These days there is once again a great deal of hand-wringing about the sorry moral state of America's children. All the usual suspects have been rounded up: parents who lack values, schools that neglect "character" education, and -- conservative pundits' favorite culprit -- family breakdown. As William Bennett puts it in The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, "Most of our social pathologies -- crime, imprisonment rates, welfare...alcohol and drug abuse...sexually transmitted diseases -- are manifestations, direct and indirect, of the crack-up of the modern American family."
When Fred Louis [names in this article have been changed] looks back at everything that went haywire last year--leaving school, drinking heavily, feeling bottom-less misery--it seems as if his parents' divorce a decade before was, at the root. An earnest, barrel-chested 17-year-old with a broad, mild smile, he didn't understand the full extent of the damage at first. In fact, he thought he had come to a kind of truce with the divorce. Instead, his feelings about the divorce sneaked up and uncoiled on him.
Why are millions of fathers a trivial presence in their children's lives, and what might we do about it? Legions of fatherhood projects have cropped up around the country, seeking to reconnect fathers and their children. Promise Keepers and other national groups are raising public awareness and struggling to stir in men some sense of moral responsibility. However, a crucial key to bringing men back into the fold may lie neither in programs nor in marches, but in the far more mundane work of changing the fundamental practices of the institutionsschools, health plans, religious organizations, community agenciesthat interact with families day to day.