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Curing the fatherless epidemic

Daisy breaks a large cinnamon stick into shards and places a few at a time in small plastic bags. Her daughter sits close, learns the trade. Daisy is a street vendor taking care of two kids by selling spices to passersby.


She lives in a one-window concrete box the size of my garage on the outskirts of Manaugua, Nicaragua. Sweat drips from her brow as she shares her life in broad strokes.

“Thirteen live here,” Daisy says. “Eight are children.”

“Are there any men?” I ask.

She shakes her head back and forth slowly, looking at the ground for a moment before lifting her head to look me in the eye once more. “All the women…we live here together because…we have had bad experiences with men.”

I visited with the poorest of the poor in Nicaragua last week and rarely saw a man – a father, grandfather, uncle – in the home.

They left for work, for another woman, in the dead of night, to buy groceries, after one lovedrunk evening, after a year together…and never came back.


The U.S. much different? Not much. My father worked for the Texas parole board for a number of years. His job was to interview countless men coming up for release – to hear their story, document the details of their offense and their lives before. Not one, he once remarked, had a dependable father.

Fatherlessness is an epidemic. 24 million children in America – that’s one in three – live in a home without a dad. After so many years of this, we can now count the consequences in many of our own communities.

Effects of Fatherlessness on Children


The less a father reads to his infant, the lower that child scores on a standardized vocabulary test at age two. The more involved a father is with his child’s schooling, the more likely that child is to make all A’s. A father’s influence over a child’s educational achievement is greater than the mother’s.
Source: Paulson, J.F., Keefe, H.A., & Leiferman, J. A. (2009). Early parental depression and child language development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50, 254–262.
Source: Nord, Christine Winquist, and Jerry West. Fathers’ and Mothers’ Involvement in Their Children’s Schools by Family Type and Resident Status. (NCES 2001-032). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2001.


Obese children are more likely to live in homes without a father present.
Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth


Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2011, Table C8. Washington D.C.: 2011.

Early Pregnancy

Being raised without a father rises the risk of teen pregnancy, marrying before completing high school, and marrying someone who has not completed high school.
Source: Teachman, Jay D. “The Childhood Living Arrangements of Children and the Characteristics of Their Marriages.” Journal of Family Issues 25 (January 2004): 86-111.

Drug & Alcohol Abuse

There is a proven correlation between the closeness of a child’s relationship with dad and the number of friends he’ll have who smoke, drink and use hard drugs. Closeness is more likely when dad lives at home with the child.
Source: National Fatherhood Initiative. “Family Structure, Father Closeness, & Drug Abuse.” Gaithersburg, MD: National Fatherhood Initiative, 2004: 20-22.


Youth without a father in the home are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than those living with mom and dad. Children who have never lived with a father in the home are the most likely to be incarcerated of anyone in society.
Source: Harper, Cynthia C. and Sara S. McLanahan. “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14 (September 2004): 369-397.

Curing the fatherless epidemic []

What Can We Do About It?

The last thing I want to do here today is make women feel awful. To make much of a father’s importance to child development need not make little of mom’s. All the research I’ve cited above proves not only dad’s critical role in forming children, but also makes clear that the healthiest environment in which to raise a child is one shared by a mom and dad. We do our best work together, don’t we?

And I don’t want to disparage single mothers either. Some households are dadless for very good reason – for the protection of mom and child from a creep, for instance. No arguments from me there.

I’m writing to men. So if you know any, please pass these words along: If a home is without a father, for whatever reason, good men can and should fill the void. Stepdads, grandfathers, uncles, school teachers, coaches, ministers, and neighbors. A dad is ideal, but a man who loves well is a close second.


Daisy’s children participate in Compassion International’s child sponsorship program. As part of that program, many men acting as mentors and teachers spend time with her children three days every week. “I don’t have bad experiences with these men,” Daisy says.

