Yesterday, my post focused on the way single fathers tend to be ignored both in terminology and in support within education. Although I gave an example of how this reflects what is done in our culture generally, it’s time for educators to take the lead in supporting this growing minority group as we have done in the past with others (”Education: Helper of the Disenfranchised,” 14 February, 2012).
In order to offer this help to single dads who most likely will not self-disclose, it’s important to understand at least three conditions under which they live and how educators can take the lead in overcoming each one.
Defeat Negative Stereotypes
The first condition is one that educators should understand all too well: negative stereotyping. Just as politicians, the media, and other socio-political entities have made war on education, especially demonizing teachers, so too have fathers been unfairly depicted. The classic example is the stereotype of the ‘deadbeat dad’ who allegedly neither supports his children with his money or his presence. The reality is that most dads—like most parents—love and support their children. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:
• 92% of single fathers are gainfully employed. [It would also be interesting to know how many of these dads are working more than one job.]
• 9% were raising three or more children younger than 18.
• 39% had an annual family income of $50,000 or more.
• 45% of single fathers received all of the child support payments they were due; this is statistically equal to what mothers received from fathers.
• 53% and 71% of children younger than six ate breakfast and dinner respectively with their fathers; this is statistically the same as for mothers.
• 36% of children younger than six had 15 or more outings with their dads within one month in 2006 [The percentage for mothers is not given.]
• Six is the average number of times children ages 3-5 were read to by their fathers per week in 2006.
• 66% of children younger than six are praised three or more times per day by their dads.
• 85% of fathers live with their biological children only, 11% with step-children, and 4% with adopted children, and less than 1% with foster children.
• 61.3% of fathers may not have disclosed their single father status
Looking at these statistics, it seems clear that single fathers are hardly the lazy, deadbeat, disinterested parents they are stereotypically said to be. Perhaps if there were more studies on single fatherhood, we would learn more about the estimated two-thirds who do not disclose their status or who do not label themselves single parents. I suspect a large part of the explanation may be that they are afraid to speak up within this hostile climate.
There is a general lack of awareness that single fathers exist within a climate of fear, which is why they may be more reluctant to self-disclose their situation or ask for help on our campuses. Fathers are routinely questioned. James Rodriguez, president of Fathers and Families Coalition of America stated that fathers, especially single fathers, are frequently asked where mom is, although mothers typically do not get asked “where is dad?”(qtd. in Forsythe, J. 18 June, 2012). In 2006, I remember as a married father taking my children to Toronto where I was going to be the keynote speaker at an event and where we intended to spend a few days with family. At U.S. Customs in Port Huron, Michigan, we were asked to pull aside; my vehicle was searched. In front of my two young children, I was repeated asked why I was going to Canada, if I was the biological father, if I had custody, and if their mother knew I was taking the kids out of the country. One of the customs officials called my wife to verify all was well. Our passports, my driver’s and vehicle licenses, the invitation showing I was the keynote speaker, contact information for my family, etc. were meaningless. Verbal confirmation from my children’s mother was necessary.
Educators must be aware that single fathers have most likely had similar situations that may make them reluctant to fully participate in opportunities for education. Once when I was teaching a community college course on argumentative and persuasive writing in a class with one male student and about 15 female students, the possible topic of deadbeat dads came up. As we discussed potential research questions and other rhetorical approaches, the male student started to speak up. He disclosed he was a single father, that he was paying child support but also providing nearly 100% of the care for his children as the children’s mother had basically left them. All he seemed to want was for his point to be heard. Some of the female students chose to berate him with negative male stereotypes (e.g., men are not naturally nurterers, most fathers don’t support their children, etc.) to the point where I had to end class a bit early to diffuse the emotion. Although some of the other female students offered the male student words of encouragement and praise for devoting himself to his daughter, he never returned to class. His only reply to my outreach encouraging him to come back was, “Why would I?”
Although most situations are not as extreme as the above examples, educators must be conscious of the day-to-day climate that is set for single fathers. Are we including dads in the support services offered for single parents, in our vocabulary, and in a non-threatening manner? Or are we excluding them, exacerbating their fears that they are not welcome.
Thrive Not Just Survive
Largely due to the lack of awareness, support, misrepresentation, and fear that single fathers experience, many do not disclose their status in order to survive. In a 2012 Father’s Day story last weekend, NPR shared the story of Bowdoin College graduate Will Smith, a single father (15 June, 2012). In 1996 when Smith finished his tour of duty in the Navy, he took his then one-year-old daughter Olivia to school with him. Although their story of being “roommates” is touching, it betrays the situation for single fathers within academia well.
Smith states: “I actually thought that if Bowdoin College knew I had [her], they wouldn’t let me come to college. So, I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone” (qtd. in NPR, 15 June, 2012). He then shared how he worked third-shift at a retail store, taking Olivia with him and going without food so she would have enough to eat (qtd. in NPR, 15 June, 2012).
Although Smith managed to play on the basketball team and to graduate from Bowdoin with the support of this teammate babysitters and strong work ethic, as educators we should be outraged that a large minority group like this feels it must remain in hiding in order to learn. It’s time we stop ignoring single father students or worse yet, participating in their disenfranchisement from educational opportunity.
Personally, I would much rather be like the Bowdoin College dean who not only allowed Will and Olivia Smith to walk across the stage together at graduation, but who also called out both of their names. That moment illustrates another reason we must stop ignoring single fathers in education. I’ll share that in Part III tomorrow.
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