Advice Column, Parenting

The Importance Of Being A Loving And Involved Dad

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Some time ago, I went to a talk on gender issues at my sons’ school by Prof Cheryl de la Rey, during which she voiced her concern about the large percentage of boys in SA growing up without fathers and how this lack of male guidance may be linked to the high rate of gender-based violence, particularly rape, in our country. This got me thinking and researching the topic.

It seems fatherless boys feel incomplete, alone and lacking a strong identity. They are more drawn to seek acceptance in groups – unfortunately not always positive influences. They often struggle with discipline issues (are more likely to display ‘hypermasculine’ behaviour, including aggression) at home and at school, where they are outperformed by students with fathers in all subjects. They’re also more likely to make poor choices, including becoming fathers early, getting involved in crime and abusing alcohol and/or drugs, which can impact their lives forever.

The emotional availability and involvement of a father in a child’s life is quite possibly more important than the physical presence of fathers in the household on a day-to-day basis. In South Africa, where migrant labour is still a big issue, this is an important factor. A study in Botswana concluded that “children are not necessarily disadvantaged by the absence of their father, but they are disadvantaged when they belong to a household without access to the social position, labour, and financial support that is provided by men.” Men providing financial support for their children could mean the difference between children being given a good education, better living conditions and a chance in life versus growing up in poverty.  A study in America found that children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor. In 2011, 12% of children in married-couple families were living in poverty, compared to 44% of children in mother-only families.

In South Africa, it was estimated by Ms Richter of the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council) that around 54% of men aged 15-49 years were fathers, but that nearly 50% of these fathers did not have daily contact with their children. The failure of men to acknowledge and/or support their children, together with high rates of sexual and physical abuse, which is perpetrated mainly by men, points to a situation of ‘men in crisis’ in South Africa. Poverty and high rates of unemployment may be a contributing factor in the large numbers of fathers failing to take responsibility of their children – many are financially unable to do so. This can lead to a downward spiral where fathers may be there physically, but emotionally they indulge in alcohol or drugs and become irresponsible and unresponsive to their families.

Whether parents of children are married or not also plays a role in whether the father will be absent or present. A study in Soweto and Johannesburg found that only 20% of fathers who were not married to their child’s mother at the time of its birth were still in contact with their children by the time they were 11 years old. Research by the SA Institute of Race Relations indicates that “the typical” child is raised by a mother in a single-parent household. Most fathers are alive, but absent. A racial dimension was evident in trends of absent fathers – in 2009 black children under 15 years had the lowest percentage of present fathers at 30%, compared to 53% for coloured children, 85% for Indians and 83% for whites. Only 35% of children were living with both their biological parents in 2008.

Boys need their dads. Not just ANY dads though – dads who are good male role models; kind, loving, involved and interested in their children. Dads they can admire, respect and aspire to be like. Girls need their dads too. Girls who grow up with their fathers are more likely to have higher self-esteem, lower levels of risky sexual behaviour, and fewer difficulties in forming and maintaining romantic relationships later in life. They have less likelihood of having an early pregnancy, bearing children outside marriage, marrying early, or getting divorced. Both boys and girls are less likely to be obese, according to a survey done in the USA.

It seems growing up without a dad can be a make or break factor in later life. There are many negatives, but there are also many examples of extremely successful men and women who have enormous drive and ambition partly because of the untimely death of or abandonment by their fathers. These include: Halle Berry, Orlando Bloom, Pierce Brosnan, Mariah Carey, 50 Cent, Eric Clapton, Bill Clinton, Samuel Jackson, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Barbra Streisand, Shania Twain. The success of these celebrities may be largely attributed to being raised well by their single mothers.

Here are a few tips for single mothers on raising happy, healthy and successful children:

  • Support your child by recognising their strengths, talents and gifts; talk about these and do whatever you can to give them opportunities to excel at these.
  • Help your child to be part of a healthy “tribe” or group – church, a sports team, drama club, dance group – rather than leaving it up to them to find their own peer group.
  • Watch out for silent anger. Be compassionate and keep an eye out for less obvious signs such as exasperation at school, bullying or self loathing. Encourage your child to express their anger in a positive way, or get help for them to learn better coping methods.
  • Beware of lopsided views about sex, love and trust. Boys don’t get the practical advice they need about sex from their dads that would carry them into healthy, fulfilling relationships as men. They may also have a deep-seated hurt leading them to view love as a weakness, and could have difficulty trusting someone with their heart. Girls often confuse sex with love, and could get involved in early sexual behaviour hoping to get the love they yearn for from their fathers. Discuss the difference between sex and love. Remind them that they were conceived in love. Ask a male relative or important male in your son’s life to talk to him about sex and the emotional aspects of dating, having sex and falling in love. Talk to your daughters in a positive way about being in love and valuing your body enough to wait for the right person.
  • Without a father to model character and reflect appropriate male behaviours such as respect, self-discipline, politeness and confidence, boys are left to choose character traits from the world around them – from celebrities, pro athletes, popular musicians and the like. As a result, boys without fathers sometimes misunderstand male character. Girls may also aspire to be like female celebrities and be drawn to ‘bad boys’. Keep an eye on who they are emulating. Because you are the strong, central part of their lives, they’re probably incorporating a lot of your values and behaviours, so be aware of what you model. Be sure to surround yourself with the kind of men you’d like your son to become one day and your daughter to choose as a life partner.
  • Studies show that even limited contact with their father is beneficial to sons and daughters. You’ll do your child a tremendous favour if you can put aside any feelings of bitterness, estrangement or judgment, and do everything possible to help your child and their father reconnect. Encourage communication, even if their dad lives far away. Obviously this is not advisable if there is abuse of any kind, neglect, hurt or irresponsible behaviour when the child is with them.

To sum it up, Professor Rohner of the University of Connecticut says: “There’s a very consistent worldwide effect of impaired psychological adjustment wherever kids perceive themselves to be rejected by mom or dad, and that effect shows up more significantly for dads than for moms”. In other words, a father’s rejection more strongly predicted four classes of child behaviour: behavioural problems, substance abuse, depression and overall maladjustment. A father’s love, meanwhile, more strongly predicted satisfaction and well-being. “Men have their own way… and a child thrives on that,” says Campbell, who teaches at Western University in Ontario. “The message (to dads) is to be there and be involved. You can do it.”

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