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President Obama: On Fatherhood and Mentoring

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The following is President Obama's speech on fatherhood. The remarks were given in address at the White House on Friday, June 19.

Good afternoon, everybody. It is wonderful to see you. I see some familiar faces in the house. Rev, how are you doing? It is great to have all of you here today as we gear up to celebrate Father's Day and to recognize the vital role that fathers play in our communities and obviously in our families.

This town hall marks the beginning of a national conversation that we hope to start about fatherhood and personal responsibility—about how fathers across America are meeting the challenges in their families and communities, and what government can do to support those who are having a difficult time. Today, you've had a chance to hear from five of those fathers, men who are doing an outstanding job of meeting their obligations in their own lives.

We all know the difference that a responsible, committed father like those five gentlemen can make in the life of a child. Fathers are our first teachers and coaches. They're our mentors and they're our role models. They set an example of success and they push us to succeed; encourage us when we're struggling; and they love us even when we disappoint them, and they stand by us when nobody else will.

And when fathers are absent—when they abandon their responsibilities to their children—we know the damage that that does to our families. Some of you know the statistics: Children who grow up without fathers are more likely to drop out of school and wind up in prison. They're more likely to have substance abuse problems, run away from home, and become teenage parents themselves.

And I say this as someone who grew up without a father in my own life. I had a heroic mom and wonderful grandparents who helped raise me and my sister, and it's because of them that I'm able to stand here today. But despite all their extraordinary love and attention, that doesn't mean that I didn't feel my father's absence. That's something that leaves a hole in a child's heart that a government can't fill.

Our government can build the best schools with the best teachers on Earth, but we still need fathers to ensure that the kids are coming home and doing their homework, and having a book instead of the TV remote every once in a while. Government can put more cops on the streets, but only fathers can make sure that those kids aren't on the streets in the first place. Government can create good jobs, but we need fathers to train for these jobs and hold down these jobs and provide for their families.

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If we want our children to succeed in life, we need fathers to step up. We need fathers to understand that their work doesn't end with conception—that what truly makes a man a father is the ability to raise a child and invest in that child.

We need fathers to be involved in their kids' lives not just when it's easy—not just during the afternoons in the park or at the zoo, when it's all fun and games— but when it's hard, when young people are struggling, and there aren't any quick fixes or easy answers, and that's when young people need compassion and patience, as well as a little bit of tough love.

Now, this is a challenge even in good times. And it can be especially tough during times like these, when parents have a lot on their minds—they're worrying about keeping their jobs, or keeping their homes or their health care, paying their bills, trying to give their children the same opportunities that they had. And so it's understandable that parents get concerned, some fathers who feel they can't support their families, get distracted. And even those who are more fortunate may be physically present, but emotionally absent.

I know that some of the young men who are here today might have their own concerns one day about being a dad. Some of you might be worried that if you didn't have a father, then you don't know how to be one when your turn comes. Some of you might even use that as an excuse, and say, "Well, if my dad wasn't around, why should I be?"

Let's be clear: Just because your own father wasn't there for you, that's not an excuse for you to be absent also—it's all the more reason for you to be present. There's no rule that says that you have to repeat your father's mistakes. Just the opposite—you have an obligation to break the cycle and to learn from those mistakes, and to rise up where your own fathers fell short and to do better than they did with your own children.

That's what I've tried to do in my life. When my daughters were born, I made a pledge to them, and to myself, that I would do everything I could to give them some things I didn't have. And I decided that if I could be one thing in life, it would be to be a good father.

I haven't always known exactly how to do that. I've made my share of mistakes; I've had to ask a lot of questions. But I've also learned from men that I admire. And one good example is Michelle's father, Frasier Robinson, who was a shining example of loving, responsible fatherhood. Here is a man who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was 30 years old, but he still got up every day, went to a blue-collar job. By the time I knew him he was using two crutches to get around, but he always was able to get to every dance recital, every ballgame of Michelle's brother. He was there constantly, and helped to shape extraordinary success for his children.

And that's the standard that I strive for, though I don't always meet it. And as I've said before, I've made mistakes as a parent, and I'm sure I will make plenty more. There have been days when the demands of work have taken me from my duties as a father and I've missed some moments in my daughters' lives that I'll never get back. So I've been far from perfect.

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But in the end, it's not about being perfect. It's not always about succeeding; but it's about always trying. And that's something everybody can do. It's about showing up and sticking with it; and going back at it when you mess up; and letting your kids know—not just with words, but with deeds—that you love them and that you're always—they're always your first priority.

And we need dads—but also men who aren't dads—to make this kind of commitment not just in their own homes to their own families, but to the many young people out there who aren't lucky enough to have responsible adults in their lives. We need committed, compassionate men to serve as mentors and tutors, and big brothers and foster parents. Even if it's just for a couple hours a week of shooting hoops, or helping with homework, or just talking about what's going on in that young person's life. Even the smallest moments can end up having an enormous impact, a lasting impact on a child's life.

So I am grateful to many of the organizations that are here, that are working on these issues. Some are faith-based; some are not. Some are government funded; some are privately funded. But all of you have those same commitments to making sure that we are lifting up the importance of fatherhood in our communities.

This is not the end, this is the beginning, of what I hope is going to be a national dialogue. And we're going to have regional town hall meetings, as Mike may have mentioned, to make sure that participants all across the country are starting to have that positive effect in their communities.

And I especially want to thank the young people who are here today, because you're the ones who are going to have to carry this forward.

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