Raising Children with “Male-Positive” Attitudes in Families with Absent Fathers

In Research by Engagement

Source: Doherty, W. & Craft, S. (2011). Single mothers raising children with ‘‘male-positive’’ attitudes. Family Process, 50(1), 63-76


Many children now grow up in the increasingly common scenario of a father’s absence or reduced presence following their parents’ breakup. Among the challenges facing single mothers, who often assume care and custody of the child, a particularly difficult one is how to help children develop ‘‘male-positive’’ attitudes, especially in situations when children have no active relationship with the father.

The study in focus defines male-positive attitudes as “generalized beliefs that men are good and trustworthy unless their individual behaviour suggests otherwise”, and the opposite of that as “generalised suspicion of the character and intentions of men before knowing them and evaluating their individual actions”.

Perspectives on the single-mother / absent-father scenario

The authors take on this rarely-addressed and sensitive subject, by emphasising that they offer an alternative perspective to two dominant views of single motherhood or fatherlessness: the deficit perspective, which assumes single mothers’ are not capable of raising children well, and the idealisation perspective, which emphasises that a ‘‘heroic’’ single mother is all that children need.

Their discussion focuses on the special challenges that the single-mother/absent-father scenario poses for children in constructing a positive image of men, particularly if parents have broken up, and/or when children lose an active relationship with their father. The authors review available sociological and family research and theories to make sense of how children receive messages about men and fathers, and distill learning points on possible responses to these challenges.

For example, the messages that children receive from their mothers and communities about absent fathers not only influence children in the present, but also socialise them for future roles as men and fathers if they are boys, and for future relationships whether they are boys or girls. For children experiencing their own hurt and longing for their fathers, messages that minimise the importance of fathers may feel dissonant or incongruent with their own feelings.

At the same time, children often experience or are thrust by parents into loyalty conflicts when parents break-up. These situations can create mixed emotions for children who still feel some loyalty even to fathers they may feel abandoned by, or conflicted identities in the case of boys who may identify in part with their fathers who are characterised as “bad”.

Supporting single mothers to manage the challenges of fatherlessness

The authors offer several suggestions that may help single mothers, and practitioners who work with families with absent fathers, to raise and socialise children to hold less conflicted and better-adjusted attitudes towards men and fathers.

They acknowledge that these suggestions may be especially difficult for mothers to practise when fathers have had an abusive or destructive presence. They also make clear that responsibility for the child’s adjustment does not lie solely with the mother. Nonetheless, these strategies drawn from theory and research are offered to support children’s wellbeing.

1.   Messages and strategies that mothers can employ directly with their children

•    Say something good about the father for the child to hold onto. This can mean a lot especially to a child whose sense of self is intertwined with an image of the father.

•    Say nothing bad about him, even if he has behaved irresponsibly. Children already feel badly about their father’s absence. Furthermore, they are likely to form their own assessments as they get older, and may feel that the mother undermined the father, should their views of the father improve. Mothers could also tell their relationship story in a way that does not paint the father negatively and that even offers lessons, for example: “We fell in love quickly and had you too young, before we really were grown up.”

•    But don’t lie about or for him. However, the authors acknowledge that striking a balance can be difficult and encourage disclosing the truth about key events that may have happened if the child asks.

•    Acknowledge the father’s absence and the child’s feelings. Allow space for deeper conversations about loss, confusion or anger that the child may feel. This is more likely if children feel they have permission to mourn the father’s absence.

•    Emphasise that the father’s absence is not the child’s fault. But do so, without adding that it is the father’s fault.

•    Support the father’s involvement, even if it is minimal or inconsistent. Withholding children from the father, even if with the intention of protecting them from the father’s inconsistency, can set up the mother for blame in future if the father re-enters children’s lives more responsibly, and children become aware of mother’s role in the gap in their relationship with the father.

•    Look for opportunities to be positive about other men. Avoid general put-downs of men.

2. The influence that mothers can have on children through relationships with men in their lives, including romantic partners, friends, and family.

•    Mother’s romantic partners make a difference to children. Research shows children are greatly impacted by the men who become romantic partners to their mothers, especially when the men move into the household and become their stepfathers. Children learn not just from what mothers say, but also from what they do and how they form and manage relationships with men.

•    Involve positive male role models who are not romantically linked to the mother. Children benefit from the involvement of responsible men who may be family members or friends of the mother. It is important for boys in particular to have positive role models, especially if their father is not in their lives. Important family rituals such as birthdays and holidays are one place where men from family and friendship networks can become deeply involved in the lives of children. These efforts can convey to children the message that there are men in this world who value them.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists,counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 24-10-2012.