This month it’s my pleasure to share with you a portion of one of my favorite books, entitled Bringing Up Boys. It has sold more than 2 million copies since first published. The reason for this popularity, especially among women, appears to be because the behavior and temperament of their boys is often beyond their comprehension. Moms remember clearly what it was like to be feminine little girls, but they have only a vague notion of how their sons feel, think, and behave.
One of my colleagues, Dr. Tim Irwin, shared his observation that women who have not grown up with brothers are often shocked by the sheer physicality of boys–by the sights and sounds and smells they generate. Some admit they are completely “clueless” in knowing how to deal with them. When I meet these women on the street, some talk excitedly about their boys, and then say, “I also learned from Bringing Up Boys why my husband is like he is.” Then they smile.
Let’s turn now to the fifth chapter wherein I talked about dads and why they are so vitally important to their sons.
The Essential Father
Boys are in serious trouble today and many of them are experiencing emotional pressure that contributes to violence, drug abuse, early sexual activity, and other forms of rebellious behavior. Even some teens who play by the rules are struggling quietly with problems of identity and meaning. On behalf of them, and for the little boys who have not yet encountered these difficulties, we need to examine the specific forces that have created such an unhealthy environment for kids and, more important, what to do about them.
The family is being buffeted and undermined by the forces operating around it. Alcoholism, pornography, gambling, infidelity, and sexually transmitted infections have become pandemic. “No-fault divorce” is still the law of the land in most states, resulting in thousands of family breakups. Clearly, there is trouble on the home front. And, as we all know, it is the children who suffer most from it. In cultures where divorce becomes commonplace or large numbers of men and women choose to live together or copulate without bothering to marry, untold millions of kids are caught in the chaos.
I’m convinced that the future of Western civilization depends on how we handle this present crisis. Why? Because we as parents are raising the next generation of men who will either lead with honor and integrity or abandon every good thing they have inherited. They are the bridges to the future. Nations that are populated largely by immature, immoral, weak-willed, cowardly, and self-indulgent men cannot and will not long endure. These types of men include those who sire and abandon their children; who cheat on their wives; who lie, steal, and covet; who hate their countrymen; and who serve no god but money. That is the direction culture is taking today’s boys. We must make the necessary investment to counter these influences and to build within our boys lasting qualities of character, self-discipline, respect for authority, commitment to the truth, a belief in the work ethic, and an unshakable love for Jesus Christ. The pursuit of those objectives led me to undertake the writing of this book.
The devastating impact of family disintegration on children is indisputable. A special U.S. commission consisting of authorities on child development was convened in the 1990s to examine the general health of adolescents. This report, called “Code Blue,” concluded: “Never before has one generation of American teenagers been less healthy, less cared for, or less prepared for life.”1 Most of the characteristics the commission decried are even worse today. This is occurring, mind you, in one of the most affluent and privileged nations in the history of the world. It is a direct result of marital disintegration and related forces at work against the family.
I know I’ve thrown too many statistics at you this far, but the ones I will share now should be put in neon lights: Seventy-one percent of African-American babies and 19 percent of white babies in the United States are born out of wedlock.2 Most will never know their fathers or experience what it means to be loved by them. Only 46 percent of all children born in America will live with both biological parents to age eighteen.3 This is a recipe for trouble, especially when we consider the fact that 60 percent of mothers with children under three are employed.4 The number was half that in 1975! Nearly 71 percent of mothers with children under eighteen currently hold jobs.5 This busyness of mothers combined with the noninvolvement of fathers means that too often, there is nobody home! No wonder boys are in such a mess today!
Behavioral scientists have only recently begun to understand how critical fathers are to the healthy development of both boys and girls. According to psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, the author of Fatherneed, dads are as important to children as moms, but in a very different way.6 While children of all ages–both male and female–have an innate need for contact with their fathers, let me emphasize again that boys suffer most from the absence or noninvolvement of fathers. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, boys without fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to go to jail, and nearly four times as likely to need treatment for emotional and behavioral problems as boys with fathers.7
Repeatedly during my review of the latest research for this book, I came face-to-face with the same disturbing issue. Boys are in trouble today primarily because their parents, and especially their dads, are distracted, overworked, harassed, exhausted, disinterested, chemically dependent, divorced, or simply unable to cope. As indicated above, all other problems plaguing young males flow from (or are related to) these facts of life in the twenty-first century. Chief among our concerns is the absence of masculine role modeling and mentoring that dads should be providing. Mothers, who also tend to be living on the ragged edge, are left to do a job for which they have had little training or experience. Having never been boys, women often have only a vague notion of how to go about rearing one. Boys are the big losers when families splinter.
