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Good Dad/Bad Dad: Modern-Day Images Of Fatherhood

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CONSIDER the conflicting media images of the American father in 1994:

On Sunday, Father's Day, he will be widely portrayed in newspapers and on TV as the Good Dad - warm and nurturing. His children will shower him with gifts. They will also send greeting cards depicting him as a central figure in their lives, actively involved in their care and well-being. The cards, filled with superlatives, will praise him for his wisdom, his ``sharing and caring,'' his love and generosity.

So generous is the Good Dad, in fact, that his offspring apparently don't mind letting him pay for their annual June wishes to him. AT&T reports that Americans make more collect calls on Father's Day than on any other occasion.

But on Monday - or by Tuesday at the latest - this shiny image of the Good Dad will begin tarnishing. Sunday's prince of a guy will be dethroned as reporters revert to stories about the Bad Dad.

Headlines will again report on paternal scofflaws who refuse to pay court-ordered child support. News stories on welfare reform will note that over half of all new welfare cases are due to births to unmarried women. And feature stories will quote working mothers who emphasize that many fathers still talk only in terms of ``baby-sitting'' and ``helping'' - sure signs, they say, that women remain the primary care givers.

If these media patterns continue, positive stories about men will largely disappear until next Father's Day.

Wade Horn, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative in Lancaster, Pa., describes the problem this way: ``If fathers are mentioned at all, they're either mentioned as `deadbeat dads' who should be made to pay up, or as abusers who abuse their children. Neither of those images is particularly inspiring to men, giving them reason to want to be good and responsible fathers.''

Some of the negative press is justified by statistics. Dr. Horn himself calls this ``the age of the vanishing father,'' explaining that the United States leads the world in fatherless families.


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