OZZIE Nelson and Robert Young always made fatherhood look so easy. Whatever the situation, they knew just what sensible advice to give, just which gentle punishment to mete out, just how to wrap a loving arm around a young shoulder. Before you could say: ``And now a word from our sponsor,'' they had restored the family to happiness, at least until next week.
If these two sitcom dads could have been in Dallas late last week, they might have been amazed to find that the paternal role they took for granted had become the focus of the two-day National Summit on Fatherhood - a subject so serious that it drew Vice President Al Gore as keynote speaker. Nelson and Mr. Young would also probably have been shocked by the gloomy phrases echoing through the conference room, describing the '90s as the ``age of the vanishing father'' and referring to ``a crisis of father absence'' and ``an epidemic of fatherlessness.''
Sponsored by the National Fatherhood Initiative, a bipartisan group based in Lancaster, Pa., the summit brought together more than 200 people, including civic leaders, ministers, family experts, and policymakers. Their agendas differ, but they share a common purpose: finding ways to increase the proportion of children who live with and are cared for by their married, biological fathers.
Wade Horn, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative, explains the urgent need by noting that the United States leads the world in fatherless families. He says, ``This is not just one of many crises. It is the crisis of our age.''
In 1960, in the Age of Ozzie and Harriet, 17 percent of children lived apart from their fathers. Today, in the Age of Murphy Brown, that figure has more than doubled to nearly 40 percent. During the same three decades, births to unmarried women have skyrocketed from 5 percent to 30 percent.
Other statistics are equally grim: Children who do not live with two parents are more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, become involved in crime, commit suicide as teenagers, and bear a child out of wedlock. Two-thirds of unwed mothers are poor.
While summit participants make a strong case for the two-parent family, they are careful not to stigmatize single mothers, many of whom are performing what they call ``heroic'' roles. They are equally careful not to suggest that a one-size-fits-all model of perfect American fatherhood exists.
But how do you change a society that widely accepts divorce and single parenthood as a norm? And how do you create a culture that, as Dr. Horn puts it, ``encourages, celebrates, and respects'' fathers? The group's suggestions include these ideas:
Launch an all-out campaign against teen pregnancy. Establish a nationwide system of paternity identification. Create a coalition of civic organizations devoted to strengthening fatherhood. Foster new honesty about the consequences of divorce for children. Correct government policies on welfare and public housing that work against intact families. Examine the portrayal of fathers in movies and television programs.
In many respects, the 1980s could be described as the Decade of Mothers. Stories about working mothers and their ``juggling acts'' dominated media coverage of families. Now signs exist that the 1990s could become the Decade of Fathers as family advocates emphasize men's responsibility to their children, help them when they are denied access to their children after a divorce, and view them not simply as a wallet but as an essential part of their children's lives. ``This is not a men's movement,'' Horn emphasizes. ``Women have as much investment in a nation of good and responsible fathers as men do.''
That kind of cooperative spirit, not pitting men against women or fathers against mothers, could mark the beginning of reform in attitudes and policies central to the well-being of the family.
David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, sums up the need this way: ``Every child has a moral right to a committed and engaged father.''
Ozzie Nelson and Robert Young couldn't have said it better.