Several years ago, when I was president of National Fatherhood Initiative, I had the pleasure of working on a fantastic photography book project called, Choosing Fatherhood: America’s Second Chance. To create the piece, noted photographer Lewis Kostiner’s traveled the nation to meet with fathers from all walks of life, to hear their compelling and varied stories and, of course, take their pictures. As part of this project to be included in the book, I wrote the below essay, Want Good Times Again? Try Fatherhood. My thoughts then are still relevant today.
When I was a kid growing up in the early 1970s, one of my favorite TV shows was the groundbreaking sitcom Good Times. Like other Norman Lear shows such as Maude and All in on the Family, the subject matter and the characters were innovative for that time in American TV.
In typical Lear fashion, Good Times was funny and well written, but it also challenged its audience to deal with an issue that many would rather ignore: the plight of urban black families living in poverty. The program was a big hit. In fact, during the second season, Good Times was the seventh highest rated show of the year, with a quarter of the American TV viewing public tuning in to watch it weekly.
I watched one of the reruns recently and was reminded of why I liked this show so much. While many were clearly amused by the antics of the character J.J. and his signature phrase, “Dy-no-mite!,” I was drawn to something very different: actor John Amos and his portrayal of the family’s father, James Evans.
You see, I grew up without my father, so James Evans became an aspirational role model for me in a very critical time in my life. I was inspired by how determined he was to provide for his family, despite significant obstacles, including periods of unemployment. He was a man of tremendous pride and character, who worked two jobs and would often say, “I ain’t accepting no handouts!” But, most importantly, he was a man who clearly loved his wife and children. This papa was no “rolling stone”; he was a solid “anchor” for his family who turned the hard times into good times. He chose fatherhood. I long for and wanted to be, a father like him.
But then things changed for the Evans family. After a successful third season, Amos was dismissed after he got into a dispute with Lear and the writers about the direction of the show. Rather than replace him like so many successful shows do, they opted to have the father character killed in a car accident, leaving the wife as a single mother with three children. Interestingly, Esther Rolle, who played the wife, objected to this change. Apparently, she had fought hard to have the show include a strong black husband and father leading and supporting his family. But the producers stay the course. They didn’t choose fatherhood.
Well, when the father character was erased from the script, I quickly lost interest in the show. Its art was now imitating my life and I didn’t need yet another reminder that I was growing up without my father. And I wasn’t the only one who changed the channel. Despite several attempts to revamp the show, they could not get to show to work without the father. Its ratings continued to decline precipitously, and, by its sixth season, Good Times was no more.
I know that TV viewers’ tastes change quickly. But could it be that the relatively quick decline of the show was linked to the producers’ failure to choose fatherhood? We will never know because, in TV land, there are few second chances. As I viewed Lewis Kostiner’s exceptional photographs of fathers and considered the book’s title— Choosing Fatherhood: America’s Second Chance—I was struck by the notion that what happened with Good Times is a poignant metaphor for how fathers have been regarded during the last four decades. Like shortsighted TV producers, our culture has been steadily writing fathers out of storylines of families and their children’s lives. Alas, there is a misguided view that fathers are not essential to the well being of children, even in tough urban neighborhoods. As a result, one out of three children in America–and seven out of ten African American children–live in fatherless homes.
The social science research confirms the times are less good when fathers are not active participants in the “show” that is the family. Sadly, children in father-absent homes are at least twice as likely to drop out of school, live in poverty, end up in prison, be abused, use drugs, and have emotional and behavioral problems.
But, unlike TV, there are second chances in real life. Since the 1990s, a movement has formed to address our national crisis: the absence of fathers. Community-based organizations, federal agencies, corporations, churches, foundations, movie studios, prisons, and even the President of the United States and members of the US Senate and House of Representatives from both parties are taking steps to give fatherhood a second chance.
I believe history is presenting the American people with an unprecedented opportunity to turn the tide on this fundamental social problem. Will we act to turn the tough times into good ones? Or will we continue to tune in idly and accept what is but does not have to be?
Well, I have faith that if people can see positive ways to make things better, they will act. Fortunately, we have learned there are tangible steps to be taken that can strengthen fatherhood in families, neighborhoods, and communities. Here are some ideas:
Get your house in order
If you’re a dad, the first place to start is by being the best dad that you can be. Your children deserve your best and since fatherhood is a skill-based endeavor, you can get better at it. National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org) has a variety of resources to help build fathering skills. If you’re a mom, you play a vital role in helping the father of your children be a good dad. Research shows that when moms are supportive, dads are more likely to be involved. Rather than be a gatekeeper, a mother can be a gateway to better father involvement for her children. If you are a good dad, be a “double duty dad” by using your skills and experience to mentor other fathers and fatherless child in your family, neighborhood or community.
Decades of social science research have provided clear, undeniable evidence that fathers perform best when they are married to the mothers of the children. Over the same period of time, however, we have inexplicably broken the link between marriage and fatherhood: four out of ten births today are to unmarried mothers. This link must be restored. So, work on strengthening your marriage, as it is the central relationship in your household. In your community, ensure that marriage does not become a thing of the past; help others see the critical role that a healthy marriage plays in helping children have the best chance at a stable childhood and a successful life.
Mobilize men’s ministries and programs in churches and communities of faith to be more father-centered
There are tens of thousands of men’s ministries and programs operating in churches and communities of faith throughout our nation, but too few are intended to help men be better fathers. They are typically more focused on “manhood” than “fatherhood.” If they began to use fatherhood skill-building resources from organizations like National Fatherhood Initiative, millions of men will be positively affected.
Encourage private foundations and individuals the fund work on fatherhood
Many private foundations and individuals provide funding to support programs that deal with the consequences of a father’s absence – poverty, crime, failure at school, gangs, drugs and alcohol abuse, and more. However, the funding that is hardest to get is often for programs that start upstream by strengthening families to prevent father absence. If you’re connected to private foundations or other funding sources, educate them on the need to fund proactive work that connects fathers to their children.
Direct more federal, state, and local grant programs toward supporting responsible fatherhood
Currently, billions of dollars in funding are going to government programs that are designed to help families. Most of these programs, however, only serve mothers and children. If these programs added an emphasis on supporting fathers, limited additional tax dollars would have to be spent to make a huge impact on fatherhood. Contact Congress and your local government officials to tell them to make the strengthening of fatherhood a priority in publicly funded programs.
Support our nation’s long-distance dads
Millions of fathers today, through incarceration or military deployment, struggle over long distances to be involved in their children’s lives. Since the majority of men in prison are fathers and a majority of them grew up without good fathers, there is a clear “father factor” at play. Therefore, prisons and reentry programs must start helping men become better fathers to reduce recidivism and end the intergenerational cycle of crime. Children in military families are also more at risk due to longer and more frequent appointments of their fathers. Accordingly, the US military must see the value of supporting fatherhood so that our nation’s military families are better off and the morale and readiness of our troops are improved.
My challenge to everyone is to choose the above ideas that are most closely related to your personal passion or profession and take action. America has never been a nation that waited for good times to come. We have always created them. Today, a generation of children is depending on us to create better times for them by ensuring that they have involved, responsible and committed fathers in their lives.
We have a second chance. Let’s choose father today.