How much do boys really need fathers?

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Not that much, according to Oliver James, who exposes the origins of the myth that fatherless boys end up as part of a criminal underclass

Fatherless feral boys... lack of male primary school teachers... crisis of masculinity... blah-di-blah-di-blah. Other than in the Daily Mail, that learned scientific journal, where's the evidence that a boy needs a male figure in the home to turn out sane and solvent? It was Charles Murray, the right-wing American ideologue, strongly promoted by The Sunday Times in the 1980s, who set the "blame father-absence" ball rolling.

Correlating the rise in crime with the increase in single parents, he blamed the emergence of an underclass on dads doing a bunk. Never mind that there was no underclass (he merely re-labelled social class V with this catchy appellation), or that poverty and divorce were the real causes.

Norman Dennis, the Fabian, continued down the same line in applying the theory to Brits in the 1990s, based on a misreading of two longitudinal studies.

In fact, when I went back to them, they did not prove father absence was causing crime. That children of divorced parents are twice as likely to be screwed up in almost every respect is true. But that does not prove a son needs a parent with a willy.

Susan Golombok has found no diminution of masculinity or increase in criminality among sons brought up by two lesbian parents - willy-absence made no difference. Admittedly, her study has its flaws but the same has been found in American ones. From a different tack, a British study of 411 boys from low-income homes shows that dad presenceabsence is not in itself crucial.

Those with a father who died were half as likely to become criminal adults as ones whose dad pushed off; if their mum died rather than their dad, they were nine times more at risk - mum seems more important than dad. What is more, there was no difference between boys from disharmonious homes that remained intact and ones that broke up.

Evolutionary psychological theories - rightly pilloried as symptoms of Selfish Capitalist Neo-Conservatism in The Trap, Adam Curtis's recent BBC2 series - imply that sons need a willy-possessing parent.

But you only have to go to Copenhagen or Shanghai to realise that this is chauvinistic (in both senses of the word) ideology, not science. In Denmark, by Sex and the City standards, men are not men and women are not women. There are no alpha males clubbing each other over the head to decide who gets the sabre-toothed tiger and there are no miniskirt-wearing trophy wives waiting for them back at the cave.

In China, many of the sons see hardly anything of either parent during the early years, often sent thousands of miles away to live with their grandmas. Yet their rates of mental illness and crime are many times lower than those in America.

Michael Diamond, an American psychoanalyst, has recently made the case for fathers as conduits to the wider world for small children. Perhaps he is right, but the scientific evidence that the second parent needs a willy is still absent. If my two-year-old son benefits from my presence, I suspect it's the extra pair of hands that is crucial, not what is between my legs Oliver James is the author of Affluenza: How to be successful and stay sane. The updated 2nd edition of They F*** You Up: How to survive family life has just been published


Norman Dennis, Families Without Fatherhood, Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

Golombok, S et al, 1996, Journal of Child Psychology Psychiatry, 38, No 7, 783-792.

Study of 411 boys: Juby, H et al, 2001, British Journal of Criminology, 31, 22-40.

Michael Diamond, My Father Before Me, London: Norton.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today