Monday, November 30, 2009

Not Good or Bad...Just Different

Over the holiday, I had the opportunity to visit good friends of mine, Allen and Becky, and meet Zeke, their happy, pudgy four month-old baby who has a shock of beautiful dark hair and eyes as large as saucers.

After sufficient cooing and cuddling (Oh, who am I kidding? It was excessive cooing and cuddling.), Becky settled Zeke into his ExerSaucer, a colorful bouncy-chair flanked on all sides by plastic toys, whirl-a-gigs, noise makers, mirrors - everything a four month-old needs to amuse himself for a few minutes - so we could eat a few bites of dinner.

"It's interesting," she observed as she settled him in, "this chair has pieces you can extend from the bottom to keep it from moving around as much. I always put them down, but Allen rarely does. It took me a while to realize that's okay - it's okay if Zeke moves around a little bit."

That didn't surprise me. Dads interact with their children in a different way than moms. While moms hold babies close and cuddle them, fathers tickle their kids, approaching them from every angle. Dads lift their babies into the air - prompting giggles of delight from their children and gasps of fear from their wives.

Research actually shows that kids need this unique interaction - when dads play and tickle and toss, they're actually enhancing their child's cognitive development.

So many times dads get sidelined in the beginning because they aren't taking care of the baby the "right" way. Yes, there are only so many ways to change a diaper, but just because dads do things differently, that doesn't mean it's wrong.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Biology Matters

Last night I watched the premiere of the new ABC show, "Find My Family." The show helps people find family members that they have lost contact with, such as adopted children, biological fathers, sisters, etc.

Last night's episode was about a couple who wanted to find their first daughter, who they had given up for adoption when they were teenagers. She is now 29-years-old and the parents had been searching for her for the last 9 years. They were reunited with her at the end of the show.

I grew up with my own two parents, so I don't know what it is like to know that you have close biological relatives out there somewhere that you have never met. But the truth that emerged from the tear-filled show last night is that biology matters.

Here were people who had never met before, yet they all had a powerful, undeniable urge to be connected with others who are a part of them. The daughter wanted to know where she came from; to know "who she was." The parents wanted to know the child they had created together; they wanted to see that part of them that would live on after they are gone.

It is important to note that this is not a criticism of adoption - the daughter had been adopted by two loving parents who cared for her and gave her a good life. Adoption is a wonderful thing. But the fact that she did have such a positive upbringing with her adoptive parents is actually further evidence of the power of biology - she still wanted to know her true parents and have a relationship with them despite her great relationship with her adoptive parents.

From NFI's perspective, the show demonstrated why father absence matters. As Roland Warren, NFI's president is fond of saying, "Children have a hole in their soul in the shape of their father." Again, people want to know where they came from, as it helps them define who they are. Father absence makes that task all the more difficult.

In the previews of upcoming episodes, you hear people saying things like, "A part of me was missing that I needed to fill." Surely, we don't fully understand what is happening here, but clearly, people continue to ask that age old question, "Who am I?" In a culture that would downplay the importance of biology in defining family, this show was a powerful reminder that you can't deny DNA.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Flex Your Facebook Muscles and Vote for NFI!

Chase Bank is taking a new approach to corporate philanthropy by hosting a contest on Facebook - and YOU can vote for NFI to receive funding!

If you're on facebook, search for Chase Community Giving, download the app, and search for "National Fatherhood Initiative."

Why should you vote for NFI? Well, we're working in all 50 states (plus DC and Puerto Rico) on an issue that affects every community - father absence. Our programs are changing lives and reconnecting families, ensuring that no child grows up without his/her father. This funding will enable us to continue to strengthen families, communities, and give you and your children a brighter future for a stronger America.

So...flex your facebook muscles and vote for NFI!

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Turn in Custody Battles?

Fathers have long complained that the post-divorce custody decision was slanted against them because they spent (or appeared to spend) more time working than actively parenting. In this recession, however, it seems that some working moms are experiencing the same phenomenon. A Working Mother magazine article profiled some working mothers who did not get as much custody as they had expected, and the New York Times followed up with another viewpoint.

Obviously custody battles often produce Pyrrhic victories, and one wishes they never had to occur. However, to make a fair decision about co-parenting responsibilities, judges need to consider a wide variety of factors about both mom and dad. Having moms get less custody time in some situations does not, by definition, mean the wrong decision has been made. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Princess and the Frog (and the dad!)

On December 11, a great new Disney movie is coming out - "The Princess and the Frog." A few of us here at NFI had the privilege of seeing an early screening of the film, and we were impressed on several levels.

First, the beauty of the hand-drawn animation is amazing.

Second, it is an extremely funny, entertaining film with fantastic music.

And third, there is a great fatherhood theme in the film. As NFI president Roland C. Warren is fond of saying, "Good fathers make sure that their daughters find their prince without having to kiss all the frogs." The father in the film, James (voiced by Terence Howard), is a hard-working, dedicated dad who shows his daughter, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), that she has value, talent, and that she can achieve her dreams through hard work and perseverance.

Throughout the film, Tiana and her mother (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) reflect on her father's positive influence on her life, and how his presence contributed to the good things she achieves.