They teach her children to play soccer, to read and write. They walk her kids around to school and back, so they aren’t abducted and trafficked like so many children in Nicaragua have been. They are not fathers to these children, but they love, encourage, and protect well.


Back in American suburbia, down the street from our cul-de-sac, lives a ten year old I’ll call Emily. Her mother is in prison so she lives with her grandmother. Emily’s never known a father.

One day when she was eight, over a tray full of snacks at our kitchen table, Emily and my kids and a few others from the neighborhood chatted about what they wanted to be when they grow up. An astronaut, a daycare worker, a rock star, a football player, a cosmetologist, a mommy.

Then it was Emily’s turn. “I want to rob banks.”

That was two years ago. A hundred snacks, hugs, trips to the swimming pool with us, and countless conversations later…Emily tells me today she wants to be a school teacher. “Third grade,” she says and reaches for another ample handful of popcorn.

“You’d be a great teacher,” I say. “You’re a smart kid…you believe it?”

She smiles with a mouthful. I think that means she does. I do.

Thank you to National Fatherhood Initiative for the excellent data used in the creation of this post. Go there to learn more about fatherhood.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Kate

    This is huge.

    The whole fathering thing – it can really make it or break it for people, can’t it?

    So much stems from the condition of the paternal relationship.

    Such a serious issue – many thanks for bringing it to the forefront, Shaun.

    In gratitude….headed in to hug my husband right now,

  2. Esther

    I was a single mom for 4 years, and my husband was the greatest thing that ever happened for our oldest two children.
    They still struggle now and then with who their birth fathers are, but they know they are loved.
    There are many fatherless children looking for good men to come into their lives.

  3. Christina

    What frightening statistics. I don’t think many of us fully understand the extent of this epidemic and how it really does affect our children. For all you men out there – think about being a mentor.

  4. Christian

    What do you do when you want to be involved as a Dad but your daughter rejects every attempt? When she labels you as weak and wants to run away? What do you do when your daughter, say 16, latches onto a boyfriend who is also “weak” and gets pushed around but stays because he is getting sex from this 16-year-old?
    What do you do when your influence as a dad is severely limited because your ex-wife, the 16-year-old’s mother, emasculated you in front of the daughter so that is what the daughter learned about men?
    I feel for these women, here, Nicaragua, everywhere, who try to run a household and raise good kids and who try to hold everything together. What about the dad’s, good men who value their roles as fathers but who are rejected time and again by daughters who carry some hurt deep down that only rectifying their relationships with their fathers will repair? So many men do not deserve the title of “dad.” Others fill the role admirably.

    What can we who for valid reasons can’t live with the moms but want to be true dads do?

    • Missy June

      Keep showing up. Stay connected even when it doesn’t seem you’re making a difference. Even if you daughter can never express her gratitude, she will be better because you are around. Your greatest influence may be the next generation – her children.

      I’m a single mother, too, and while there are many things I dislike about the father of my children (I have three), I am grateful that he remains an active person in the lives of our children. I do my best to support their relationship and encourage them to love their Daddy.

    • Shaun Groves

      I can only tell you what I’d do, Christian. Doesn’t mean it’s right for you and yours.

      I’d go see a counselor immediately – one who shared my faith perspective. That counselor would likely help me take responsibility for my role in my family’s dysfunction, help me get healthy personally and learn how to interact respectfully with people who aren’t.

  5. Dawn

    I grew up with a single mom. My son has a Dad present every day and I see so many things that I missed. I am ever so grateful that he gets his Dad. Thank you for writing this story. It was beautiful and touched my heart. Thank you again.

  6. Michelle ~ Blogging from the Boonies

    Sadly, many caring and loving fathers are being kept from their children because of something called Parental Alienation. This has been our story for several long years and it is heartbreaking and devastating.

    As a mother whose father CHOSE to leave us as children, it is a nightmare to be kept from a girl that we love, while she is brainwashed into believing her father abandoned and abused her. Sadly, without a father in her life, she is walking a dangerous path and looking for love in the wrong places.

