March 12, 2021
One in four.
It’s hard for many of us to grasp the extent of the silent social crisis of fatherlessness, but in the United States almost exactly one quarter of all children are growing up without a dad. This fraction doesn’t include children growing up with a stepdad, living in a co-parenting arrangement where dad is present at least a few days a week, living with adoptive fathers, or in any other non-traditional family structure—over 20 million U.S. kids are living without a man they can point to and say, “That’s my dad.”
The natural question that flows from this is, “Does it matter?” Both the research and anecdotal evidence shout a resounding “yes.” To take just a few examples, we know that fatherless individuals are:
- Twice as likely to drop out of high school (7 out of 10 dropouts are fatherless)
- At least 8 times more likely to spend time in a juvenile mental health facility
- 4 times more likely to be in poverty
- 28 times more likely to be homeless or run away from home
- 2-5 times more likely to commit suicide
And beyond this, the issue is itself cyclical and generational. Over 70 percent of unplanned pregnancies involve at least one parent who is themselves fatherless, and the vast majority of fatherless children are born out of unplanned pregnancies.
And so another natural question arises, “How do we break this cycle?” And this is where hope enters an otherwise-dismal picture: mentorship has been proven to have a categorical impact on fatherless individuals.
Thanks to a doctoral thesis from 2003, we can demonstrate just that based on a somewhat unusual metric: homicide rates. The only external context you need is what the author refers to as “old heads”—these are older individuals invested in their community and the lives of the young adults they’re connected to.
The thesis points out that the rate of male homicide is much higher than the rate of female homicide. Also, the influence of old heads (mentors) is relatively small on people growing up with dads, but significant on people growing up without dads. As a result, we can see that:
- The relative risk of fatherless males committing a homicide without the presence of old heads is six compared to only four for females.
- The relative risk of fatherless males committing a homicide with high presence of old heads is one—no more likely than their fathered counterparts—compared to two for females.
Combining these insights is dramatic: the influence of mentorship on fatherless males is significant, even significantly greater than the influence of mentorship on fatherless females. And combining this observation with the much higher homicide rate committed by males leads us to something incredible: effective mentor presence just for fatherless males (one in eight people, half of the one in four fatherless kids) may significantly reduce the homicide rate, perhaps cutting it in half—not to mention helping to reverse the myriad other trends we sampled earlier.
And so we arrive at the burning need: committed, loving men to support young dads. I’ve been blown away by the immediate connection in my personal mentorship relationship. The first time we spent meaningful time together in person (admittedly, after a long period of time pursuing him), he remarked, “I’ve never had someone who knows me so little care about me so much.” What a profoundly kind and encouraging statement! This young man is wrestling through the prospect of going to college while supporting a young family after graduating near the top of his class. It’s been a thrilling opportunity to support this young man who lives just three blocks from me.
How encouraging, how surprising, how exciting to have the prospect of this breadth of impact within all of our reach!
Grant Elledge is the CEO of fathering.me, a growing nonprofit committed to mentoring young fathers of unplanned babies and meeting the needs of those new dads with accessible online resources. He lives in Harrisburg, Pa. with his wife, Elaine, and their precocious 2.5-year-old, Peter.