NUMBER 1088 • 17 NOVEMBER • men in children’s lives
The primary exposure most children have to men in a caring role is to their own fathers. There is an increasing recognition of the importance of the role that fathers play in child-rearing (Lamb 1997). A growing body of evidence suggests that a boy’s distance from his father can cause or aggravate any behavioural problems he might display (Pleck 1996). Other studies describe the benefits to children of positive parental involvement in families, and these include better educational achievement. The symbolic importance of fatherhood is also acknowledged in the literature (McKeown et al 1997) to the extent that the children’s desire for absent fathers has been described as ‘father hunger.’ (Herzog 2001).
The significance of this intergenerational link was acknowledged by a number of interviewees in recent research, considering the experiences of young dads. One of them could claim ‘The trauma of my dad walking out has played a major part in my life’ and proceed to recount how he felt he had gone on to replicate his dad’s behaviours in his own subsequent relationships (Smith and Cavanagh 2002). Despite a powerful political discourse against absent fathers, the reality is that eight out of ten fathers still live with all of their biological children and only thirteen percent don’t live with any of them. Of the non-resident dads though, seven out of ten remain in contact with their children (Burghes cited in Daniel and Taylor 2001). Most children then can count on regular contact with their dads.
However, the situation changes significantly in respect of children involved in the child protection process, the children with whom we come into contact in child and youth care. Of these children, only thirty eight percent live with both parents, thirty one percent with a lone mother, twenty eight percent in reconstituted families and two percent with lone dads. The figures for those still with both parents drops sharply as child protection proceedings continue (Daniel and Taylor 2001). In the absence of natural fathers, non-paternal males can play critical roles in the lives of children. The importance of men in mediating the transition of boys to adulthood is of course recognised in traditional societies through rites of passage ceremonies. A similar role was fulfilled until fairly recently in the developed world in the system of trade apprenticeships, whereby young apprentices were assigned an experienced tradesman to induct them into the skills of a particular craft.
On a wider cultural level, this process helped serve to initiate young men into the adult world. The importance of positive male mentors other than their natural fathers becomes particularly important as boys approach adolescence (Biddulph 1997). “But we know that children whose fathers are absent tend to be children who have few if any male models of nurturing or care anywhere in their lives. These children can be overly dependent on their often exhausted, lonely mothers, knowing no “significant other” to help them feel secure as they search for autonomy from her.” (Pruett 2003). In such situations there is an obvious risk that boys will either become socially cut-off or will seek male role models exclusively within their peer groups, thus risking what Bly (1996) calls a ‘sibling society’ in which boys are cut off from appropriate intergenerational influences. Yet the importance of positive non-parental models is not just an immediate one but is implicated in men’s future ability to enter into intimate relationships (Dorr 2001) Boys in care are likely to be especially disadvantaged in their ability to access positive male role models. The absence of appropriate males in the home is compounded by the lack of male teachers in primary school and by the diminishing popularity of boys-only organisations such as the Scouts. It therefore becomes incumbent on the care system to provide opportunities through which their transition to adulthood might be mediated.
Smith, M. (2003). Boys to men: exploring masculinity. In Child and Youth Care. Relational Child and Youth Care, 16 (4), pp. 12 – 21