Friday, July 2, 2010

Fatherlessness: Putting the pieces back in place

Kevin sat on the floor of the school chaplaincy office with me, cross legged, dirty knees, and with the same stain on his shirt that he had yesterday. He was gently dismantling a simple jigsaw puzzle we had just completed together, assigning the name of a family member to each piece as he did so.

“That’s my sister. She’s in welfare and sends me emails sometimes. That’s my brother, who’s in another welfare family. That’s my other brother, who is in welfare too. That’s my dad. He’s in jail… Or does he live down south? I forget, but he tried to kill us kids, so he went to jail.”

A few silent moments passed before I spoke up. “That’s a lot of pieces from your puzzle that aren’t there any more.”

“Yep,” he nodded. “Just me and mum now.”

“Would you like those pieces to be a part of your puzzle again?”

“I don’t want to see this one,” he scowled, holding the piece he had used to represent his father.

I ran my fingers across the now incomplete picture. “What about all these other pieces?” I asked.

“This one is Miss Morgan. This one is Stevie. This one is mum… You’ve met my mum, haven’t you?”

I nodded.

His frown quickly became a smile. “So you’re in my family now!”

And so I was adopted into Kevin’s family. We will meet for an hour every week for the rest of the year. His teacher would be happy if I spent time with him every day, but every teacher in the school has a list of kids for me.

In my 6 months as chaplain at a local primary school, I have had three children accidentally call me ‘dad,’ and at least five ask me to visit them at their home. At lunch, crowds of students will beg me to watch them swing from the monkey bars, to chase them around the play ground, to listen to the songs they have written…

If our school is anything like most other schools, 31% of these kids are growing up in a single-parent home, and if these homes are anything like most single-parent homes, more than eight out of ten will be run by a single mother. One teacher recently joked that the school should clone me, but I’m not so sure it’s me the kids are looking for. Aren’t these kids just looking for a dad?

In his book, To Own a Dragon, Donald Miller reflects on his experience of growing up without a father. “For me a father is nothing more than a character in a fairy tale,” he writes. “And I know fathers are not like dragons in that fathers actually exist, but I don’t remember feeling that a father existed for me.”

Of course, Miller is not alone.

Around 18 million American children currently live absent of their biological father, and by the time they reach adolescence, 60% of the kids born after 1987 will be neither in the same house as, nor be financially supported by the man who helped to make them. According to Miller, more than 70 per cent of students who drop out of school come from fatherless homes, and even more sobering, 85 per cent of the guys in prison grew up without a dad. Selah.

David Blankenhorn penned a hugely influential book in the 1990s called Fatherless America. For him the main issue is not just that so many dads are MIA, but the growing belief that fatherhood is an unnecessary function.

He asserts: “The key for men is to be fathers. The key for children is to have fathers. The key for society is to create fathers. For society, the primary results of fatherhood are right-doing males and better outcomes for children. Conversely, the primary consequences of fatherlessness are rising male violence and declining child well-being.” No two ways about it: dads are important for this guy.

As you can probably imagine, some people though he hit the nail of fatherhood on the head, while others thought the nail should have been left alone or pulled out altogether.

Obviously we need men (or at least bits of them) to help with making babies, but is the key for men to be fathers? Is it so important for children to have dads? Will society fall apart without them? The answer, it would seem, depends on what you mean by ‘father.’

Throughout the 18th and much of the 19th century fathers were seen to be moral observers, guiding their sinful children and their pure, yet irrationally emotional wives. A poem from the time sets the tone nicely: “The father gives his kind command, the mother joins, approves; the children all attentive stand, then each obedient moves.”

In the early 19th to mid 20th century dads became distant bread winners. Industrialisation saw men away from the coop for longer, while women feathered the nest and cared for the chicks. In 1900, Harper’s Bazaar lamented that “the suburban husband and father is almost entirely a Sunday institution.”

In the 1940s fathers became a gender role model, thanks to new theories in developmental psychology which placed extreme significance on the father in the two-parent partnership. By the 1950s it was commonly believed father absence led to juvenile delinquency, while over-mothered children were deemed to be at risk of schizophrenia or homosexuality.

David Blankenhorn’s ideal of fatherhood is comprised of bits and pieces from each of the above views, and most people would agree that a dad should guide and provide and walk the talk of real manhood. But the issue for Blankenhorn is not only what men should be like as fathers. Of equal importance is for society to be able to mentor them, and for every kid to have a dad who convinces them of their value.

