If you were lucky enough to have an active, caring father in your life, then you know that you learnt more from him than just how to throw a ball. Children are observant and learn from those around them, and a father (or even a father figure) teaches a child many vital life skills. This, along with many other influences (even Barney and Friends), is how children shape the way they behave in school, in relationships and how they learn to make decisions.
But this isn’t the reality for many children in South Africa. Whether it’s by choice or circumstance, almost 40% of South African women are raising a child in a fatherless home. Ask yourself – without a father in the picture, where does your child see and interact with men and learn how men should behave?
Fathers are undeniably important in a child’s life, but does having a male figure (more importantly, a positive one) really impact your child’s life for the better? We discuss the impact not having a male role model has on a child, and what steps single moms can take to introduce a positive influence into your child’s life.
IMPORTANCE OF DAD
“The more consistent and stable dad is, the more secure and confident the child becomes,” says Johannesburg clinical psychologist Dr Adele Romanis. But in a “sisters doing it for themselves” world, surely a woman can raise a child without a male influence? What does dad offer that a mother can’t?
The fact is that we all have masculine and feminine qualities within ourselves and these qualities should both be developed and matured to create a balanced individual. Fathers stereotypically have a different style of caring than a mother and both styles are beneficial for the child’s development. Typically, dads teach children how to behave within the boundaries and how to respect limits. “Dads also provide unpredictable, stimulating, and exciting interaction for their children,” adds Adele.
Johannesburg-based counselling psychologist Jade Paterson explains: “While mothers are often seen to provide empathy, soothing and emotional support for children, it is common for the nature of a father-child relationship to be characterised by an element of ‘rough play’ and worldly stimulation in the safe confinement of firm boundaries set out by the father.”
And the benefit of having both styles of parenting seems to be overwhelming. Jade says that studies have shown that children tend to do better at school when their fathers have been actively involved in their development. Also, when a child is accepted and affirmed by their father, this often translates to a child having higher levels of empathy, self esteem and social competence. Dads also play a role in how children settle into their gender roles, adds Jade.
A BOY'S CLUB, OR NOT?
Society often idealises the idea of a man in his son’s life. You’ve probably heard sweeping statements that boys without fathers end up rebellious or violent. This is not true, assures Johannesburg educational psychologist Karin Bronkhorst – but there are offer effects. “Boys seem to be mostly impacted in their masculine identity development. They are more at risk for depression, addictions, gang-related violence and risky behaviour.” These boys could turn to violence if they haven’t learnt other ways to cope or communicate as a male in the world. Boys need positive role models to teach them the difference between right and wrong, adds Karin.
Yet it is not only boys who are affected. Girls without involved fathers get accused of becoming promiscuous, or simply put, having daddy issues. But is there any truth to this at all? “Girls who do not grow up with a positive male role model often have difficulties in forming or maintaining romantic relationships later in their development,” says Karin. Positive role models assist girls in learning how men should treat them when they are older.
FINDING A STABLE, POSITIVE INFLUENCE FOR YOUR CHILD
Moms, take a deep breath. Just because your child may not have the run of the mill dad at home, does not mean they can’t have a father figure in their lives. “Our culture is obsessed with the idea that boys who don’t have fathers living in the home are somehow being deprived. But does a boy need a man in the mother’s bedroom in order to have men to look up to? The answer is no,” says Dr Peggy Drexler, Author of Raising Boys Without Men.
Luckily, the development of positive qualities isn’t just dependent on experiences with our own parents –but also on our experiences with other people in our environment. The trick is to find a good, positive and constant influence. These role models could be anything from religious figures, public icons, teachers, sportsmen, family members, or characters in stories. It’s not particularly about a father, it’s rather about a child having a role model who shows a strong level of involvement in the child’s life as well as illustrating to the child how to manage certain situations.
However, stability is key. Staying in an unhappy relationship (or marriage) with a dysfunctional or violent father figure, for the sake of your children, can be just as negative for the child’s development. And dating in order to find your child a role model is a no go! “Having a male figure in one’s life is not a guarantee that he will have a positive impact on a child. It is the level of action and involvement that the person plays as well as how they manage situations that the child will learn through observation,” says Adele. Changing role models creates instability in a child’s life, and children flourish in a safe, secure environment.
In these situations (where fathers are absent or dysfunctional) moms often build up resentment towards men, which a child picks up on. Andrea Engber, author of The Complete Single Mother: Reassuring Answers to Your Most Challenging Concerns, says: “Try not to have negative attitudes toward men, even if you became a single mother out of the most excruciating circumstances.” This could create confusion for the child if he or she has not had similar experiences. This child then learns to distrust his own feelings, explains Karin.
With all of this said, sometimes it’s just not possible for mothers to find a safe, suitable and consistent father figure for their children. In these cases, Jade suggests that mothers educate themselves on the possible difficulties this may pose for a child’s development and be active in incorporating other forms of role models in their child’s life. It is also important that single mothers remember that it’s stressful to parent alone without the support of an equally responsible parent and it is vital to be able to acknowledge when you might need to draw in professional support.