Roger T. Williams, PhD
Professor and Chair
Professional Development and Applied Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison
One night, when my 22-year-old son was seven years old, I was tucking him in bed. We had been talking about his day, then I said my usual "good night" and told him I loved him. He looked up at me and said "Dad, why do you keep telling me you love me? You've probably told me that a zillion times!" His comment took me by surprise and, for several seconds, I simply couldn't respond. Then, when the response came, it came from deep, deep inside of me: "Landon, I guess it's because when I was a kid I never heard my Dad say he loved me. I want you to know that I love you. I don't want you to ever have to wonder about that. And I want you to know that I will love you always, no matter what happens in your life." Landon looked up at me with his big brown eyes and said "Thanks, Dad--I love you too!"
This incident brought me face-to-face with the fact that my fathering style represents a 180° shift from the style used by my father. My Dad didn't do a lot of yelling and screaming, but I could always tell when he was angry--he would give the old "icy cold stare" that could last for days--and he could never really find the words to say he loved me. I've come to understand that it wasn't really his fault--he was just parenting the way his parents did and they were parenting the way previous generations of Welsh parents did. While it hasn't been easy, I've come to forgive my Dad for fathering in the age-old traditions of our family.
This story highlights the importance of making a conscious decision about how to father one's children. The one rock-solid gift we can give our sons and daughters is our unconditional love and support. A child's knowledge that he/she is loved, valued and appreciated is the basic building block of a strong self-concept. If we don't make this conscious decision, then we are likely to father the way our fathers fathered us and that's likely to be in much the same way that their father's fathered them. As the Biblical adage says "the sins of the fathers"--the sins of alcoholism, drug addiction, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, violence and neglect--can be visited on the next generation of youth.
In The Five Key Habits of Smart Dads, Lewis (1996) shows that he understands the importance of this basic choice with the habits he has identified: 1) grasping your significance as a father, 2) acting intentionally, 3) using your networks, 4) communicating life skills and principles, and 5) maximizing your fathering moments. Lewis argues that a father's job is to raise a child "to function maturely and productively in society." In his words, the imprint a father leaves "is largely shaped by the kind of life skills and principles you select, and affected by whether these are communicated with love, affection and consistency, whether you make good use of your network, whether you act intentionally and how you grasp your own significance as a father."
The world of fathering is increasingly becoming more bifurcated or two-sided. On the one hand, there are growing numbers of fathers who view fatherhood as their first priority in life. They invest time in their family and children and demonstrate in word and in deed after deed that they love, value and appreciate their children. These fathers are supported by a rapidly growing set of books and literature on fathering. Most of the books have evolved in the past five to ten years and include a range of titles: 60 Second Father, Early Fatherhood Development, Faith of Our Fathers, Father Book, Fatherhood, Fathering Daughters, Fathers Book of Wisdom, The Five Key Habits of Smart Dads, Gift of Fatherhood, New Father Book, Sixty-Minute Father, Working Fathers, and Zen and The Art of Fatherhood, to name a few.
One of these books, The Sixty-Minute Father by Parsons (1996), argues that the first goal of fatherhood should be to "seize the day." He quotes Vincent Foster, deputy counsel to the President of the United States--and suicide victim--as he was addressing the graduating class of the University of Arkansas School of Law: "Balance wisely your professional life and your family life. If you are fortunate to have children, your parents will warn you that they will grow up and be gone before you know it. I can testify that it is true. God only allows us so many opportunities with our children to read a story, go fishing, play catch, and say our prayers together. Try not to miss one of them. The office can wait. It will still be there after your children are gone." Parsons took Vincent Foster's message to heart and began to invest more time in his family and children.