In To Own a Dragon, Miller quotes Dwight Eisenhower, who once said his parents had made an assumption that set the course of his life – “that the world could be fixed of its problems if every child understood the necessity of their existence.” Miller was struck by this, unable to comprehend what it would have been like if, as a kid, he had felt completely needed.

“I knew, somehow that my mother’s long working hours were because of my sister and me,” he says. “But I never thought to ascribe my mother’s emotional and physical exhaustion to the lack of a husband and father; rather, I ascribed it to my existence. I grew up believing that if I had never been born, things would be easier for the people I loved.

“I grew up thinking I was stupid,” he says. “My report cards said it; the red ink at the top of every page of homework said it, the frustration on my teachers’ faces. When you think you’re stupid, you act stupid.”

Which brings us back to Kevin. Some days he will manage to avoid his work completely; all the while wholeheartedly performing his role in a play for which nobody else seems to know the lines. He is like a moth in a lampshade, buzzing from desk to desk. As a result, he spends more time in the detention room than any other student I know. The report cards, the red ink and the frustration on his teacher’s face all communicate the very things we would never want him to believe about himself.

It would be simplistic to attribute all of Kevin’s behaviour to his dad’s absence. There are other factors. He has been diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder, his mum is at work a lot of the time and he eats a lot of junk. The other kids pick on him, and have done so for quite a while. In fact, there are many researchers who would say that fatherlessness in itself is entirely inconsequential.

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, there are “no significant associations between the frequency of father-child contact and child outcomes.” A 2003 discussion paper by The Australia Institute, while acknowledging the complexity of the matter, says that “the evidence of research shows that neither fatherlessness nor divorce by themselves determine children’s well-being,” and that “fatherlessness, in and of itself is not the powerful or primary social problem it has been represented to be.”

And then there is the area of illegal behaviour and mental health. The findings of a 1998 study “are contrary to the common attitude regarding the effects of fatherlessness as a risk factor.” A 2005 study concludes that “no positive association… was found,” and a 1986 study found that “youths who live with a biological father and no mother are more likely to use substances than youths who live with a biological mother and no father.”

How on earth do we explain Don Miller’s dragon, then? What about David Blankenhorn’s huge claims? And how do we solve a problem like Kevin?

The issue is mostly that we confuse correlation with causation. People used to erroneously believe trash caused flies to appear (causation), but they soon found out that flies just like to be wherever trash is (correlation). There is a correlation between fatherlessness and kids who are missing out, but fatherlessness in itself is not the cause, otherwise we could conclude that kids with dads would therefore have it all together.

Fatherlessness can be the result of divorce, for example, which usually involves fighting, financial hardship, stress, under-supervised kids and, sometimes, social ostracism. All these things are true for Kevin, and they each play a part in his self-picture. The main finding in each of the above studies is that child-father contact is not a magic fix-all trick; it is both the character of the father (biological or not) and the quality of the time spent.

Miller says the more he came to understand this stuff, the more he was confronted with the need for more than just data and information: “There isn’t any proof that a guy who grows up in a family with a dad is any better than a guy who grows up in a family with a bad one. Still, a logical argument isn’t able to change the heart,” he says. “My mind knew there wasn’t anything wrong with me – that the problem was from my father handed down – but this knowledge didn’t make me feel any more secure.

“I realised what I really wanted, what my soul was longing for, was belonging. I wanted a father to take ownership of me, to care about me more than he cared about anything else in the world, or for that matter, anybody in the world. Even though I didn’t have a father, this was still true for me.”

It is generally accepted that our view of God reflects the view we have of our parents, and Miller recognises this tendency within himself: “I had a more distant picture of God than that of Father. The God in my imagination was terribly old, forgetful, not so much interacting with humanity as apathetically watching us work our jobs and mow our lawns. This idea of God fathering us was new to me. I liked the idea I hadn’t been completely abandoned.”

In the controversial Fatherless in Galilee, Andries G Van Aarde argues that Jesus’ life and teaching were deeply influenced by his (allegedly substandard) rapport with Joseph. Van Aarde says that Jesus “lived in a strained relationship with his kin, while his life began to be characterised by an absolute trust in God as his Father. The insignificant, the nobodies of Galilean society, formed his audience when he spoke about his Father’s rule. He envisaged the kingdom of God as comparable to a household in which distorted relationships are healed.”