Dr. William Pollock, Harvard psychologist and author of Real Boys, concludes that divorce is difficult for children of both sexes but it is devastating for males. He says the basic problem is the lack of discipline and supervision in the father’s absence and his unavailability to teach what it means to be a man. Pollock also believes fathers are crucial in helping boys to manage their emotions. As we have seen, without the guidance and direction of a father, a boy’s frustration often leads to varieties of violence and other antisocial behavior.8
Numerous researchers agree that losing a dad (or never having had one) is catastrophic for males. It was believed fifty years ago that poverty and discrimination were primarily responsible for juvenile crime and other behavioral problems. How do I know this is false? Because I was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. After 18 months of intensive research, we concluded that family disruption is the real culprit in what has gone wrong with the younger generation. Despite all the red flags that warn us of the dangers, cavalier attitudes abound with regard to premarital pregnancy, divorce, infidelity, and cohabitation.
Don Elium, author of Raising a Son, says that with troubled boys, the common theme is distant, uninvolved fathers and, in turn, mothers who have taken on more responsibility to fill the gap.9 Sociologist Peter Karl believes that because boys spend up to 80 percent of their time with women, they don’t know how to act as men when they grow up. When that happens, the relationship between the sexes is directly affected. Men become irresponsible and more and more like big kids.10
These statistics and trends can’t be appreciated fully until we see how they are translated into the lives of individuals. I was talking recently to such a person–a fifty-eight-year-old man who described the unhappy memory of his father. His dad had been a minister who was consumed by work and other interests. This father never came to sporting events or any other activities in which his son was a participant. He neither disciplined nor affirmed him. By the time the boy was a senior in high school, he was the starting guard on a winning big-school football team. When his team qualified for the state championship, this boy was desperate to have his dad see him play. He begged, “YOU have never come to one of my games. Would you please be there on Friday night? It is very important to me.” The father promised to attend.
On the night of the big game, the boy was on the field warming up when he happened to see his father enter the stadium with two other men wearing business suits. They stood talking among themselves for a moment or two and then left. The man who told me this story had tears streaming down his cheeks as he relived that difficult moment so long ago. It had been forty years since that night, and yet the rejection and disappointment he felt as a teenager were as vivid as ever. A year after our conversation, this man’s father died at eighty-three years of age. My friend stood alone before his dad’s casket at the funeral home and wept bitterly. He said sorrowfully, “Dad, we could have shared so much love together–but I never really knew you. You had no time for me.”
Going back to the night of the football game, I wonder what that father considered more important than being there for his son. Was his “to do” list really more urgent than meeting the needs of the boy who bore his name? For whatever reasons, that man allowed the years to slide by without fulfilling his responsibilities at home. Although he is gone, his legacy is like that of countless fathers who were too busy, too selfish, and too distracted to care for the little boys who reached for them. Now their record is in the books. If only they could go back and do it differently. If only . . . ! If only . . . !
A father holds awesome power in the lives of his children, for good or ill. Families have understood that fact for centuries. It has been said, “No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a boy.” Another wise observer said, “Tie a boy to the right man and he almost never goes wrong.” They are both right. When asked who their heroes are, the majority of boys who are fortunate enough to have a father will say, “It’s my dad.” On the other hand, when a father is uninvolved–when he doesn’t love or care for his kids–it creates an ache, a longing, that will linger for decades. Again, without minimizing how much girls need their fathers, which we also acknowledge, boys are constructed emotionally to be dependent on dads in ways that were not understood until recently.