Thousands of other fathers have chosen to "seize the day" as well. Michael, the father of two young children in Madison, Wisconsin, has made a significant commitment. He and his wife, Lisa, have decided that he will act as househusband and caregiver for their children while Lisa serves as provider and caregiver as well. Both parents believe that time spent with children is important so they have adopted a life of voluntary simplicity, and Lisa is limiting her work to twenty plus hours a week as a physician's assistant. Michael, who is hoping to develop a woodworking business on the side, comments on his role in the family: "While my primary function in the family is that of caregiver, I do not see myself as the primary caregiver. Lisa shares that role with me since she is able to do much of her paid work while the children are asleep. At this point the division of labor is working out quite well (he says this as his one-year-old daughter opens the cottage cheese container and gets the contents all over her!)"
Michael exemplifies the growing numbers of fathers who view fathering as a very important responsibility: 25% of families now report that the father and mother share parenting responsibilities equally while 10% report that the father is the primary caregiver and 65% report that the mother is the primary caregiver (Zero To Three, 1997). These involved fathers are supported in their efforts by a growing number of statewide fatherhood initiatives as well as courses specifically targeted to their needs. Wisconsin is one state that has recently launched a fatherhood initiative and the Wisconsin Children's Trust Fund has actively worked to encourage community-based Family Resource Centers to sponsor courses specifically geared to fathers of children who utilize their services.
Yet the world of fathering is, indeed, bifurcated. While there are millions of fathers who are becoming more involved with their families and children, there are also millions who are opting out of their responsibility as fathers. They may be fathers of children born out of wedlock who do not wish to own up to their fatherhood. Or they may be the product of a nasty divorce and, thus, embittered by a process that leaves them out of the loop. Regardless of what the cause is, there are staggering numbers of children who do not have a meaningful relationship with their fathers. Approximately half a million children are born out of wedlock each year and 50% of our marriages now end in divorce. Thus, the harsh reality is that more than 60% of American children will live in a single-parent family sometime during their childhood years and more than 75% of children in single-parent, mother-headed families will have little or no contact with their biological fathers during this period of time (Phares, 1992).
Blankenhorn (1995), author of Fatherless In America, argues that the fatherless family in present-day America "is a radical departure from virtually all of human history and experience." He goes on to state that "Fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation. It is the leading cause of declining child well-being in our society. It also is the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women. Yet, despite its scale and social consequences, fatherlessness is a problem that is frequently ignored or denied."
Popenoe (1996), in Life Without Father shares his dismay over fatherless families: "in just three decades, from 1960 to 1990, the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled, from 17 percent to 36 percent." He goes on to comment on the negative outcomes associated with fatherless families: "Father absence is a major force lying behind many of the attention-grabbing issues that dominate the news: crime and delinquency; premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock teen births; deteriorating educational achievement; depression, substance abuse and alienation among teenagers; and the growing number of women and children in poverty."
Hewlett and West (1998), authors of The War Against Parents, echo the drumbeat of Blankenhorn and Popenoe: "The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world; it also leads the world in percentage of children born out of wedlock. The net result is that nearly two fifths of American children now live apart from their biological fathers, a figure that has doubled over the last twenty-five years." They believe "a major national objective should be to increase the proportion of children who live with and are nurtured by their fathers." If this objective is to be met, we need to understand why men opt out of their responsibility as fathers. Hewlett and West provide powerful insights into this issue.
These two authors argue that our society has waged a war against parents and that "the battles waged against fathers have been particularly ugly and fierce." Three forces are identified as having a disabling effect on dads: dads are devalued in the workplace, abandoned by government and demoralized by the media. Here, in brief, is how they find these issues have disabled dads:
Devalued in the workplace: Real wages have fallen over the past 25 years, and the rate of decline has been more rapid for men than for women, down 25% for men 25 to 34 years of age. Hewlett and West cite Lester Thurow as saying that "at no other time in history have the median wages of American men fallen for such a sustained period." And they argue that a third of all men in the 25 to 34 age group now earn less than the amount necessary to keep a family of four above the poverty line. In addition, thousands of men have been affected by corporate downsizing and other attacks on workplace security: health insurance, pensions and seniority have been eliminated in many work settings. For men who link manhood with serving as the family provider, these changes have had an incredibly negative effect on their actual and perceived ability to serve as providers for their families.