For Van Aarde, the pain Jesus felt from his earthly father (who is not even mentioned by Paul or Mark, the earliest New Testament writers) was the very stuff upon which he built his ministry.

This is by no means a new idea. Richard Rohr, the philosopher theologian, says “all great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it in some form.” John Lennon once urged a generation to “feel your own pain;” the ancient Greek maxim was “know thyself;” Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living;” and Jesus himself said we must take up our cross before we can be discipled, that we must be like the seed that dies so it can live.

Donald Miller arrived at this same conclusion. “One of the issues I deal with, having grown up without a father, is a kind of resentment at the mention of actually needing a dad,” he says, openly acknowledging his pain. “My attitude to God was at first accusatory. I went to God saying, You shafted me. Why didn’t I get a father to tell me he loved me, to teach me all this stuff?

After a friend’s persistent urging, Miller picked up the bestselling Wild at Heart. “John Eldredge says we all carry a ‘father wound,’ and unless our father convinces us we have what it takes, we are probably going to flounder for a while,” says Miller. He came to deeply appreciate the book, but not before angrily throwing it across the room. “I hated anybody who told me I was less of anything because I grew up without a father.”

It is as if children inherit from their fathers a box filled with everything he believed about himself, about his kids, and about the world. Some of it is utter garbage and some of it is priceless treasure. Unless we open the box and sort it out, though, we will never know which is which, and the proverb that the sins of the fathers are revisited on the great-grandchildren will become painfully true.

Steve Biddulph, family therapist and parenting author, says that one way to open the box is to have a chat with your dad in such a way that you can start to understand things from his perspective. If your dad is not around, you can get a bit of a picture by speaking with those who knew him.

Miller didn’t find out a whole lot of info about his own dad, and was in fact surprised to find he had to admit to himself that he still needed one. He actually ended up asking God to father him, but he is clear about his motivations: “I don’t think the reason I am a spiritual person is because I want to be fathered,” he says. “I like the fact that I am fathered by God, but what led me to spirituality was a desire to believe I was human, and that being human mattered.”

He also spent four years as a young man living in the spare room of John MacMurray (the book’s co-author) and his family. Miller says, of To Own a Dragon, that the wisdom is John’s but the words are his own. Just about everything, from manhood and girls to integrity and making decisions, is attributed to John’s unofficial mentoring. Miller even says that he cleans his room now because of his time with John.

It has been said that we are born only with the potential to be human. Clearly, dads are supposed to help kids along the journey to becoming more fully human, but even the best dads can only take their kids some of the way, and even the best dads can’t do it all on their own.

Throughout his book, Miller refers to a number of men who helped him grow up, including a school teacher, a friend’s dad, Theo Huxtable, his church pastor, and even a next-door neighbour he didn’t know very well. Indeed, it took a village to raise Donald Miller.

We now expect the nuclear family to do what the tribe used to do. Is it any wonder we feel we’re cracking up? We’re not supposed to do it on our own – mums, dads or kids. My young friend Kevin is not just his mother’s problem! Scripture says that God puts the lonely in families. Kevin is meant to become our brother, our nephew, our grandson, our cousin. I can find in me no other response for Kevin than to love him with all my heart.

And there are Kevins everywhere I look.

Recently, I was spending some time with two of them. Out of the blue, one said, “Once, when I was praying, I asked God what I would do when I grew up and I heard music.” Immediately, his friend responded: “That would have been God and all his helpers!”

I don’t know all the details of their situation, but I do know they both come from broken homes, and that religion God accepts as pure and faultless is to look after the single mum, the neglected kid and the person on the edge.

So, I play catch with these Kevins (and their sisters), and I invite my friends to do the same. We chat with them. We wave when we see them in the street. We meet with their parents for coffee, and give them a call if the kids are out of line. We show them how to mow the lawn and how to change a tyre. We keep a cupboard filled with snacks for when they drop in. We pray for them and hold a Bible study group in our homes, for kids who want to learn more.

Living this way has brought me to life, and I know the kids appreciate it because they tell us so. What a blessing it has been to meet the parents of these kids and to know we are playing on the same team. I have a sneaking suspicion too, that God knows it’s better for both the lonely and the families to discover each other. I have no doubt that our world is the better for it – I have seen it in my own street.

DT - October 2008