We now know that there are two critical periods during childhood when boys are particularly vulnerable. The most obvious occurs at the onset of puberty, when members of both sexes experience an emotional and hormonal upheaval. Boys and girls at that time desperately need their father’s supervision, guidance, and love. Divorce is typically devastating to boys. But according to Dr. Carol Gilligan, professor at Harvard University, there is another critical period earlier in life–one not shared by girls. Very young boys bask in their mother’s femininity and womanliness during infancy and toddlerhood. Fathers are important then, but mothers are primary. At about three to five years of age, however, a lad gradually pulls away from his mom and sisters in an effort to formulate a masculine identity.11 It is a process known as “disconnection and differentiation,” when, as Don Elium writes, “the inner urge of the male plan of development nudges him out of the nest of the mother over a precarious bridge to the world of the father.”12 It is typical for boys during those years, and even earlier, to crave the attention and involvement of their dad and to try to emulate his behavior and mannerisms.
I remember my son clearly identifying with my masculinity when he was in that period between kindergarten and first grade. For example, as our family prepared to leave in the car, Ryan would say, “Hey, Dad. Us guys will get in the front seat and the girls will sit in the back.” He wanted it known that he was a “guy” just like me. I was keenly aware that he was patterning his behavior and masculinity after mine. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.
But here’s the rub: When fathers are absent at that time, or if they are inaccessible, distant, or abusive, their boys have only a vague notion of what it means to be male. Whereas girls have a readily available model after which to pattern feminine behavior and attitudes (except when they are raised by single fathers), boys living with single mothers are left to formulate their masculine identity out of thin air. This is why early divorce is also devastating for boys. Writer Angela Phillips believes, and I agree, that the high incidence of homosexuality occurring in Western nations is related, at least in part, to the absence of positive male influence when boys are moving through the first crisis of child development.13 One of the primary objectives of parents is to help boys identify their gender assignments and understand what it means to be a man.
Before moving on, I want to share a letter sent to me a few years ago from a mother who had lost her husband. I am enclosing it for the benefit of the fathers who are reading along with us. It illustrates the vital role men play in the lives of their sons and daughters and why it is important to contribute what you can to your children while you have the opportunity. Here is the letter that came from Mrs. Karen Cotting:
Dear Dr. Dobson:
Since listening to your broadcast you always encouraged your listeners to write in. Our family never has until now. We have a story to tell.
My husband, Cliff, had been a pilot with a major airline for the last eleven years. On a four-day trip last October, and with some time on his hands before the third day began, he decided to go jogging. Unfortunately for us, that would be his last run. While jogging, he had a fatal heart attack. He was a young 38 and in the best of health. He always ate well and was always exercising. There were no warning signs. So, when I received the call from the Vice President of Operations at the airlines, I was in utter shock. Our family was so unprepared for this. My husband was in the prime of his life. Our three daughters were all under six. How could God do this to our family? How could He take away my best friend and the head of our household? In the months that followed his death and every day I breathe, God is revealing some of the answers as I trust His faithfulness.
Cliff was a very loving and caring person. He adored his family. Our three daughters, Nicole, Anna and Sarah, and I were the apples of his eye. We hated to see him go to work as we’d be without him from anywhere from two to four days. But we anticipated his return and he was always greeted with elated screams of joy from the girls (and even a howl or two from our German Shepherd, Tess). Of all the memories I can think of, the one that stands out the most is his playfulness with our girls. He’d always end with exhaustion and a playful question, “What’s the most important thing in the world?” And the girls would shout out, “Knowing God.” Cliff would be satisfied in his daughters’ knowing that a personal relationship with Christ was the foundation for their eternity.
God has revealed some things to me that I never knew about my husband. At his funeral, we allowed time for anyone who wanted to share his or her memories of Cliff. I was amazed at the number of airline staff that filled the church. Just about everyone shared how great a friend he was, how he could always be counted on to lend a helping hand. But I learned he often spoke when he was at work of me and the children and of his love for God. I never knew Cliff to be this bold in sharing his faith with others. I always assumed he talked of office policies or golf while on the job.
Almost seven months have passed since he went home to be with our Lord, and I finally got the nerve to look in his flight bag. On it was the date, October 9, 1999, the day he went jogging for the last time. I cried thinking about how serious he took his responsibility as a pilot, how prepared he always was, from getting shirts ironed the night before an early “show” to knowing his schedule for each day. He was prepared and ready to work on October 9th. But most importantly, I heard God whisper to me through my tears, “He was prepared to meet Me.”
That thought comforted my family. The spirit and flesh battle within me every day. I miss him terribly as I work through the tears of sadness in his absence. He was my backbone in many ways. Yet, my spirit is comforted with the truth that Cliff is in the presence of our holy Father and he walks with Christ today. Cliff was prepared for the most glorious day he’d ever experience.