Abandoned by government: There is virtually no safety net for men who have lost jobs or security in the workplace since the social welfare system in our country is focused largely on the needs of women and children. And research now links welfare policies to high rates of out-of-wedlock births, low rates of marriage, fatherless families and long-term poverty for families on welfare. In recent years, there has been significant attention paid to the issue of "deadbeat dads" who are not contributing to the well-being of their families. Much of the resistance to making child support payments is tied to the fact that large numbers of fathers aren't granted custody or visitation privileges with their children. Recent measures to deal with deadbeat dads exacerbate the situation. Fathers who make payments to the government, rather than to their families, feel even more alienated since they don't see any direct link between these payments and the well-being of their children.
Demoralized by the media: The media and popular culture increasingly portray men and fathers as redundant, superfluous and expendable. Television sitcoms and movies like Thelma and Louise, Boys on the Side and Waiting to Exhale show strong, vital women in solidarity with each other and living without men who are portrayed as inadequate and unappealing. Murphy Brown, in a famous episode of that situation comedy, joyously chose single motherhood and, in doing so, granted legitimacy to the notion of fatherless, single-parent families. Hewlett and West remind us of Gloria Steinem's quip that "a women needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." This attitude has made it difficult for men to experience the dignity, respect and self-confidence needed to fulfill the roles of husband and father in our society.
A vast array of books and literature related to men's issues and the psychology of men has emerged over the past ten years. "Father hunger" is a term that consistently comes through in this literature. Coined by Osherson (1987) in a book entitled Finding Our Fathers and echoed by many other authors in the men's movement, it has come to mean "the gnawing hunger that males feel if they are not able to link with their fathers due to the physical or emotional absence of a father in the family."
The emphasis is on males because most of these authors believe that a father is the best bridge to help transition adolescent boys into responsible and caring adult men. Allen (1993) puts it this way: "Boys who do not have a strong father figure wander around in a kind of No-Man's Land. . .where the sand is always shifting beneath their feet. . .they are uncertain what being a man is all about." Yet, it's safe to say that girls and women can also experience father hunger if they grow up with a father physically or emotionally absent from their lives.
In a haunting video entitled Show Your Love by Kauffmann (1994), several adolescent boys and girls are interviewed about what life without a father is like. The father hunger and sense of abandonment come through in comment after comment. A 12-year-old boy, when asked how he felt about not having his father around, responded by saying "It sucks--I'd like to be able to spend time with him." When this same boy was asked how he would be as a father, he said "I'd be doing stuff with him. I would never leave him." The sense of abandonment continued in responses of youth to the question "If you could give all fathers one thing, what would that be?" A 12-year-old boy responded "Don't screw around with other women. Be loyal to your wife." A 16-year-old boy said "Anybody can make a baby, but it takes a man to be a father." And a 16-year-old girl replied "Show your love to your kids. Let them know how much you care."
Two recent books by the children of baby boomer fathers who abandoned them blast dads for not being there during the critical child-rearing years. In Split: A Counterculture Childhood, Michael (1998) shares her view of her politically active parents who "split" four months after she was born. Her mom went into teaching, and her father kept on organizing until he was imprisoned for two years on an assault and battery charge growing out of his involvement with the Weather Underground. She comments on a prison visit when she was three years old: "'Hey, what do you want for Christmas?' my father asked. I stopped in the doorway and stared at his dark bulk. I wanted him. . .(but) I knew I should ask for something he could give."
In Revenge of the Latchkey Kids, syndicated cartoonist Rall (1998) offers even more of a rant against absentee dads. In an essay "To Hell With Father's Day" he writes, "Now that most of us don't have fathers anymore, it makes no more sense to celebrate dads than to devote days to haberdashers, stonemasons, or any other relic of a long-dead past." The ultimate revenge of this latchkey kid, however, was to leave dad out of his wedding: "Opting not to invite him to my wedding closed the deal: He's outta here."
