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The Role Model Crisis

By Harald Breiding-Buss

If anything has put the issue of fatherhood on the political agenda, it is the perception that our boys do not have enough good role models.

The argument goes that, due to the high separation rates, more and more boys grow up without a father and therefore don’t have a proper male role model to learn from how adults behave.

Reliable statistics on how many children do not have any significant contact with their fathers do not exist for New Zealand, though. There are some alarmist figures around, often based on data that cannot really be used for the purpose of determining child-father contact, but the Father&Child Trust’s own field work does not support this.

We do not see many men, or boys, who have had no contact with their fathers during long periods of their childhood.

Most of the teenage fathers in the FatherChild Trust’s current survey, for example, are reporting a satisfactory or good relationship with their fathers. Many have lived with their fathers alone for part of their childhood or youth.

Furthermore, economic changes and “flexible” working hours have meant that at least those fathers living with their children spend, on average, more time alone with them. For a substantial group of children access to their father is a lot better than it had been in previous generations.

The lack of male role models exists perhaps more in the community at large than at home. Fathers may be present at home in a nurturing and high quality fashion, but men are all but absent from their wider communities.

It is still rare to see male parent helpers at schools or kindergartens, let alone teachers, or to see fathers joining playgroups or coffee mornings. The argument goes they don’t have the time, but curiously enough, you find the men with their children in other places: in public parks or swimming pools at exactly those times when they could be parent helping or be involved with other children of their community.

And while a substantial number of fathers said in a 1999 survey by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner that work was an obstacle to their involvement with their children, most said it wasn’t.

Boys and girls do need male role models, but their fathers alone are not enough. From about age three, children become very conscious of their sex and at pre-schools start to separate in girls-only and boys-only groups.

Male-ness and female-ness become very important concepts in their view of the world, and will remain so for at least the next 15 or so years. Yet, except for their fathers, both boys and girls have virtually no significant relationships with any other adult males at this age.

Boys often turn to fictional role models at this stage (or to older boys, who in turn are role modelled by fictional characters). Watch young boys play, and you recognise rather a lot of TV, movie or story characters. It is often such fictional characters who define male-ness for a boy more than his own father – because dad may be an exception in what kind of males the boy otherwise sees.

Unless he experiences other men in similar roles to his own father, he cannot get a sense of normality about how wide the scope of male-ness really is, and that it also encompasses feelings and activities that are never shown to be part of a man on TV.

Many parents who have children of both sexes report that their boys actually seem more sensitive than their girls, and seem to need more emotional support than they dare ask for.

This may very well be a result of the difference between what the boy feels inside, and what he perceives a proper male role to be. Taken to an extreme, such a boy may eventually either reject male-ness completely, or heavily overstereotype the male role.

It is true, the “problem” teenagers tend to come from backgrounds of divorce or separation – and again, this applies to both, boys and girls. But such problems do not seem to be significantly reduced when there is a replacement male role model in the house, such as a step-father.

The father’s role is much wider than merely being a role model, and research has shown links between parental alienation, i.e. one parent rejecting the other in front of the children, and problem behaviour later.

Being a ‘good role model’ is much less important for a father than the emotional support he gives his offspring and a spiritual sense of belonging he instills in his children.

As a boy grows up he may embrace or reject the way his father lives, behaves or parents, and sometimes this is a painful process for both. But the problems begin not when dad is a crook, but when his son is prevented from getting to know his father, with all his good and bad sides, and learn from his journey.

Next: Dave And Goliath

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