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Obama talks fatherhood

From NBC's Athena Jones

Saying fatherhood was a privilege and not an obligation, President Obama used the Friday before Father's Day to launch what he hopes will be a national conversation on fatherhood and personal responsibility.

Both are issues that Obama, who grew up without his father, has spoken about often and today the White House hosted a town hall at which five men, from an activist to an athlete, spoke about their experiences as fathers and the importance of being involved in their children's lives and called on men who do not have children of their own to serve as mentors and role models.

Video: MSNBC's Richard Wolffe reacts to President Barack Obama's speech on fatherhood and family values.

"We all know the difference that a responsible, committed father like those five gentlemen can make in the life of a child," Obama told the East Room audience. "Fathers are our first teachers and coaches. They're our mentors. 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."

He also noted the damage absent fathers can do to a family, citing statistics that show children who grow up without fathers are more likely to drop out of school, end up in prison or have substance abuse problems. He told the audience he had promised that he would be a better father to his daughters than his own father was to him and he described the impact his father's absence had on him.

"That's something that leaves a hole in a child's heart that government can't fill," Obama said.

The issue of parental responsibility, came up frequently on the campaign trail. In a Father's Day speech last year at a black church on Chicago's South Side, Obama spoke of the family as a the rock upon which people build their lives.

"The family is that most important foundation," he said then. "And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation."

The president spent part of the day at the Arlington, Va., branch of Year Up, a non-profit organization that trains at risk 18-24 year olds who have high school diplomas or GEDs so that they can get full-time jobs or go to college. He told some 50 students at the center that the fact that they may have grown up without their fathers did not mean they could not be good father themselves.

After the town hall in the afternoon, Obama headed to the South Lawn for a barbecue where he wished "all the fathers out there" a Happy Fathers Day, got some pointers on grilling from Chef Bobby Flay and spent a few minutes visiting with teens.

The White House plans to hold a series of regional town hall forums throughout the summer and fall to discuss the importance of responsible fatherhood.