You don't have to look too far to find other examples of "father hunger." Syndicated columnist Mitchard (1998) recently wrote a column entitled "Shaving Lesson Becomes a Lesson on Life" where she documents one of the "signal moments" in the lives of her 9 and 12-year-old sons. The two boys are clustered around Chris, "their stepfather of five months' vintage" while he is shaving and answering their questions about this male ritual. Mitchard (a single mom for five years) commented on the significance of this event: "Who knew it would matter more than the Scout campout or the father-son game or all the other guy things I'd nudged or cajoled relatives and friends into covering? Something so small. And yet of such towering intimacy. Though I took a few turns around the block during the five years after my husband's death, I never got so serious about a man that he got anywhere near the bathroom sink. My brother and father live in another state. And so, for more or less as far back as they can remember, my younger sons have never personally witnessed this manhood ritual. Until now. They are riveted. And so am I."
Mitchard then expands on the significance of this event: "In 1990, speaking at the Democratic convention, Jesse Jackson tried to drive home the importance of a father's responsibility. He described one of the losses of being raised by a single mother: 'I never knew my father,' he said. 'I never saw him shave.' The poignancy and power of the reverend's words made my eyes brim with tears. He'd chosen, carefully, the perfect image for male-pattern bonding, a skill even the most gender-neutral mom on earth can't really model."
Is it just adolescent boys that hunger for father contact?" A recent article by Hall (1998) in the Wisconsin State Journal documented the search of a 53-year old man whose military aviator father was killed in a plane accident as World War II was coming to a close. All Bruce Smith had were a few snapshots of his father, who was killed when he was ten months old. Smith knew his time was running out since all of the men who would have served with his father in the Army Air Corps were in their 70s. By displaying one of the photos at an airfield in Madison, he was eventually able to link with more than ten veterans who had served with his father in the war. Smith learned from these veterans that his father tinkered with cars, was fun to be around, could be depended on by his buddies, and was buried with full military honors. After 50 plus years, the gaping hole left by his father's sudden death was being filled.
Now, is it just males who benefit from the presence of a father in their lives? Clearly not. A friend (Grendahl, 1998) shared her account of a National Organization of Women (NOW) meeting. Several of the original founders of NOW--Kathryn Clarenbach, Gene Boyer and others--were informally exploring what all of these strong, pioneering women had in common. There were very few commonalties. Yet, one came through with amazing clarity. They all had fathers who had faith in them and thought they could do what they wanted to do and be. This rock-solid faith and encouragement had been a key factor in their success as professional women.
The conclusion is inescapable. Fathers who are physically and emotionally present in the lives of their children, who accept them, nurture them, support them and encourage them, make a powerful difference in the lives of their children. When fathers are absent from their families--physically, emotionally or economically--they leave a gaping hole in the lives of their children, a "father hunger" that is difficult to satisfy.
How do we go about empowering disabled dads? There are several initiatives underway to do just that. Two of the most visible movements in the last few years have been the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March. Both are religious movements--the first Christian, attracting primarily Caucasian men, and the second Nation of Islam, aimed at African American men. And both have been criticized for reasserting a male-dominant model of parenting into family life.
Participants in each of these movements maintain that the faith-based models have helped them to reconnect with their families, to place their wives and children first and to hold them to higher levels of accountability for their family life. Participants in both groups argue that they also have gained a faith-based support group that helps them reestablish a sense of pride in their manhood and helps them sort through and deal with the problems and feelings associated with family life in the 1990s.
In response to the critique about male dominance, both groups emphasize that the focus is on leading and serving the family, not on dominating others in the family. While this criticism is not likely to go away, there are thousands--perhaps even millions--of men who have come to connect with and be more supportive of their families through these two faith-based movements.
