Finding good male role models for children in fatherless homes
I was out for dinner at a friend’s house recently when it hit me just how much my daughter needs a man in her life.
We had finished dessert when she hopped off her chair and climbed on my friend’s husband’s lap. She laughed and chatted, obviously enjoying the closeness, and then followed him outside to the garage to help put away tools.
It’s not like she doesn’t have anything to do with her father. Generally, she stays at his house for two days every fortnight and they enjoy a close relationship. But it’s just not the same as having a man in her everyday life. I can see already she is drawn to men in a way that makes me vaguely uncomfortable.
Effects of fatherlessness
Needless concern on my part? The statistics say otherwise. A joint study by the Christchurch School of Medicine and three American universities in 2003 found the absence of a father was strongly linked to early or risky sexual activity. Out of 800 girls in the study, one in four got pregnant as teenagers amongst those whose fathers left the family before they were five. For those whose fathers were there in the early years, the pregnancy rate was one in 30.
The effects of fatherlessness on boys are well-documented. Boys without dads are four times as likely to drop out of school and many more times likely to end up involved in crime and drugs.
So what’s a single mother to do? (Apart from find a brilliant step-father – we’re still interviewing candidates for that one.) Obviously encouraging regular involvement with the biological father is a good start. We need to recognize that a relationship with Daddy is one of the best things we can give our children.
Sometimes, however, this is either impractical, impossible or unsafe. Enter the idea of male role models or mentors – good men who choose to enrich a child’s life by regularly spending time together.
Finding a Mentor
After scouring the internet, I discovered Big Brothers Big Sisters, a 100-year-old international organisation which is now operating in 11 centres around New Zealand, from Whangarei to Rangiora.
The programme is run from Nelson by director Dave Marshall, who sounds just like the kind of man you’d like your kids to hang out with. Around 80 kids in the Nelson area are matched every year with men and women mentors who range in age from about 18 to 80; another 50 children are on the waiting list.
Girls who need male role models are usually matched with couples.
“Men can spend time alone with children – to suggest otherwise is bunkum,” says Marshall. “But because of the perception in society, we tend to match girls with couples rather than just men.” In eight years of operation they have never had an abuse case reported.
The mentor is asked to spend two or three hours with a child every week and to commit to the programme for at least a year. A three-year study showed negative behaviour in mentored children was reduced by 85 per cent.
“It’s incredibly heart-warming to see the change in these children.”
There are several youth mentoring organizations in New Zealand, linked together under the Youth Mentoring Trust. Each one is slightly different in terms of how and where they operate – but they all have stringent requirements for mentors. Big Brothers Big Sisters, for example, does police and CYF checks, talks to three referees, visits a potential mentor’s home, asks his doctor for statement about mental health, interviews him with two social workers present and insists on training and ongoing accountability.
Dave warns against mentoring groups who do not run such checks.
“Essentially we are asking an adult to build a friendship with a child and that is not something to be taken lightly.”
Filling the Gap
But what if there is no mentoring organisation near you? Dave Marshall says a single mother should search carefully for a good, safe man to fill the gap.
“The emphasis is on the careful search – neither paranoia at one end of the scale, nor an unmonitored, closed-door relationship between an adult and the child at the other end.”
Friends and family-members can often be great mentors, as can youth group leaders and sports coaches.
Dave advises mothers to insist on ‘transparency’ – keeping the relationship open and accountable – and to ‘listen to your gut feeling.’
One of my daughter’s favourite people is a 38-year-old friend of the family. Every couple of weeks he takes her out for a ‘spinalina’ (spirulina drink) or to explore the rock-pools. I love to see her running up to him for a hug and I feel totally assured the relationship is safe. He’s a good man. They are out there.
Youth Mentoring Trust
Big Brothers Big Sisters and other mentoring organisations can be contacted through the Youth Mentoring Trust. The Trust can link you to16 different mentoring programmes operating throughout the country.