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What day is children's day?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum: More American children growing up without fathers present
  • He says it's a sign of trouble for marriage and the family in America
  • Frum says we need to celebrate parents together rather than mothers and fathers separately

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- Almost every parent has heard the question:

"If Mother's Day is in May and Father's Day is in June, when is it children's day?"

Almost every parent has delivered the same answer:

"Every day is children's day."

Maybe we owe a better answer than that.

Yesterday, millions of American families presented dad with barbecue implements or a greeting card or possibly a bottle of whiskey. Nice! Thank you!

But for more and more American families, Father's Day arrives as a reminder of what is missing. The Pew foundation estimates that 27% of Americans younger than 18 live apart from their fathers.

Tale of two fathers

While many separated fathers struggle manfully to sustain relationships with their children, the struggles usually end in failure. Fewer than half of separated fathers see their children as often as once a week.

The fate of the American family is a complicated story that arouses passionate emotions.

NY group seeks to be better fathers

There is no simple morality tale here. Fathers can be absent for many reasons. There are vast realms of the Internet devoted to arguing whether America's epidemic of fatherlessness is primarily the fault of irresponsible men or vengeful women. Does it matter?

Here's what we do know:

-- Fatherlessness has become much more common since 1970, when less than 15% of American children lived apart from their fathers.

-- Fatherlessness is associated with an array of negative outcomes including aggravated likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse, reduced educational achievement, and increased odds of prison incarceration.

-- Rates of fatherlessness stabilized in the 2000s. But because today's bad economic times have hit male earnings harder than women's earnings, the unemployment crisis could likely send the fatherlessness rate spiking again.

You don't need to blame either gender to recognize a vast social problem. Yet unfortunately, by and large, we do not recognize the problem. Yes, we have a National Fatherhood Initiative that produces clever television advertisements urging fathers to be more involved in their children's lives.

The initiative has the backing of the leaders of the land, including President Barack Obama, himself to all appearances a devoted father.

But as the research shows, men who live apart from their children do not (and maybe cannot) live up to the initiative's message: "Take time to be a dad today."

The trouble with American fatherhood cannot be separated from the trouble with American marriage. And that is a subject much more difficult to talk about. Oh, everybody's ready for an energetic dust-up over same-sex marriage. But the kind of marriage that shapes the lives of the non-gay 97% of the population? That's a more delicate topic.

And yet it's very hard to escape the logic: we are not going to have more involved fathers until we have more -- and more stable -- marriages. And there the trends are all flashing negative.

-- The millennial generation, that is the people who will be having the children over the next few years, is highly dubious of the importance of marriage. Barely half agree that a child needs both a father and mother to growth up happily.

-- America's most rapidly growing ethnic group, Latinos, are also trending rapidly toward single parenthood. Nearly half of all the children born to Latino women are born outside marriage.

As the Latino share of the national population rises, so will the proportion of children growing up without fathers, if current trends continue.

I'm not here to offer a quick fix. Economic recovery would help, but only so much. Fatherlessness increased more in the booming 1990s than in the slow-growth 2000s.

Maybe the real answer is the one hinted at by the child's question. Let's shut down the separate celebration of Father's Day and Mother's Day and recognize simultaneously that our children want both, and together.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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