Im sure other fathers have had the strange experience of finding themselves holding court, in a playground, with a group of children who are not his own. First one child usually a boy wants to show him something he can do on the monkey-bars or the slide, or show him a toy hes playing with. Pretty soon his friends come around, each with his own performance to show or story to tell. Boys and girls, black and white, English and Spanish speaking for a little while everyone wants a bit of approval from the dad sitting in the playground. Their mothers are chatting with each other, looking over occasionally to see what so many kids want with the man on the bench. The man is friendly but he is the only dad in the place at the moment, there are many children seeking his attention, and he also has his own child to monitor. Luckily, their
infatuation doesnt last: something distracts them and, as quickly as theyve come, theyre gone like autumn leaves in a wind. Hopefully theyve gotten at least some of what theyve needed, but at those moments one cant help but feel like a tiny drop of rain falling in the desert.
I dont know much about the families of these children. The whereabouts of their fathers is, of course, none of my business. Maybe only one or two of these kids dont have a father at home, maybe others are just following the herd, but one thing is clear: at that place and in that moment, kids are looking for something that none of the handful of mothers and caregivers sitting in that playground can provide. I mention this for no other reason than the fact that there is this debate going on in the U.S. right now about whether fathers are desirable, or even necessary. Some single mothers who had never planned to raise their children alone were amazed to find, when their kids reached adulthood, that they actually turned out OK. That this should come as a surprise to mothers who are responsible and loving is probably one of the best arguments Ive seen in favor of the self-esteem building techniques advocated by feminism. However, it is a FAR cry, from there, to hold single or lesbian motherhood up as a new ideal, as some are now doing.
Did you know that, according to Peggy Drexler, the author of a new book called “Raising Boys Without Men”, if youre a boy raised by only women, you have the very best that life has to offer? This is the conclusion of a qualitative study of households without an adult male that Drexler conducted over a period of several years. “Qualitative” means that she excluded easily-quantifiable measures, used a small, self-selected sample of families (in this case, middle class families in San Francisco), and used mainly narrative instead of aggregate data. As a mental health clinician, Im familiar with qualitative studies; they have value in presenting the depth and complexity of a particular area of study. Responsible researchers rarely try to draw broad conclusions from them. But Drexler proclaims these mothers “avatars of a new social movement” and their offspring “the next generation of exceptional men”,
saying that the boys interviewed in her study are more moral, emotionally savvy, and better at problem-solving that their counterparts in intact, heterosexual families.
Really? How does she explain the fact that the majority of prison inmates in this country are the product of households where there was no father? What about gang activity, in which young, fatherless boys repeatedly seek approval in the wrong places? There is an overwhelming body of research that indicates that it is the nuclear or “traditional” family that gives a child the best chance to succeed. But, according to Drexler, weve got it all wrong. Its time to turn our backs on thousands of years of child-rearing practices, common-sense, and an overwhelming amount of quantitative data, because Peggy Drexler found a handful of middle-class women from Northern California who managed to raise their sons well.
This is the sign of an arrogant and presumptuous researcher, but Drexler has played the publicity card fairly effectively, and the media seem to love her. Publishers Weekly calls the book “a beacon to the country’s nearly 10 million single mothers.” Rolling Stone called it “the answer to those who believe they can attach limits to the idea of family.” Parent, columnist, and former high school teacher Glenn Sacks gets the balance right, in my opinion, here:
Im sure there are plenty of lesbian and single mothers who manage to raise sons with no problems. But that doesnt mean this should be promoted as the new standard of “normal”. Nor should any alternative family structure. My daughters mother and I are raising our child in separate households; we are making the best of it that we can, and by all measures were doing an adequate job. But I did not ask to be a single parent; I didnt want it, and I would never recommend this lifestyle to others, or suggest that all kids who live the way mine does are the vanguard of some kind of new Master Race. Certainly my child is better off not worse for having a father in her life who reads her report cards and goes to school functions and cooks her supper and talks about books with her. This should be kind of obvious, but the obvious eludes some, including Drexler, who is a parent herself and who really should know better. It remains to be seen whether this type of nonsense is going to shape policy. For now, being a father is still legal, though increasingly it is on the fringes. But my daughter still insists on holding my hand when we walk down the street together, and Im still allowed to read her report card. And none of the toddlers who crave my attention in the playground have ever heard of Peggy Drexler.
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