    This cause is heavy on my heart. So many variables. So much pain.

    • John

      Well put Michelle. While there are plenty of deadbeat dads, there are just as many great fathers who want nothing more than to be involved in their childrens lives – only to be shut out by toxic mothers poisoning the well and a legal system that automatically assumes the father is at fault in cases of divorce.

      • Michelle ~ Blogging from the Boonies

        Parental Alienation Syndrome is very common. We’ve put SO much into trying to fight this, thousands of hours, thousands of dollars… We can fight no longer, except with prayer that the truth is revealed SOME day.

        It is just heartbreaking to read about stories like this, knowing that some children are truly abandoned, while ours is being misled into thinking she has been.

  7. Sarah @ Fit Family Together

    Shawn, great post. So good to hear about that program – so frustrating to hear about why it’s so necessary.

    My husband grew up without a father. He talks about how much his sense of worth was tied to whether he was important to his dad. And how let down he was when his father – on an infrequent visit – forgot about him.

    Some people use this kind of childhood as an excuse for continuing the cycle. My husband – as a small child, he recalls – was determined to set a completely new course. He used his anger at the adults in his life and his wanting for love and respect and turned this into passionate parenting.

    I’ve written about one of the wonderful ways he’s taken on this role in the post linked to below. He not only is a passionate parent, he takes on a job many fathers are told they shouldn’t do or are uncomfortable doing. He challenges his children honestly to aspire to bet better people. He loves them but doesn’t coddle them.

    You’re right that many children suffer for not having fathers. But many fathers are absent from their children’s lives even when they live in the same house. As I describe in the post below – my father was one of these who was physically there. But not much of a parent.

  8. Cynthia

    Wow, I read this post and then read the comments and was going to ask the same, what about the fathers who want to be involved and want to have a relationship with their children and the mothers have kept their children away from their father. I’ve seen fathers who want to be involved and be a part of their children lives, but the mothers have done everything they can to stop that.

    How much fighting can a man do, especially when the legal system won’t do anything about it as well. It’s heart breaking to see a father want and yearn to be with their child and be shut out by them time and time again.

    • Sagadoshes

      The “family” courts in the destruction of the family and the role of fathers. Men in the “family” courts are guilty until proven innocent. This means that many fathers are kicked out or excluded from their child’s life too often by a malicious mother who the “family” court and govt encourage and reward to make false allegations and use the system. Case in point, the Violence against women act, a biased creation of the government to discriminate against men. Notice the name??? It implies all women are saints and by default all men must be the bad guys. How much money from tax dollars goes to women to allow them to sustain relationships with their children and how much of the govt support is there for fathers? What about the “fatherhood initiative”? …simply another source of vilification of fathers ( The “fatherhood initiative” organization is never critical of the “family” courts or the injustice perpetrated by malicious mothers who use the system). The “fatherhood initiative” is there for one purpose, to fathers to pay support. They could care less that too often fathers are excluded from their child’s life after divorce, and that the system that turns him into a “visitor” at best.

  9. Kris

    Shaun, I so appreciate you bringing this topic to the forefront here, and sharing these sobering statistics and the stories from Nicaragua with us. This seems like an issue we could turn around, as a society, like we could actually FIX this… Thank you for reminding me to pray for this, for the broken down families everywhere..

  10. JenD

    My husband was an only child and raised by just his mother. A single man at his church “adopted” him and spent time with him every Friday night when he was growing up. He came to my husband’s college graduation. He stood in place of my husband’s dad in our wedding pictures. Our children call him Grandpa. My husband is the amazing dad he is because of this man.

    Fatherlessness is a huge deal. And I am grateful for the men who step up and do something about it.

  11. Jennifer

    I also grew up with a mostly absent father and it boggles my husband (a fantastic father) as to why I don’t just write him off. Reading Strong Fathers Strong Daughters by Meg Meeker changed that. He read as a father of a daughter but also came away with a better understanding of my relationship with my dad. A must read!

