And despite all the stereotypes, could it actually be for the better?
There is no better time than the midpoint between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to set the record straight about the impact of Mom and Dad in a boy’s life: Contrary to our most popularly held assumptions, single mothers aren’t responsible for producing terrible men, and absent fathers aren’t a death sentence for boys. Because what we’re really talking about when we lament fatherlessness for boys is that we believe mothers nourish and fathers teach discipline. So by extension, what we’re really saying is that we don’t believe women can teach men proper masculinity. And that we strongly believe boys are missing out on being taught limits, discipline and how to manage their aggression, emotions and anger when fathers aren’t in the picture.
Without these things, we think, men are irrevocably screwed. But do these assumptions still hold water?
First, most children today grow up in two-parent households, or about 69 percent. Of the remaining 31 percent of households with only one parent, 83 percent of those are headed by the mother. Currently, one in four kids under the age of 18 are raised without a father, or about 16.4 million children.
The statistics on single mother parenting don’t exactly look great. There’s a greater risk of poverty, behavioral problems, suicide, substance abuse and dropping out of high school. Generally speaking, criminals (who are typically male) are more likely to have grown up in a single parent household. Prisons are lousy with fatherless men, and some 92 percent of men currently behind bars are fathers themselves, carrying on the legacy of their own fatherless childhoods. Some research shows that when women raise boys alone, the lack of resources trickles down to the support and education given to those boys, who end up with lower incomes as adults themselves.
Then there are the mythical whoppers that get bandied about without scrutiny: All school shooters are fatherless. That’s unfounded. Some of them are; many of them are not. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, had a single mother. Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, didn’t. Caleb Sharpe, who shot up his Washington State high school in 2017, knew his father, because he accessed his dad’s safe to get the guns he used.
“This is all the incapacity to manage your aggression,” Mark Banchick, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who focuses on marriage, divorce and raising healthy children, says about the bleak statistics on men raised by single moms. “Whether we agree that the Y chromosome provides that aggression or not, we could argue all day. But we know that boys need to manage their aggression, their impulse control. The capacity to say no to yourself — to say I have the discipline to not to be angry, to not hit someone. I have the discipline to manage my emotions. It’s an important component of masculinity. And when they aren’t taught this, you get all these behaviors — depression, acting out, suicide.”
Banchick sees numerous single mothers in his practice, who in his view, overwhelmingly raise healthy boys. When he counsels single mothers struggling with teaching men these self-regulatory skills for emotion, he doesn’t actually see it as something the mother is doing wrong, but rather that certain boys won’t accept this from his mother.
In other words, she could teach him the skills, he just may not be able — due to a mixture of his own temperament, their dynamic and cultural messages telling him to shun anything like a female influence — to hear it, accept it or internalize it while also trying to separate from her. “There’s a wrinkle for some boys in having their mother both provide nurturance and setting limits,” he explains. “It’s often helpful to have two people or more involved with raising kids so all the pressure isn’t all on one parent to provide nurturing support and set limits at the same time.”
But he doesn’t think that’s a father, per se. “Fatherlessness isn’t the same thing as male-lessness,” he says. Sometimes, he can instruct the boy about how he’s talking to or treating his mother and help him understand it’s not appropriate or respectful, and they’re simply better able to take it from another man. At issue, he says, is that for some boys there’s a particular tension with their mother at the point when they begin to break away from her to explore and form a masculine identity. Particularly important is that in our culture, men are largely defined by how they aren’t like women…