Given the fatherhood message of the film, NFI was honored to work with Disney to distribute movie-themed cards, books, and other materials to community-based organizations across the country. The organizations will use the materials to create father-friendly atmospheres in their facilities, to provide dads with gifts they can give their children, and to use as giveaways for father-child activities.

To say the least, we at NFI are excited about the release of this film on December 11 (limited NY and LA on 11/25). Visit the official "The Princess and the Frog" website to view trailers and learn more about the film.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Does marriage "work"?

This opinion piece on deals with the importance of marriage in raising healthy children. It cites the Obamas as a great example of a family enjoying the fruits of marriage.

I will not say much about the article itself, but about the comments at the bottom of the page. Whenever I see an article like this, touting the benefits of marriage, there are invariably "commentators" who say, "marriage does not work these days," or they cite all of the examples of bad/abusive marriages they have seen in their lives.

Two things come to my mind whenever I see such comments:
1) Let's assume that what these commentators say about marriage is true - that marriage does not work, that there are tons of bad marriages out there. Then how do you reconcile that with the fact that, despite all of this bad stuff, children with married parents still do better, on average, than children from the family structures that are replacing marriage? What does that imply about these replacement family structures?

2) That leads to my second thought -- why doesn't anyone ever make a comment like, "Cohabitation just does not work today." In other words, why doesn't anyone ever criticize the family structures that, according to decades of research, are actually failing children (on average of course)? After all, if marriage does not work, then cohabitation, by these commentators' very own standards, works even less - cohabiting relationships are less stable, last less time, have more child and partner abuse, etc.

It seems there are people who are so ideologically opposed to marriage that they have a huge blind spot when it comes to the faults of "replacement" family structures. Sure, marriage has its faults, but why pretend that whatever replaces it has none of the problems that marriage has and all of the benefits?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Crime of fatherlessness...

In light of the execution of D.C. sniper John Muhammad last night, I thought that you would find of interest a piece that I wrote about 7 years ago in the aftermath of the shootings. Of note, this was very real and personal for me. On October 22, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop that was one exit up from my wife's office. It's a pretty secluded setting and there is a gas station--that she frequently uses--right across the street.

In the days since John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were detained in the “Beltway Sniper” case, we have all wanted to know why these crimes occurred. Who were these cold-blooded murderers? How do people become so unabatedly evil?

Many have made up their minds about John Muhammad. He is an angry, frustrated, middle-aged man with gripes against his ex-wives and his country. It has been reported that he was sympathetic to the 9/11 terrorists. It is not too difficult to put the pieces together with him.

But what about the 17-year-old boy, who is now believed to have been the triggerman in these vicious acts? As we learn more about Malvo’s upbringing and his tumultuous childhood, things start to become clear. How did a young boy with a bright smile and a promising future become a 17-year-old killer? The answer: John Lee Malvo did not have an involved father.

Malvo’s childhood was characterized by constant moves from one school to another, one island to another, and one caretaker to another. His mother, Una James, was constantly trying to find new work and a new life for her and her son throughout the Caribbean. Many of the people who knew James and Malvo became exasperated at the constant upheaval in the intelligent Malvo’s life. However, the biggest mistake James made was that she did not feel it was necessary for her son to have a father.

As Malvo grew up, he searched for his father from time to time, but had limited contact with him. Friends and relatives point out that Malvo was keenly in need of a father figure in his life and he tended to flock towards older males in his neighborhood. But his mother and her sister grew up without their father. James simply did not realize the importance of father-love for a child. Her sister said, “We grew up without a father. We don’t know father-love.” She went on to say that James did not realize that her son needed the father-love they never had.

Leslie Malvo, the biological father, owns a construction contracting company in Jamaica. Reporters located him the day after his son was arrested, and he commented in American media that he had been following the sniper murders. This is not a poor man living in an isolated, backwards village. He owns a business and reads American newspapers. However, he was a failure as a father. He did not contest James’ attempts to keep him uninvolved with their son. He never sought out his son, or tried to improve his son’s life despite his relative wealth and despite the fact that James was causing such upheaval in the younger Malvo’s life.

Eventually Malvo had become tragically accustomed to childhood without a father. But as a boy enters his late teens he wants to find out what it means to become a man. He looks for examples of mature behavior from the adult males around him. He loves his mother, but begins to pull away in an attempt to establish independence - to fill the “hole in his soul” in the shape of his father.

In one of the many unstable settings Malvo found himself in, this time alone on the island of Antigua and his mother in Jamaica, John Muhammad entered the picture. Muhammad was a human smuggler, getting people from the islands to the states. He was a powerful looking ex-military man with strong political and religious convictions. To the impressionable Malvo, Muhammad immediately became an attractive and authoritative “father figure.” Through many twists and turns, the two ended up living together in the United States, apart from James, and in relative poverty. Lee Boyd Malvo changed his name to John Lee Malvo taking the name of his new “father” and becoming his “son.” Muhammad’s interest in guns and shooting provided another means for the two to bond. We now know what the grotesque product of that bonding would become – 10 dead, 3 wounded, millions scared.