  12. pearl maple

    thank you for sharing the statistics
    dad’s are an important part of a family, not every guy is cut out for the job and well worth celebrating the blokes who do step up to the challenge,
    my dad passed away 25 years ago and I hold tight the treasured little memories

  13. LiveCreateBelieve

    I’m a single mom. My daughter is incredible. She’s highly intelligent, well adjusted, and she is very healthy. She’s outgoing, loves to make friends, and enjoys life. Our struggle is financially. God had a plan and it was for men and women to be married when they had children, this is because it is incredibly hard to provide for a child on your own. I love my daughter and she is such a blessing to my life! I am very thankful for her no matter what the situation. 🙂

    Thank you for writing this, I hope it encourages more people to be a mentor or role model to children without both parents. We get ourselves so busy but we need to make time for the future generation. Being a positive role model for kids without both parents has a huge impact! It’s very much worth doing!

  14. Vivianne

    Scary statistics, but please remember that correlation does not equal causation. Poverty, incarceration, absent fathers, early sexual activity, substance abuse, and obesity all are found disproportionately in the same demographic, in a giant tangled chicken and egg ball of interaction. Act as a father figure to those who need it in your immediate circle, but please also work for social justice for those who don’t have literate parents, a grocery store in their neighborhood, a safe place to play, or hope.

    • Hope

      Vivianne, thank you! I was thinking a very similar thing. I absolutely agree that fathers provide some unique benefits as parents, but it seems to me that certain struggles (like the income disparity mentioned) could easily be true of all single parent households, regardless of the sex of the parent (and if single fathers DO make more than their female counterparts, then we are looking at a different problem all together).

      Things that you mentioned, Vivianne, like poverty, education, and incarceration, are big reasons why fathers may not be present in the first place. I agree that if we work for the well-being of all (including mentoring kids without fathers), we will see stronger families.

    • Shaun Groves

      Totally agree, Vivianne. Great point on causation. I could have been clearer in this post as to which studies cited here claim causation and which don’t.

      And you’re also right on with a both/and approach to solving this problem. Be a positive male influence in a child’s life AND work on other causes of these problems. Absolutely!

  15. Katie

    My eyes were opened to this epidemic last summer upon seeing this film at a Christ in Youth summer conference. It is really well-made and motivates all of us to step into roles that provide care for the fatherless.

  16. Elena @ Blog Giveaways

    This is such a sad story! What a shame that this kind of stuff happens all over the globe. I feel so sorry for the children and their mothers. What a life they are having! I wish this problem could be solved by better education. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Jon

    We should be trying to get the state out of our lives, not replacing fathers with substitutes. We need fathers back in the home. What incentive is there to be a father today? does ‘father’ mean the same thing as it did back in the 50s? I would argue it doesn’t. Today ‘fathers’ are just glorified servants who can be dismissed at any time for no reason. With 50% of marriages ending in divorce and a 40% illegitimate rate, in America, what reason is there to be a father? If you get divorced you lose custody of your children. This, and with the draconian divorce laws, is why marriage is falling in the West.

    It is not so much that boys are growing up without a role model. Its the fact that they haven’t got a role. The state has made it clear that fathers aren’t necessary. That the contribution of the father can be replaced with theft system of alimony and child support. This I think has created a crisis in boys and men. If they can see their father disposed then what motivation do they have to be fathers? They aren’t going to get it from the media that’s for sure.

    I’m afraid there is no going back from this global phenomenon. As the single parent mother demographic increases, and with it a higher stake of the vote, there will be no guts from congress to change and reform. Instead the cycle will just get worse and worse. It wont be long until single parents become the majority of America.

    I think men and boys confidence has been smashed in the past 50 years. Divorce, Feminization and the loss of manufacturing has created a generation of boys who just give up.

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