How does growing up without a father affect a growing boy? Are there physiological or psychological effects? What can I do to help my son?

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In days gone by, the nuclear family with 2.4 children was the foundation of society. I can remember being the exception in school, the odd one out. Growing up without a father was certainly unusual, unusual and tough. 

How times have changed. Now the numbers tell a very different story. There are now 1.6 million women raising a child or children alone. 

As an example, in Manor Castle, a ward of Sheffield, 75 percent of all households are headed by a single parent, most often a woman. 

If you believed the church and the state, the breakdown of Western society was due to single parent (read between the lines…women!!) families, their decadence and their irresponsibility. We can all laugh at these old, tired, well worn, sad old tropes but the perception of a single parent family and, more crucially, the children from single parent families is still writ large in the psyche of society.  

For boys, growing up without a father can lead to:

  • Effects on mental health.
  • More pressure on the mother (time, emotionally, physically and financially).
  • Reduced socialisation and academic achievement.
  • Lower success in adulthood.
  • Weaker relationships.
  • Less balanced upbringing overall.

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How Does Growing Up Without a Father Affect Boys?

The single parent boy is bound to underachieve in school. He will have poorer job prospects. He is more likely to indulge in petty crime, more likely to be part of the prison system. A child of a single parent is more likely to engage with gateway drugs and by association, hard drugs.

We have all seen, heard about and read about all of these things time and time again. If this is such a big problem, why did I not experience any of these things growing up without a father? My sister and I were raised by my mother after my father died when I was 12. 

What was it? Was it luck? The more I think about it, it was not. It was my mother. Her strength, grace, power and determination helped both me and my sister avoid the typical traps and pitfalls that have so convinced society at large. 

Baby Boy

Role Models

Traditionally having a ‘male’ role model has a whole raft of benefits. These are well documented and researched so it isn’t really necessary to belabour the points again here. How, then, is it possible that both me and my sister dodged the proverbial bullet?

I think the undue fixation on a ‘male’ and a male role model or father figure may be doing parents of the world a disservice. What growing children need is an authority figure or role model or models that they can look up to. One that they can aspire to be, one they can see all the qualities that they desire encapsulated in the important people in their lives. 

With care and attention, any parent can provide the guidance, skill set and balance needed by young children. In 2020 these qualities are well understood and easy to mirror in our behaviours. 

If we look at the issue and break it down we can all name ‘male’ attributes, something that we traditionally assign to the father or father figure. There is:

  • Strength.
  • Stoicism. 
  • Protection and taking ‘care’ of the family. 
  • Being a breadwinner and provider. 
  • Strong work ethic. 
  • Trustworthiness.
  • A teacher of morals and values.
  • Patience. 
  • Spends time with his sons.
  • Plus many others that I am sure you can think of too.

Strength isn’t exclusively a male preserve. It can be demonstrated in innumerate ways, not just simply lifting heavy boxes and carrying all the shopping bags at once. Changing a car tire or doing a few DIY jobs around the house isn’t something that only dad can do. 

We can dissect the list point by point but I am sure that already you can see that one by one, the idea of only a ‘male’ can provide these things seems increasingly quite bizarre as you work through the list. Is it really true that in 2020 a ‘male’ quality is that of a ‘breadwinner’ or a protector or even having a strong work ethic?

 

It can be seen then, and I think you will agree, a lot of these ‘traditional’ values having nothing to do with inherently being a ‘father’ or even just ‘male’. They are the qualities of just being a good parent. No more, no less. I believe there is an over reliance in some quarters on the genderisation of parental roles. 

Isn’t enough that we concentrate on being the best possible parent we can be? In doing so we can hope to instill all the values we want to see in our boys as they grow into young men? 

Feminine Power

If I went on to list the values of caring, sharing, nurturing, teaching, loving or patience, we could all agree they would be admirable qualities in a well adjusted young man. On reflection, it could equally be suggested that all of these were very ‘feminine’ or mothering qualities. It just adds to the lie of the idea that there are gendered qualities rather than those of a ‘good parent’. 

We can all agree that it would be better if a growing boy had two good parents, if only to share the workload and financial burdens. After all, we all need help at some point or another. An extra pair of hands too, can be a godsend, even at the best of times. The key point being a parent or parents, not just the tropes of ‘mother’ and ‘father’. 

Problems on the Horizon?

It is certainly true that boys would feel better talking to their dad or a father figure about typically ‘boy stuff’. Going to their parent or parents for deeply personal issues can be very hard for a growing boy at the best of times. 

It is true that having only a mother for these ‘boy talks’ would make it harder, so it is imperative that open and frank dialogues are an important part of any single parent households. If the ground work isn’t done early, it would certainly make the difficult job of adolescence more of a chore than it already is.

What should you be aware of? There are certain key times, birthdays, Christmas, father’s day etc…that will certainly bring the issue to the fore. As the parent, you can take time to ask if he would like to talk through any issues he may have had at school or seen in the media. 

 

You can ask if he would like to do anything special with you? You can look for extra engagement and provide additional reassurance. Losing one parent can create fear that you too may also leave. The fear of possible abandonment is all too real, growing up this was, on the bad days, often on my mind. 

The Teen Years?

A young boy, or growing teenager may find it hard or even be unwilling to articulate these feelings and simply bottle them up. I know that this was hard to tell my mum. I always had the fear that I would add to the burdens. I wanted ‘to be a man’ and not complain and simply deal with it. 

I realise now that mum was all too aware of this and that all the awkward ‘chats’ we had weren’t my mother being fussy or prying. I now know that she was always aware of my pain and trying to help me bring it up. 

Conclusion

If you are a ‘man down’, literally, and sorry about the awful pun, what can you do to help your boy who is growing up without a father?

Boys will be boys and they certainly have their own set of unique problems growing up. With the right groundwork, care and attention these problems can be managed, headed off at the pass so to speak. 

If open discussion and a sharing of feelings are part and parcel of the household, then this can help mitigate any distance of discomfort a boy will feel talking to his mother about his problems. 

You can’t take the place of a lost father. You can’t be the ‘dad’ he needs. What you can be is a role model that embodies all the qualities that you aspire to see in your son. He can learn strength, honesty and decency from you. You can be the positive force in his life to shape his formative years.

I know, I have seen it done and am the living proof that it can work.