There are other fathering initiatives as well. The National Center on Fathering (1998) is a non-profit organization, founded in 1990, that focuses on research and education related to fathering. The organization offers seminars, books, and a WEB site; publishes a newsletter entitled Today's Fathers; and sponsors a biannual Father of the Year Essay Contest. There is a strong belief that children who are fathered properly grow up healthy. And there is a strong emphasis on instructing fathers in fathering skills and on "turning the hearts of fathers back to their children." Ken Canfield, founder and president of the National Center on Fathering, did his Ph.D. thesis on fathering and has since devoted his life to improving the parenting skills of fathers across the country.
The National Fatherhood Initiative (1998) is another non-profit organization, founded in 1994, that is aimed at improving children's lives by getting fathers to commit to their families. This initiative sponsors a clearinghouse and resource center, includes 2000+ groups across the country in its resource directory, and offers a newsletter entitled Fatherhood Today. The organization sponsors an annual conference and has initiated an advertising campaign focusing on the importance of fathering in our society. Wade Horn, President of the organization, has been a strong advocate for fathers marrying and assuming the responsibilities of fatherhood. The organization is actively involved in starting state chapters of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
The Center on Fathers, Families and Public Policy (CFFPP, 1998) is a training, technical assistance and public education organization aimed at helping to create a society in which parents--both mothers and fathers--can support their children physically, emotionally and financially. The organization challenges the negative public perception of low-income fathers who "have much to contribute to their children in the way of emotional and developmental support." There is a strong emphasis on child welfare issues and the organization sees the establishment of paternity and child support enforcement as central issues for involving men in the lives of their children. CFFPP publishes a newsletter entitled Issues and Insights and has also published other materials, including an extensive "Curriculum for Young Fathers" and "A Report on Low-Income Fathers and Their Experience with Child Support Enforcement."
Wisconsin is one of the first states to create a statewide fathering initiative: the Wisconsin Fatherhood Initiative (1998). Like the parent organization that helped launch the effort, the focus is on an advertising campaign aimed at getting fathers to commit or recommit to carrying out their responsibilities as fathers. Small grants are available as an incentive for communities to launch their own public awareness campaigns aimed at responsible fatherhood. The Initiative includes an Executive Order from the Governor that all state agencies examine the father-friendliness of each agency's policies. And it includes a provision that our state will hold a summit meeting in 1999 to involve service and religious groups as well as state and local agencies in making dads more important in the lives of their children.
In addition to our statewide Fatherhood Initiative, Wisconsin has benefited from a Positive Fathering initiative developed by the Children's Trust Fund of Wisconsin. The Trust Fund (1996) created a video and study guide that has been distributed through family resource centers and other agencies throughout the state. With the theme "Choose to be an awesome father," the video provides tips on a variety of different topics: developing a relationship with your child, the developmental stages of children, anger management and stress reduction, playing with your child, listening to your child, building self-esteem, exploring with your child, keeping children safe, disciplining children; celebrating and having fun, and choosing to be the parent you want to be. In addition to developing this upbeat video showing dads in positive interactions with their children, the Children's Trust Fund also worked with family resource centers throughout the state to help them develop a "library" of books and tapes on fathering.
Many of the family resource centers in Wisconsin have developed a series of workshops specifically aimed at fathers in their communities. I worked with the Family Resource Center in Columbia County to initiate a four-part series entitled "Celebrating Dads Parenting Series." The four sessions focused on the following topics:
The sessions were led by an experienced father (myself) and the father of two young children. Each session involved sharing stories from our personal experience as fathers, briefly introducing concepts and ideas on the topic of the evening, and group discussion and sharing. An average of 15 men attended the series. As leaders, we were both shocked and pleased with one of the outcomes of the series: to a man, the participants talked about how they had been physically and/or verbally abused by their fathers as children and, to a man, they talked about how they wanted to be more nurturing so it would be different for their children than it was for themselves as they were growing up.
