I recently watched a segment from an ITV programme where Ian Wright, known to people who follow football as the chirpy ITV pundit and former Arsenal and England striker, is reunited with his childhood mentor and primary school teacher Mr. Pigden.
It was certainly quite moving to see Wright, who thought that his old teacher had since died, do a double take as Mr. Pigden approached before, overcome, hugging the older man. Away from the scene Wrighty revealed that Mr. Pigden had been the “first real, positive role model” in his life. His own father had long been absent and his relationship with his step father was non-existent. The experience of this meeting, he continued, made him realise just how important it is to have such a male presence, as a boy growing up. Mr. Pigden had not only taught him to read, write and play football, but gave him responsibilities in the form of collecting registers and acting as milk monitor and became a consistent calming influence and a provider of encouragement.
Speaking from my own experience I can understand the importance of having a father figure who is active and present in your life as a boy and as a teenager. To me, my Dad was the man I wanted to grow up to be like. I can’t imagine life, and I’m sure my sister will agree, without Mum and Dad. Both parents. Something a lot of kids growing up don’t have. Furthermore, the low number of male primary school teachers means that boys can pass through their first decade without any sustained interaction with a man.
The research highlights the fundamental role active Dads play in family life. Children, (and this is more the case with boys) raised in homes where the father is absent are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs, be incarcerated and have fewer, if any, qualifications.
It’s all understandable. Raising one child is difficult enough let alone three, four and possibly more children especially when you’re a single parent. Having a second adult in the house, father or step father, is beneficial from a financial perspective and for sharing parental responsibilities, however what is also crucial is that the boy sees another male, an older version of himself. If he sees Dad acting in a positive way like going out to work and caring for his family and establishing limits and boundaries as a parent then it is surely positive for the son’s development as he’s got someone to emulate. Without this influence he may harbour fierce resentment to the man who abandoned his mother and his family and feel a strong sense of rejection, two feelings that could possibly spell trouble in later life. Murdered rapper and former gang member Tupac Shakur offered an interesting perspective on this:
“I know for a fact that had I had a father, I’d have some discipline. I’d have more confidence.”
“Your mother cannot calm you down the way a man can. Your mother can’t reassure you the way a man can. My mother couldn’t show me where my manhood was. You need a man to teach you how to be a man.”
Yet discussing the absent fathers issue is problematic. In some quarters raising it is seen as a thinly-veiled attack on single parents, and by extension, women. Their solution, it seems, is simply to provide financial assistance to the large number of women raising children alone. The state, critics say, has become the ‘father’ in these families. Is this really the answer?
Someone who has been vocal in highlighting the problem of absent fathers is Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy. Like Ian Wright and Tupac he too came from a home without a father figure present (his Dad walked out when he was 12.) In writings for national newspapers he suggests making fathers register their names and NI numbers on birth certificates and to extend schemes adopted by City firms (wherein successful men are sent to schools to paint fences and tend to gardens) to the classroom. Government Advisor on Youth Violence and ex-gang member Sheldon Thomas agrees with Lammy, stating that fathers’ roles in society have been overlooked by successive governments and believes that absent fathers are a source of many social ills and played a part in the 2011 summer riots.
None of these arguments are to denigrate and shame single parents. Surely a government cheque is no substitute to having two dedicated, loving parents in a child’s upbringing? That’s not to be ‘anti-single parent’ but to be pro-family and pro-child.