06/20/2015 10:39 am ET Updated Jun 20, 2016

Good News About Prodigal Fathers

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Father's Day passes largely unmarked behind prison bars. For the men and women I've met, whose fathers were all too often dead, locked up, angry, violent, emotionally distant, or just plain gone, the third Sunday in June is nothing to celebrate.

More and more of us can relate. Today one in three American children grows up in a home without their biological father, and the national trend toward fatherlessness among all racial groups is an underlying factor in everything from gang violence to childhood obesity. Fatherlessness is part of the well-rehearsed script in media coverage of urban crime, entrenched poverty, and achievement gaps.

With its well-researched, widespread social consequences, fatherlessness is a plague on all our houses--not just the ones without good dads. But there's some surprisingly good news. If good fathers matter so much--if they can raise their children's test scores, keep them out of jail, help them graduate high school, protect them from poverty, and help them avoid drug abuse and premature sexual activity--then, just by supporting and empowering fathers, we can put a dent in some of our most intractable social problems.

Many of the problems that harm a child's well-being--like living in a high-crime neighborhood or attending a failing school--are massive and hard to address. But any child can have a good dad, and all the developmental benefits that come along with one. Building better fathers is the low-hanging fruit of community restoration.

So how do we help children grow up with better fathers? Shaming and criminalizing "deadbeat dads" hasn't helped; such rhetoric only reinforces fathers' sense that their children don't really need them. Fathers need to know they matter as more than wage-earners. From churches, fathers need to hear that they have a God-given, irreplaceable role to play in the protection, nurture, and development of their children. They need to know that Christianity's offer of redemption applies to prodigal fathers as much as to prodigal sons, and even imperfect dads have much to offer. As a culture, we must frame fathers as solutions instead of problems.

We especially need to invest in dads who have already missed the mark. Dads set life patterns for their children to follow. From my own father, who can fix just about anything, I learned that broken people, like broken things, can often be restored if we are willing to invest our time and care. No father has it all together, and those who have failed most vividly in the past can still demonstrate new patterns for their sons and daughters. They can learn and practice the practical parenting skills they didn't acquire earlier in life. One dad I know took little interest in his daughter until he was incarcerated. He took parenting courses behind bars, started corresponding with her, and learned she had a passion for chess. He learned how to play her favorite game and started playing matches with her via mail and phone. Though away from her physically, he became a better dad while incarcerated than he had ever been on the outside.

Even more powerfully, broken dads can model repentance, reconciliation, and resolve. I saw this just last month at a correctional facility in Florida, where incarcerated men walked across a stage in gowns and tassels to celebrate their graduation from an in-prison, seminary-level educational program. One mom I met had pulled her two sons out of school for the day, driven them many miles to the prison, and put them through the rigors of the prison's security procedure, just so they could see their father model educational achievement. She knew his example would stick with her sons for a lifetime.

We can do a lot more to help men become better fathers. We can pursue criminal justice reforms--like child-friendly visiting policies, community corrections, and widely available, evidence-based parenting classes--that will directly improve the lives of children who are fatherless because of incarceration. Just as importantly, we can publicly affirm the importance of all fathers and build up the skills of those who may be struggling, even as we hold fathers accountable for behaviors that harm children.

It's hard to be a good dad, especially if your own did a poor job, or no job at all. For many, it means facing the sins of their own fathers and seeking the grace to break a cycle reaching back generations. But men can do better for their children; paternity is not destiny. It's up to all of us to stop wringing our hands and empower men to be better fathers. Then we'll all have something to celebrate on Father's Day.

Jim Liske is president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. You can find them online at