Sessions like these, which are led by fathers and targeted toward fathers, offer 1) a safe place for men to talk about the hurtful ways in which they were raised, and 2) an opportunity for men to sort through ways of parenting that are more nurturing and supportive of their children. Most men want to be good fathers, but they often feel out of place in parenting sessions that are aimed at both parents, are led by professional women, and cause them to feel ashamed for parenting the way they were parented: through physical and verbal abuse and without the love and nurturance they needed as a child. Men need a safe environment where these issues can be openly discussed in a non-shaming way and where they can sort through more supportive and caring ways of parenting their children.
Finally, we come to the thorny issue of how to help adolescent boys transition into responsible and caring men. Recent school yard shooting sprees by adolescent boys in Springfield, OR, Jonesboro, AR and Paducah, KY are dramatic reminders that our society does a poor job of helping adolescent boys transition into manhood: horrendous damage can be inflicted on our society when immature boys who lack judgment and impulse control deal with their frustrations through violence or other irresponsible acting-out behavior.
When we don't do a good job of transitioning boys into manhood, they become confused about what it means to be a man in our society. Some associate manhood with violence, some with alcohol or other drug abuse, some with sexual prowess, some with a fierce sense of competition and some with a detached isolationism. Substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, gang involvement, school dropout, teen homicide, and teen suicide are likely outcomes when boys are confused about their male identity.
As mentioned earlier, Blankenhorn, Popenoe, Hewlett and West clearly believe that these negative outcomes can be attributed, in large part, to the issue of fatherlessness in our society. They believe that a father is the best bridge to help transition adolescent boys into responsible and caring men. Several authors in the rapidly evolving field of men's psychology--Robert Bly, Sam Keen, Aaron Kipniss, Michael Meade, Robert Moore and Sam Osherson--would agree that adult males need to guide the transformation from boyhood into manhood and, if fathers or other adult males are not present in the family, this function needs to be provided by other adult males in the community.
Meade and Moore point to the critical importance of men initiating boys into manhood. Meade (1993) puts it this way: "In many tribal cultures, it was said that if the boys were not initiated into manhood, if they were not shaped by the skills and love of elders, then they would destroy the culture. If the fires that innately burn inside youth are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of community, they will burn down the structures of culture, just to feel the warmth." Moore (1990) argues that our society currently doesn't provide initiation activities powerful enough to transform boys into responsible and caring men. In his words "A man who 'cannot get it together' is a man who has probably not had the opportunity to undergo ritual initiation into the deep structures of manhood. He remains a boy, not because he wants to, but because no one has shown him the way to transform his boy energies into man energies."
So initiation processes can be a key component in transitioning boys into responsible and caring men. In the last few years, leaders within the African American community and the Native American community have recreated initiation or rites-of-passage activities powerful enough to transition boys into manhood. The Young Warrior Initiation (Bear Spirit Medicine Lodge, 1998) was developed by Chuck Skelton, a Native American of Blackfoot heritage. It is an intense experience, for all boys in the 13 to 16 year age range, that blends traditional tribal customs with modern male psychology to bring boys face-to-face with what it means to be a man, to be responsible and accountable and to care for himself and his people. The process is based on the four traditional stages of initiation: The Call, The Separation, The Ordeal and The Blessing. The final Blessing welcomes him into the community of men and he can then choose a mentor who will be available for support and guidance during the next year.
The Rites-of-Passage Initiation was developed by Dr. Anthony Mense, based on the West African traditions of his forefathers. This process also builds on the traditional stages of initiation and ends with a celebration experience. Over the course of the initiation, the boy is encouraged to connect with his spiritual calling as a man. He is also brought face-to-face with the heritage of his people and is encouraged to take pride in that heritage. The process is designed for youth and adults, recognizing that many adults have not experienced the benefits of an initiatory experience.
