and am still in communication with many that I was involved with. They are men now and my friends. I cherish those relationships.

Jeff Zenger is a representative in N.C. House District 74 and is a father of four who grew up in a fatherless home in very difficult circumstances and spent 13 years working with teenagers in Baltimore City.