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Second National Summit on Fatherhood

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Monday, June 15, 1998

It's an honor to be here on the week of Father's Day to release a new report that underscores the importance of fatherhood, and sets out a plan for learning more about the special role fathers play in the growth and development of their children.

As we approach the 21st century, discoveries in science, medicine, and technology all hold the promise for improving our lives. But whether we fulfill that promise will depend not so much on society's level of technology, but on society's level of honesty, responsibility, industry, generosity. In short, our morality.

The most influential moral teachers in the world -- are mothers and fathers. But fathers -- often because of their absence -- are making far less use than mothers of their power as moral teachers. That is why I believe the single most promising approach for improving our lives, our society, and our world in the next century is to help men become better fathers. Fatherhood, I believe, is the most underused power for good on the face of the earth.

My personal commitment to fatherhood was born out of gratitude for the loving and demanding guidance of my own father. I was also lucky that my wife Tipper understood intuitively that the father must have a central role in his children's lives. So from the moment Tipper and I had our first child, I was eager to be fully involved, Tipper insisted on it, and the children demanded it. Fortunately, my boss has also encouraged it.

Some of you have heard me tell a story about a conflict I had a few years ago between my responsibilities at work, and my responsibilities as a father. I had scheduled a meeting with a visiting head of state at the White House, and my daughter's soccer game went into double overtime. Tipper was making a speech on mental health in another city, and it was my turn to give out the snacks at the end of the game.

As we began the first overtime, I was thinking "let's call it a draw, kids." As we began the second overtime, I saw diplomatic catastrophe written right across the front page of the newspaper. Fortunately, the game ended, I gave out the snacks, and the interpreter really earned his pay when I went through my detailed account of what happened. But I knew the individual; I had met him before, and he understood. He was a father, too.

Now, some people seem to find that story pretty funny. Maybe it's because they don't expect a father to be so current on the time-honored "post-game snack ritual." Or maybe it's unusual that the timing of a high-level diplomatic meeting should be hanging in the balance.

But if that is unusual in our culture, then we should change the culture. William Shakespeare once wrote: "It is a wise father that knows his own child." And -- I would add -- "It is a wise society that insists on it." Fathers must spend time with their children. And let's be clear about one point -- quality time, no matter how focused it is on your child, can never takethe place of being there every day. In fact, the quality of your time depends on the quantity of your time. When your one-year old's entire vocabulary is just a few syllables and gestures, she will nonetheless expect you to understand her signals for: "throw me in the air," "find my blanket," or "wind up my frog." If you understand her, it's fun for both of you. If you don't understand her, it's frustrating for both of you. And whether your children speak in baby talk or teen talk, it takes time to learn the language. You can't have quality time, without spending a lot of time.

But fathers face many obstacles to spending time with their children. Some obstacles come from employers; many come from colleagues. Taking paternity leave, taking kids to the doctor, reciting nursery rhymes, singing songs -- some in the workplace still say that is women's work. I say that someone who leaves those responsibilities to a woman is not worthy of a woman. That person is not a man, that person is just a boy -- who fears his peers, more than he loves his kids. When someone neglects his child to save face in the workplace -- that's a cultural defect we need to correct.

These are the kinds of issues and discussions I was eager to launch nationally when I began meeting with fatherhood groups all over the country in 1993. This initial research culminated in the summer of 1994 with the third in a series of family policy conferences Tipper and I moderate every year in Nashville. We called this one: Family Re-Union III, "the Role of Men in Children's Lives." And I'm delighted to see here today so many of the same committed people who attended that conference four years ago.

In the spring following the conference, we announced the creation of Father-to-Father -- a grassroots effort designed to enhance existing community initiatives by creating networks for men to assist one another in the tasks of fatherhood. And in June of 1995, President Clinton launched the federal fatherhood initiative by directing all federal agencies to elevate the importance of fathers in their programs, policies, research, and personnel practices.

One year later, in 1996, 800 members of the federal workforce gathered in Washington to talk about what had been done -- and what could still be done -- to advance the interests of fathers and families. As an example, the Department of Labor recently announced new welfare-to-work grants that are specially earmarked for welfare recipients who don't live with their children -- to help them increase financial support of their children. We have learned that financial support often brings with it the greater involvement of the parent who pays it. And we know re-connecting fathers with their children is a large motivator for the fathers to stay off drugs, stay away from crime, and keep a job. By shaping a new federal initiative around these findings, we have a much better chance to reconnect fathers and their children -- and improve the lives of both.