I am learning that through what can seem like a devastating experience, we are to lean on God for strength even when we don’t think we “feel” His presence. The Bible has comforted our family with Psalm 27:5: “For in the day of trouble He will keep me safe in His dwelling; He will hide me in the shelter of His tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.” Even with Cliff absent from us, God showed me He would never abandon our family as in Jeremiah 29:11-14: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord.”
As God reveals many wonderful things about His character and how much He loves our family, we want to encourage your listeners who may not know Christ in a personal way. He will “never leave you, nor forsake you.” We all have eternal life. It’s a matter of where we choose to spend it and if we are prepared to meet our Maker. Do not hesitate.
Our family has always received much encouragement from your broadcast and your monthly magazine. God bless you, your staff, and families.
Karen S. Cotting14
I have shared this letter primarily for the benefit of the young fathers among my readers. If you are among them, let me remind you that only God knows how long you will be on this earth. Life can be unexpectedly short. Do not squander today’s opportunities to relate to your children or to teach them about your faith. Don’t let your career absorb your every resource and make you a virtual stranger at home. May the memories you leave behind, whether you live an hour longer or many more decades, be as warm and loving as those created by Cliff Cotting. His record is in the books; yours is yet to be written.
As I have been writing the words of this chapter, my thoughts have turned repeatedly to the single mothers who are rearing boys on their own. I’m sure that the findings I’ve reported about fathers and about divorce or early death have been deeply disturbing to some. Forgive me for that. Your circumstances are tough enough without my making them more difficult. The overriding question for you is, “How can I compensate for the absence of a father who should be there to teach my boys the essence of manhood?” That is not an easy question, but there are answers for it.
Despite everything I’ve shared, there is hope for women who are raising boys alone. Admittedly, the task is terribly difficult, but millions of mothers have done it admirably, overcoming serious limitations and obstacles. We will talk more about those concerns in future chapters, but for now, let me simply say that family life is almost never ideal. That is why each of us has to cope with unique challenges and problems. Some parents are confronted every day with sickness, some with poverty, some with an alcoholic spouse, and some with a disabled child or parent. In those situations and many more, families must evaluate their circumstances and decide how to make the most of them. I urge those of you who are single parents to take this considered approach to your family. God loves your children even more than you do, and He will help you raise them. There are also ways to substitute for an absent father, and I have offered some of those ideas and suggestions in chapter 10. I hope you will find them helpful.
Thank you for reading along with me again this month. As you can tell from this excerpt, I feel that Bringing Up Boys and its companion book, Bringing Up Girls, may be the most important books I’ve written. That is because, to quote again from Chapter 5, “We as parents are raising the next generation of men and women who must take their places in the ongoing culture of healthy, Christian family life.” Is this our greatest responsibility during the short span that we are given on this planet? I think so.
May I take a moment now to thank those of you who sacrificed to help us financially during the three summer months? If it were not for our total dependence on the Lord, we would have been pretty anxious as that dry season of the year rolled around. We experienced a 20 percent deficit in August. September has been lean, too. Again, we send our appreciation and warm regards to all who are helping us meet these financial challenges.
Blessings to all our friends and supporters. We appreciate you more than you know.
Your friend in Christ,
1. Bureau of the Census, Code Blue (Washington, D.C.)
7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Morehouse Report, National Center for Children in Poverty, Bureau of the Census (Washington, D.C.)
8. William Pollock, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998)
9. Barbara Kantrowitz and Claudia Kalb, “Boys Will Be Boys,” Newsweek, 11 May 1998, 55.
10. Hannah Cleaverin Berlin, “Lads Night Out Can Save Your Marriage,” London Daily Express, 25 April 2000.
11. John Attarian, “Let Boys Be Boys—Exploding Feminist Dogma, This Provocative Book Reveals How Educators Are Trying to Feminize Boys While Neglecting Their Academic and Moral Instruction,” The World and I, 1 October 2000.
12. Don and Jeanne Elium, Raising a Son (Berkeley: Celestrial Arts, 1997), 21.
13. Phillips, The Trouble with Boys, 54-59
14. Letter from Mrs. Karen S. Cotting. Used with permission.
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