Among the promising ideas President Barack Obama spelled out in his State of the Union address, the one that resonated with me is a premise on which we can all agree.
"What makes you a man isn't the ability to conceive a child but having the courage to raise one," said Obama, reaffirming his commitment to fatherhood and families while urging that we lessen "the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples.''
As child raised by a single mother, Obama understands firsthand the importance of positive male influences in a child's life. A debilitating cycle has developed of young women under 21 getting pregnant by men under 21. The results can be highly dysfunctional — broken relationships, children raising children, education of the parents curtailed, a perpetual cycle of poverty and teenage pregnancy.
The Village for Families & Children is running a novel program geared toward young men in Greater Hartford, ages 15 to 24, who have fathered a child with a woman under 21. The aim of FatherWorks is to prevent future unplanned pregnancies and to get young dads involved in the lives of their children, even if relations with the mother have soured.
Many young dads become estranged from their children because they are no longer enamored of the mother. Others abandon their children because of fear of the new responsibilities and whether they are equipped financially or emotionally. Teenage pregnancy programs usually target women. But dads are the foundation for strong families. When a boy suddenly becomes a dad the foundation rarely settles. Behind the youthful maschismo is a person who usually wants to do the right thing but is scared and has no idea where to start.
FatherWorks provides GED training, father-child bonding strategies, co-parenting workshops, financial planning, life skills and job training. The dads meet in small groups once a week — for two hours — for 15 weeks.
"Fathers have not been a factor in a lot of community programs,'' said Kevin Outar, community outreach specialist at the Village for Children and Families. "A lot of programs are geared toward mothers and children."
Outar and two young dads, Arthur Scott and Christian Weaver, were guests on my television show last week (online at ctnow.com/stan). Both Scott and Weaver were thoughtful and genuine in their desires to play a meaningful role their kids' lives. Both admitted, though, to being intimidated by the expectations.
"My biggest fear was what was I going to do, to be able to provide for my daughter," Weaver said. He fathered his child at 17, with a woman who was 16. "I was 17 years old; I couldn't get a job. I had to go to my family for everything. I didn't have a clue about what's the next step for me to take care of my child without having to depend on anybody else."
Scott, 20, recently had a daughter with a woman who was 19.
"Life stops as a kid when you have a child early," Scott said. "Going from being a child to being a father is just a whole different life."
Teenage pregnancies (and divorces) provide convenient, but cowardly, excuses for fathers not to be as involved in their children's lives.
Studies show that homes without fathers can contribute to behavior issues, higher dropout rates and incarceration. My experience with dads who are estranged from the mother of their children is that they very much want to be good role models for their children.
Still, in urban areas such as Hartford, 70 percent of the households are headed by a single parent; the divorce rate nationally is 50 percent.
As Obama said in a 2008 Father's Day campaign stop at a Chicago church, where he talked about the vital role of dads:
"If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that too many fathers are MIA, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They've abandoned their responsibilities; they're acting like boys instead of men, and the foundations of our families have suffered because of it. "
Moms, for the most part, do a great job. But daughters need their dads — and it takes a man to raise a boy.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FOX CT).
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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