The statistics of father absence are potent, and illuminate several aspects of the Malvo case. A study of 1,800 middle-school students found that children who did not live with both biological parents were more likely to carry a gun. The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father. Seventy two percent of adolescent murderers are fatherless. However, as helpful as these statistics can be, they sometimes obscure the human tragedies that lurk behind them. Lee Boyd Malvo was abandoned by his father, and kept away from him by his mother who grew up without her father. He then turned to another man, who also did not know his own father. Together they killed.

Many will continue to analyze why these two men committed such crimes and they may come up with some very definitive answers. Psychologists, criminologists, academicians, and forensic experts will feed us with countless explanations. But we must look at this crime at its roots, as a crime of fatherlessness. If we do, not only will we have the greatest understanding of what happened, but we will also begin to embrace the solution to this problem - men must be involved, responsible, and committed fathers so that their shoes will not be filled by the likes of John Muhammad.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh...

I received the below note from a friend who just became a father:

“I gotta say I first really felt like a father when I was holding her after she was born...she looked up at me and something inside me turned on, that I'd never felt.”

Powerful stuff indeed… Interestingly, I had a similar experience when the nurse put my first son, Jamin, in my arms. I was just 20 years old and, admittedly, a bit scared. I was clearly more comfortable on a football field than in a delivery room, and more comfortable with a football in my arms than a baby.

But when they handed Jamin to me, something in me just…clicked…like a light switch. When he looked up at me I said to myself, “Wow…this is my son.” Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Fatherhood changes everything.

I also remember feeling that I was grossly unprepared for my new role, especially since I grew up without my dad. Sure, I had attended LaMaze classes and a few prenatal doctor visits, and read selected pages from my wife’s “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” book. But none of these things really spoke to me or seemed to be for me. And it seemed that my feeling and experience were not unique. In our Pop's Culture Survey, we found that nearly ½ of the fathers surveyed reported that they were not prepared to be fathers when they first became one.

That’s one of the reasons that when I joined NFI 8 years ago, I championed our efforts to develop resources like “Doctor Dad™,” When Duct Tape Won’t Work™,” and “Daddy Packs for New Dads™” to equip dads right from the start. Unlike me, fathers need to walk into the delivery room with more than just a bit of anxiety and a checkbook and need to walk out of the delivery room with more than just the bill and the baby.

In any case, got a story about becoming a dad for the first time? I’d love to hear it. Also, if you are about to become a father and want to share about what is going on or if you’re a mom and want to tell about how becoming a dad affected the father of your children, chime in as well.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Paying More Attention to Fathers

The New York Times published an interesting article that not only highlights the importance of involved fathers, but also the turnkey role that moms play in involving fathers. "A mother's support of the father turns out to be a critical factor in his involvement with their children."

It goes on to report findings that show that when a couple's relationship is strengthened and a couple has positive interactions, dads are much more likely to be involved and kids are much more likely to thrive. Truly a win-win situation.

This article explores the fact that the mother-father relationship is one of several factors that can affect father involvement. We know that dads don't parent in a bubble; that's why we built a session for mothers into our 24/7 Dad curriculum and why we've developed Mom as Gateway. These resources help break down the barriers between couples (regardless of marital status) so they can effectively co-parent.

As this article points out, more and more people are realizing just how important dads are - and that there are many factors to enabling their involvement. Helping moms and dads see eye-to-eye and respect each other's parenting styles is key to thriving kids and families.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Maxim's Advice for Dads

Maxim magazine (yes, that Maxim) published a list of "10 Things Every Father Should Teach His Son." Here is their list:

1. Never Fight Over a Woman
2. Never Let Anyone See You Punch Inanimate Objects
3. Buy the Women in Your Life Flowers
4. Know How to Make Scrambled Eggs
5. Always Buy a Laid-off Friend a Beer
6. Never Get Mad ... Get Even
7. Silence Is Golden
8. Drink Liquor Straight Up
9. Own a Roll of Duct Tape
10. Never Be Afraid to Dance

Now, some of these are pretty good (2, 3, 7), some of them are not so good (6, 8), and some of them are downright silly (1, 4, 5, 9, 10). Given the questionable content on their website, I will not link over to the list, where they provide brief explanations for each item.

All in all, I would classify this list as "how to be a man in the way 21st century manhood has been defined." You can take it for what it is worth from that perspective.

But we at NFI, of course, think there are a few important things that Maxim left off the list when it comes to the real, actual things that sons need to learn from their fathers.

A few suggestions, from the mundane to the profound:

  • Work hard, even when no one is watching.
  • Know how to fix a flat tire.
  • Don't have children until you are married to their mother.
  • Honesty actually is the best policy.
  • Know how to cook.
  • Have a good strong handshake.
  • Always look people in the eye when you talk to them.
  • Serve your community.
  • Be willing and able to do house chores, like vacuuming, ironing, dusting, and washing dishes.
  • Treat all of the women in your life with respect.
  • Don't be afraid to experience and process the full range of emotions.
  • Always keep an updated resume.
Do you have any more suggestions? What lessons will you share with your sons?