Beyond initiation, another key component in transitioning boys into manhood is the process of mentoring. Freedman (1993), in the Kindness of Strangers, highlights the growing body of research which finds that mentoring relationships with caring adults "can make an important difference in the lives of vulnerable youth as they navigate their way toward adulthood." He cites several studies that demonstrate the link between mentors and "resilient" youth:
Garmezy and researchers at the University of Minnesota report the critical importance of at least one significant adult--usually extra-familial--in the development of inner city youth;
Rutter, a British psychiatrist at the University of London, maintains that children in dysfunctional settings who have one positive adult relationship are at lower risk for psychiatric disorders;
Lefkowitz, writing in Tough Change, argues that youth who climb out of the morass of poverty and social pathology are the youth who find somebody to help invent a promising future; and
Williams and Kornblum, authors of Growing Up Poor, conclude that the common denominator among youth that make it is the presence of caring adults or adult mentors.
Werner (1982), at the University of California, Davis, has done longitudinal research on children growing up with persistent poverty and high incidences of alcoholism and mental illness in Hawaii's sugar plantations. She concludes: "research on resilient children has shown repeatedly that if a parent is incapacitated or unavailable, other significant people in a young child's life can play an enabling role."
Freedman (1993), has examined a variety of different mentoring programs and has summarized the benefits of such linkages in the lives of youth:
Supplying information and opportunities: At a basic level, "mentors broaden the horizon of youth, exposing them to new experiences beyond what is currently available in their lives." Mentors can act as a bridge to the outside world, linking youth with social and cultural experiences, college education and the world of work. Mentors can also serve as advocates for their mentees, making sure they get the kind of treatment in school and community settings that they deserve.
Providing nurturance and support: Mentors can provide sympathetic ears--caring adults who will listen, offer advice and help solve problems--in addition to providing a source of affiliation and security for youth. This support is especially important in times of crisis, which can lead to a downward spiral of substance abuse, school dropout, juvenile delinquency or suicide without the "tough love" of a caring adult who provides unconditional acceptance while holding the youth accountable to a set of high expectations.
Preparing youth for adulthood: Mentors can help young people grow up, helping them to think through important career decisions and to accept responsibility for their decisions and actions. Many youth need help making choices between the conflicting values and behaviors of their peer group and the values and expectations of the broader society. Mentors can help youth make these difficult decisions in ways that build self-esteem and social competence.
This growing body of research on the importance of mentors in the lives of resilient youth is what led Colin Powell to sponsor a national summit meeting on volunteerism and launch a nation-wide mentoring initiative. This national effort spawned a number of statewide mentoring projects, including the Wisconsin Promise. The Wisconsin Promise, a partnership between the Alliance for a Drug Free Wisconsin in the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services and the Wisconsin National and Community Services Board in the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, fosters community-based programming based on the five fundamental resources of the initiative: mentoring, nurturing, protecting, teaching, and engaging underserved youth in service.
This growing awareness of the importance of mentoring and initiation activities led the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (Ferrier, 1996) to fund a major $11 million project: The African American Men and Boys Initiative. This initiative grew out of 61 recommendations made by a task force named by Kellogg to "help preserve the talents of young African American boys--and, in turn, help to heal the nation." The basic tenet of the project is "that African Americans assume primary responsibility for leading and designing efforts that will 'repair the breaches' between African American men and boys, African American women and girls, and the rest of society." The project includes a collaborative of 33 youth-serving organizations across the country, in addition to three on-going organizational structures:
The American Futures Institute: A national think tank/work group based in Atlanta that will continue the work of the Kellogg-sponsored task force;
The Village Foundation: An endowment or trust to support other significant recommendations and programs for African American boys and men; and
An Institute at Fisk University in Nashville: This institute will facilitate national and local conversations on race and race relations in our country.
Our department at the University of Wisconsin is also launching a Boys To Men Project. The overall goal of the project is to engage adult males throughout Wisconsin in mentoring and initiation activities that will help adolescent boys transition into responsible and caring men. The project will train teams of adult males throughout the state to link with adolescent boys in their back-home communities. The project is unique in four ways: 1) it builds on a learning from men's psychology that adult males are a critical factor in guiding boys into manhood; 2) it is a cross-cultural project, drawing on the best traditions in the Native American, African American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures; 3) it is aimed at preventing a range of problems, including substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy, school dropout, juvenile delinquency, gang involvement, teen homicide and teen suicide; and 4) it is a statewide effort that establishes local projects in communities across the state and builds on programs (Big Brothers/Big Sisters, 4-H, Scouts) that already exist in communities.
