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Last December, a quiet morning in Newtown, Conn., was shattered by gunfire and the screams of horrified children. When the shooting stopped, 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students and six adults were dead.
A few of the questions about that tragic day were answered in a Connecticut State’s Attorney report. We learned that the Sandy Hook shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, kept a spreadsheet of mass murders, and that he did not allow anyone, including his mother, into a bedroom whose windows were covered by trash bags. We learned that Lanza, who’d become increasingly anti-social, communicated with his mother only by email, even though they lived in the same house. What we didn’t learn was Lanza’s motive for the shootings. Not that it makes much difference.
I think it’s enough to know that Lanza, whose fascination with school shootings was expressed in a story he wrote in fifth grade, was mentally ill and obsessed with mass murders. Will we someday learn why his pathologies converged at Sandy Hook, the elementary school he attended as a child? Perhaps, but for me, the bigger question is this: How did we become a society in which a madman can look to dozens of mass shootings as models for his own killing spree?
The answer, I believe, is the same one that explains why a young person would walk up to a perfect stranger and punch them in the face. It’s the same answer that explains the unacceptable murder rate in Philadelphia and other large American cities. The answer is identical to the one that explains the proliferation of gun violence and our crumbling social fabric.
The answer lies in the disappearance of the nuclear family.
According to U.S. Census data, married couples with children make up just 19 percent of American households in 2013. That’s a drop of 21 percentage points since 1970.
That means young people like Adam Lanza, whose parents were divorced, are not the exception. Rather they are the rule. I know that divorce is damaging, because I, too, grew up as the child of divorce. It affected our family financially, emotionally, but most of all, it made us—made me—feel like we’d lost the sense of self that comes with the presence of both parents.
But Lanza was also dealing with mental illness, and I can’t pretend to know what drives mass murderers like him. Nor can I fathom what would make so many young men on our streets kill with impunity. I can, however, say with certainty that nuclear families make a difference in the lives of children. Not just because I come from a home that was split by divorce, but also because I had my first child before I was married.
I learned through that experience that having weekly visits is different from being present in the home. I learned that parenting should never be reduced to phone calls, gift-giving, and child support checks. Most importantly, I learned that there is nothing that you can give your child to replace your daily presence in their lives.
As a married father, I’ve seen the difference that nuclear families make, not only in the lives of children, but also in the lives of parents. Being responsible for families helps men grow into fathers, helps women grow into mothers, and pushes parents toward the kinds of give-and-take that yield success.
This is not to say that single parents can’t raise beautiful and successful children. They can. But raising children is difficult enough with two people. It’s that much harder to do alone. And for whatever reason, too many women are doing it alone.
Forty-eight percent of children living only with a mother in 2013 had a mother who had never been married, according to the Census report, and 45 percent of children living with single mothers lived in poverty. By contrast, only 21 percent of children living with single fathers lived in poverty.
But the presence of fathers is about so much more than preventing physical poverty. It’s also about preventing the emotional poverty that causes children to grow up seeking destruction.
That’s why men, in particular, must do more to make nuclear families work. Men must step up and do whatever we can to make marriage and commitment the goal for our families. Men must realize that we are responsible for the people we help to create. Men must do all we can to make sure we are more than a name on a child support check. Men have to step up to be fathers, to be husbands, to be men.
The nuclear family is not Ozzie and Harriet—a meticulously dressed housewife who tends the picket-fenced home while her husband goes off to work. Rather, the nuclear family is a couple working together to protect and provide for the children they create.
That’s what communities are made of. It’s what gives children the sense of self they need in order to overcome the negative influences of an increasingly fragmented society.
If we want to stop the trend toward violence and mass murder in our crumbling communities, we can’t afford to view nuclear families as a thing of the past. Instead we must view them as a thing of the future. Otherwise, we’ll keep raising up lost men like Adam Lanza, and none of us wants that.