In another move, just last year, we established the Federal Interagency Forum for Child and Family Statistics -- our first-ever effort to coordinate the work of seventeen federal agencies, dozens of universities and scores of non-profits to advance our knowledge and appreciation of the role of fathers. I am delighted today to announce the release of the Forum's first report:Nurturing Fatherhood: Improving Data and Research on Male Fertility, Family Formation, and Fatherhood. This study provides two sets of invaluable findings.

First, the report notes that nearly one in three babies are born out of wedlock, and that one half of all children born to married parents will see their parents divorce. The report confirms earlier findings that children growing up without a father are more likely to do poorly in school, get pregnant, do drugs, and have a hard time finding and keeping a job. On the positive side, a father's involvement, even in a broken family, has a very positive impact on the children.

Second, This report marks out, for the first time, a ten-point plan for expanding approaches to family research -- to gather more information on the special role of fathers. Until now, most of our family research has been a close-up of the mother-child bond, with the father cropped out of the family photograph. In fact, it used to be said that the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. That is certainly one of the father's responsibilities, but today's research teaches us that the father has a role beyond helping the mother. Fathers are not just male mothers. They have unique contributions to make. Some early research indicates that fathers may have a powerful ability to curb their kids' indulgence in risky adolescent behavior.

Another early finding suggests that mothers and children have an immediate bond from birth, but fathers' relationships with their children are somehow mediated by the mother. Anything that drives a wedge between mom and dad is going to drive a wedge between the kids and dad. These new insights and others are serving as a basis for the report's recommendations for new research on fathers, much of which are already underway.

This report is a stellar example of how government can work with universities, foundations, non-profits, and the private sector to achieve outstanding results that would have been impossible for any of these partners to achieve on their own. In appreciation of the value of this report, and the unprecedented cooperation that went into producing it, I would like to recognize the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics with a Hammer Award. The Hammer Award -- an important part of our Re-inventing Government initiative -- is designed to recognize teams of government employees and their partners for helping to create a government that works better, costs less, and makes a difference in the lives of the American people. I am proud to present the members of the Forum with this Award.

Good fathers help with homework, attend athletic contests, listen to their children, but most important, good fathers guide the moral education of their children. In the Bible, when Moses had just given Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, he said: "And these words shall be in thine heart, and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children." Today Robert Coles points out in his book, The Moral Intelligence of Children: "The most persuasive moral teaching we adults do is by example: the witness of our lives, our ways of being with others."

Just a glance at statistics tells us that a near majority of American children are learning the lessons of a father's abandonment, when they desperately need the lessons of a father's love.

In the last several months, we have heard horrifying stories of children shooting classmates andclassrooms. And one of the teens held for schoolyard murder had written in a journal entry: "No one ever truly loved me. No one ever truly cared about me."

Last year at the White House, I saw the power of this situation in reverse. Secretary Riley and I were releasing a new report on the powerful impact of father's involvement in their children's education, and we were joined by a successful young girl and her devoted father. She told the audience that her father used to pick her up after school every day in a taxi. He was a taxi driver. She told us it embarrassed her to say "My father is a taxi driver" because so many of her friends could say "My father is a doctor" or "My father is a lawyer." But as she grew older, she was no longer embarrassed to say "My father is a taxi driver." -- because she came to realize that she could say something many of her friends could not say. She could say: "My father loves me."

That young woman's life was transformed by that love. So was her fathers. A father's involvement in a child's life changes not only the child's life. It changes the father's, too. William Wordsworth, the 19th century Poet Laureate of England, once wrote:

O dearest, dearest boy! My heart
For better love would seldom yearn,
Could I but teach the hundredth part
Of what from thee I learn.

This is fatherhood. The child is transformed, the father is transformed, the family is transformed. This is why we are here today. To encourage fathers in their irreplaceable role. Nothing holds half so much promise for changing children's lives, and all our lives. I applaud you in your work. I pledge you all my energy and enthusiasm. In the words of Tennyson: "Come, my friends. `Tis not too late to seek a newer world." Thank you.

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