TLC and Reality Checks

A lunch conversation brought to mind a few more thoughts about fathers and their importance in the life of a child. As we talked about the roles mothers and fathers, it occurred to me for the umpteenth time that they are indeed different. Mother Nature coded us differently from the “get-go’ and that 23rd pair of chromosomes continues to affect our thinking and behavior throughout our lives.

While there are exceptions to this, women are the nurturers. Men are the fix-it people, the ones who see a problem and want to solve it right away. Women want to make things all better, and men want to tackle the issues head on. This way of thinking even affects the way parents handle issues with their children.

Parents look ahead to the future and feel uncertainty, anxiety, and perhaps even downright fear when they consider their children stepping into it. The world is fraught with danger and peril, and each parent wants to prepare the child for it. Their ways of preparing youngsters for the world of tomorrow is different, however. Mothers are more likely to see the possible dangers and warn the child to be cautious and careful. Fathers, on the other hand, are more likely to tell the child to step up to the plate and be strong.

The different parental approaches remind me of the difference between justice and mercy. Both are good; both have their value. And yet too much of one without the other is potentially harmful for the development of a well-rounded and responsible individual. When our children were small and would wail, “That’s not fair,” I was inclined to commiserate with them and agree that while it isn’t always fair, that was just the way it was. “Sorry, Sweetie,” I’d say. Their father, on the other hand, would often quip, “Who says life is fair???”

Sometimes parents can switch off and take turns between nurturer and tough guy, but a child needs both approaches. He or she needs justice AND mercy. Sometimes she needs a big dose of TLC and sometime she needs a reality check. When my daughter Carrie was a college student, she was having a little too much fun, and her grades were slipping. I gave her some encouraging pep talks and reminded her of the importance of education. Truthfully, I don’t think it fazed her at all. Her father told her that if her grades didn’t improve, the gravy train was over. That got her attention, and she immediately began to turn things around.

Maybe some single parents are able to be both the nurturer and the task master, the one who tries to make things “all better” and the one who encourages the child to “man up” (even with female children). But me? I needed both  mercy and justice when raising children, and I think most households do.

He’s Really There for Us

I have dads on my mind again this morning. Lest you think that I’m dismissing the importance of mothers, I’m not. It’s just been my experience that if a parent “bails out,” it’s more likely to be the father. Why is that? And what can be done to reverse this social trend? We need to. Any reputable human growth and development text will tell you that adolescents in single-parent households are at higher risk for poor academic performance, delinquency, violent behavior, drinking, and risky sexual behavior.

Even if the father is not in the home, he can be a force for good. It is the quality of his involvement that counts, not his mere presence. We all know fathers who  are hateful, ineffective, and abusive and whose families might be better off if they were to hit the road. I’m not talking about them. I’m referring to the ones who genuinely care about their children but for various reasons don’t actually live with them. If the dad provides financial assistance, fosters a close relationship, and practices authoritative parenting, his children are usually better adjusted than if he were absent.

I recall the moment when I first realized that single parenting was becoming more the norm. A dozen years ago, I had a pretty, petite, pregnant redhead in one of my classes. I was a bit surprised that she was beginning the semester because it’s been my experience that having a newborn usually takes more time and energy than the expectant mom realizes, and more often than not, she ends up withdrawing for that term. Sorry ladies, although there are many exceptions, that’s been my observation, especially if the mother is single.

And that was the case with this young mom. The moment she told me about her “boyfriend,” I thought, “Uh oh,” and  had that sinking feeling that her college career would be cut short. Indeed, I somehow knew that the course of her life was about to be altered in a big way and that unless her circumstances changed, she and her baby would struggle in a myriad of ways.

Little Junior was born, and after a week, there she was back in class. I was delighted and surprised. We talked after class, and she showed me some pictures of the baby. There was a young man smiling and holding the newborn in a couple of the photos, and she proudly told me that he was the baby’s father and her boyfriend.

“He’s really there for us,” she said.

“That’s good to hear, “I replied.

“Yeah, he doesn’t come every single day because he’s busy, you know. But at least every other day he comes over and gives the baby a bottle.”

Again I said, “That’s good.”

Did she finish the semester? No. Her son would be approaching his teens now, and I often wonder about their fate. Does the child’s father offer financial assistance? Does he still “feed” his son? Is the child angry or rebellious? Do they live in poverty? Did she go back to college?

 There have always been single mothers and absentee fathers. I just don’t recall it being so openly flaunted as it is now. I’m amazed at how easily a person can become adjusted to change, even if it’s not good. These days I’m often surprised and thrilled to learn that the couple is married, something that I used to take for granted.

Emma and Her Date

On a scorching day this past July, I walked out of the library in Rincon, GA and heard a sweet little voice saying, “Hey Grandmama!” There she was, my blond, curly haired granddaughter Emma running towards me. She and her father had a daddy/daughter date that day, and they were dining on hamburgers and fries in the park. I looked up and saw Rich, my son-in-law, sitting at a picnic table in the park, and hand-in-hand, Emma and I sauntered over.  I sauntered; Emma skipped.

“Why did you guys decide to come here?” I asked. “Couldn’t you eat your lunch in air conditioned comfort?”

“Well, it was Emma’s time to choose, and she wanted to come here,” Rich replied. Emma climbed back up on the bench next to her dad and took a sip of her drink. I took a long look at my son-in-law, drenched in perspiration, obviously uncomfortable and thought, “That’s love.”

We chatted a few minutes and then I drove off. When I looked back, there they sat, Rich listening to Emma’s prattling, and Emma swinging her legs and happily telling her dad something important (to her).

I remembered this scene and others like it as my husband and I watched Courageous last week, a movie about men with the courage to step up to the plate and fulfill their responsibilities as fathers. Moved by the stories portrayed in the movie, we talked for the umpteenth time about how fortunate we are that our eleven grandchildren are being raised in homes with both mom and dad present, present in more ways than one. When I compare their young lives to that of millions of our nation’s children, my heart hurts.

Seeing the movie and thinking of its title reminded me that I too need to have courage to speak up, to do and say what I perceive to be appropriate in encouraging fathers to take their childrearing responsibility seriously. The children of America need a masculine influence in their homes, a person who can and will love, guide, protect, and provide for them. Yes, I know that mothers are perfectly capable of loving and guiding, but the children fare better with two adults, united in purpose, to raise them.

In the movie, one of the young men who’s part of a gang has been arrested. As he sits in the back seat of the police car waiting to be taken to jail, one of the officers leans into the car and asks, with concern, something like, “What are you doing?” Sad and vulnerable (at least in appearance), the young man simply replies, “Man, I don’t have anybody.” (paraphrase)  That one sentence contains so much truth and so much hurt.

Children without fathers are more likely to drop out of school, join gangs, and get involved with drugs. I know some people reading this want more specific data. They want percentages and statistics. I can find them easily enough, and maybe by the time I write another post about being courageous, I’ll have looked them up.  Or better yet, maybe you can do it.  The stats and facts are easy enough to find. It’s no secret that over 40 percent of children born in South Carolina are born to single mothers. Where are the dads? Where is their courage?