Two major steps have been taken to launch the project. On March 4 and 5, 1998, a Wingspread Conference sponsored by the Johnson Foundation and our department brought together a multicultural group of 26 men in leadership positions across the state of Wisconsin to begin a networking process and develop a common vision and plan for a Boys to Men Project. This gathering helped to expand and solidify a multicultural advisory group for the project and spawned the second step: an exciting Boys to Men Cultural Exchange being held in the summers of 1998 and 1999. Twelve 11-13 year old African American boys from the inner city of Milwaukee joined twelve 11-13 year old Native American boys from the Red Cliff Tribe in a camp-out experience that immersed all 24 youth in the Red Cliff culture on the shores of Lake Superior during the week of August 3, 1998. The youth experienced canoeing, kayaking, net fishing, marksmanship, archery, beadwork, birch bark crafts, making dream catchers, making and experiencing a sweat lodge, and hearing some of the myths and stories of the Red Cliff tribal elders. In the summer of 1999, the same 24 youth will be immersed in the African American culture in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee experience will include a rites of passage experience that helps youth reflect on their purposes in life (it will use the NTU Rites of Passage model developed by Dr. Anthony Mensa, based on his work in Ghana) and will include visits to the Black Holocaust Museum, the Milwaukee Public Museum, City Hall, and businesses and educational institutions in the Milwaukee area.
The Wingspread Conference and the Boys to Men Cultural Exchange are being viewed as building blocks toward the larger statewide Boys to Men Project. We are currently seeking funding for this broader initiative.
I began with a story involving my son when he was seven years old. I'll close with a recent story of my daughter at the age of nineteen. Stephanie is a sophomore at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Her mom, Kristi, and I were invited to share our experiences with the college at a meeting of prospective students' parents. We arrived at the hall where the meeting was to take place expecting to meet Stephanie after the meeting for a leisurely dinner. She arrived a few minutes before the meeting and I gave her a big welcoming hug. But she continued to hang on long after our initial hug. I asked her what was wrong and she sobbed "I'm just stressed out. . .I have so much to do. I didn't do so well on a test I had this week, and I have another big test coming up next Wednesday."
Stephanie is taking Organic Chemistry, Calculus, English Literature, Buddhism, and chorus and is involved in a leadership role in Girls and Women in Science, Model UN, Gold Key (hosting prospective students on campus), and water aerobics. She is carrying a heavy load, but she has developed an incredible ability to balance multiple tasks. I had simply never seen her that stressed out before this day. We talked her through the situation before our meeting and again later while we were having dinner with her. After arriving home, I sent her a card with this message: "Dear Stephanie, Just a quick note to wish you the best with your exam on Wednesday and with all the other stresses in your life right now. Your mother and I have a lot of faith in you and we love you very much. We are thinking of you and praying for you. Just do the best you can! With much love, Dad and Mom." Enclosed with the card, I enclosed a copy of Virginia Satir's "Rules for Being Human" (Satir, 1986). The next time we talked she was in good spirits, she had gotten an A on her exam, and she was thankful for our support.
In short, it's about being there for our kids, whether they are seven or nineteen or thirty-three. It's about loving, nurturing, supporting, sharing, and guiding our children. But most of all, it is about having faith in them even when they have lost faith in themselves. Fathers can be good at seeing the basic personality traits in their children and having faith in them, sometimes much better than their mothers!
Parsons (1996) reminds us that the greatest illusion for fathers is that "A slower day is coming." Parsons goes on to say "If we are going to make a difference as fathers, we need to do it now. . .and it has to do with carving those times out of busy lives--today." Carpe Diem. . .seize the day!
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Copyright © 1999 Roger T. Williams.For technical assistance: