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December 9, 2000
Column #1006


     Nearly four of ten children in America live in homes without their biological father, reports the National Fatherhood Initiative. ''When children grow up without an involved, committed and responsible father, not only are they at greater risk for a myriad of educational, health, emotional and psychological problems, but they also lack an important role model as to what a good father is and does.''

     Given widespread fatherlessness, ''For millions of children the only portrayal of what a father is and how a father should behave is found on television,'' says NFI President Wade Horn.

     What image of fatherhood is being projected? It is not ''Honor thy father and mother.''

     To find out, NFI taped and reviewed every prime time TV show on the six major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN and WB) during March and April, 2000 for a report, ''Fatherhood and Television: An Evaluation of Fatherhood Portrayals on Prime Time Television.''

     The major finding is ''an overabundance of bad dads.'' Fathers are eight times more likely than mothers to be portrayed negatively (26 percent of TV dads vs. 3 percent of mothers). Dads are shown to be involved with their kids, but incompetent. They spend time with children but are ineffective in what sociologists call ''authoritative parenting,'' who provide emotional support for their children, praising them for their accomplishments and disciplining them for misbehavior.

     On the plus side, fathers are usually married to the mothers, and there are shows that are very positive, such as NBC's Daddio, Get Real by Fox, and Diagnosis Murder, on CBS. The most positive motherhood portrayals were Freaks & Geeks on NBC and ABC's Once & Again and Lily.

     Compared to mothers portrayed, dads were negative on such programs as Family Law and Third Watch which feature divorced dads. The majority of negative views of fathers are comedies, particularly such cartoons as Family Guy, King of the Hill, and the Simpsons, where fathers are hopelessly incompetent. Homer Simpson's bumbling attempts at fatherhood are often hilarious. These shows are often satirical, depicting what not to do as a father.

     Do cartoons have a negative impact?

     Aletha Houston of the University of Kansas reports, ''Children who watch violent shows, even funny cartoons, are more likely to hit out as their playmates, argue, disobey class rules and leave tasks unfinished and are less willing to wait for things than those who watched non-violent programs.

     Dr. Horn said that ''By portraying fathers as involved but incompetent, television may be undermining responsible fatherhood as a cultural ideal. If, for example, a father is portrayed as a goof who places low priority on his children, it become easy to conclude his absence would be no great loss to the family.

     For example in one episode of Dharma and Greg, the show's young married couple adopted a baby. In a conversation between two of the mother's friends, one asked the other, ''Now that she has the baby, why does she need him?'' This message of ''fathers-as-superfluous'' is all too prevalent on television and all too harmful to our culture.

     Of course, with 24 million children being raised in America without their fathers, too many real parents concluded the father's absence was not important. (The fault is not always with the dad in these cases, since women initiate two-thirds of all divorces.)

     Television can reinforce this trend, giving the image that fathers do not matter, which is wrong. (Research shows that fathers are very important in adding stability and positive role models for children.) ''If fathers do not contribute anything all that important to the well-being of children, what is the rationale for telling young males that they ought to stick around after fathering a child?'' asks the Fatherhood and Television study.

     The American Family Association Journal in October gave this summary of a ridiculous  Titus episode which revolves around Pop Titus who has stopped drinking. Christopher, the son, gathers other family members to have an intervention to try to get Pop to start drinking again. He says, when Pop is drinking, he's a ''lusty, lustful'' man but since he's stopped, he is ''lustless'' - that he was a stud and used to have three women every night.''

     NFI is not asking for TV to renounce its role as providing entertainment, or to halt comedies centered on fatherhood, or expecting all fathers to be portrayed as Father Knows Best.

     However, ''If we want more children to grow up with involved, committed and responsible fathers, promoting responsible fatherhood should be on the agenda of all social institutions. Television can - and should - do its part.''

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus 

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