ZENGER: Fatherlessness

State Rep. Jeff Zenger’s photo from the North Carolina General Assembly

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 and the list goes on and on.

As you read this, you are likely adding items to the list. 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 during this time, so have fatherless homes.

A child who grows up without a father is more likely to be incarcerated, abuse drugs, be in a gang, drop out of school or become a teen mom. Fatherless individuals are four times more 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, even with this kind of data out there pointing right at the problem of fatherlessness, we see everything from teachers, to the police, to the system, to toxic masculinity being blamed.

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 by to walk alongside them and help rear them to responsible manhood. If not, they become likely to repeat the pattern.

This cycle makes it even harder for the second generation, and by the time it goes beyond two generations, it becomes normal to that individual. This new “normal“ produces perpetual adolescence, which continues to leave social wreckage in its wake and puts us into a cycle of fatherlessness.

If we truly want to improve any of our social problems, 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, but that is mostly ineffective unless adults involved 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. Taking good fathering principles and giving them to troubled fatherless youth.

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 responsible adults. 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 state representative representing House District 74 in the NCGA from Forsyth County. He grew up in a fatherless home in very difficult circumstances and spent 13 years working with teenagers in Baltimore City and is now a father of four.