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Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

Masculinity Under the Microscope

Lost boys and throwaway dads

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Lost Boys

Lost Boys

Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them
by James Garbarino
Anchor Press
274 pp.; $13, paper

Throwaway Dads

Throwaway Dads

Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be
by Ross D. Parke and Armin A. Brott
Houghton Mifflin
252 pp.; $24

James Garbarino's Lost Boys and Ross Parke and Armin Brott's Throwaway Dads were both published shortly before the Littleton, Colorado massacre in April 1999. Both books aim—albeit in different ways—at understanding and reversing such violence whether it occurs in the small towns of America's heartland or in the inner–city neighborhoods of Detroit and Los Angeles. In the process, they shed light on other hotly contested matters—gender differences, fathering, the impact of divorce—with implications that evangelical Christians in particular should heed.

Risk accumulation

Garbarino's approach to understanding how violence arises in young males is twofold. He reviews the empirical literature on correlates of violence in children and, to give dry statistics a human face, shares some results of his one–on–one conversations with murderers in youth prisons run by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Two important points that emerge from this are the concept of "risk accumulation" and the close relationship between homicidal and suicidal tendencies. Risk accumulation refers to the progressive likelihood of violence as various negative factors get added to a young person's life. Thus, statistically speaking, a boy's chances of committing murder are doubled if his family has a history of criminal violence, if he himself has a history of being abused, if he belongs to a gang, and if he abuses alcohol or drugs. The odds triple if, in addition, he uses a weapon, has been arrested, has difficulties at school and a poor attendance record, and has neurological problems (possibly the result of previous abuse pre– or post–natally) that impair thinking and feeling.

To these external social risk factors can be added related internal ones: psychological conditions such as depression and shame or, conversely, an inflated sense of self that can lead to a narrowly circumscribed idea of what constitutes personal injury deserving of retribution. Then there are cultural factors: violent media; a gun culture so ubiquitous that two–thirds of American teenagers say that they could get access to a gun within an hour; the dearth of positive adult role models; and schools which even if they have high standards and dedicated teachers are often so large that adequate social integration of all students, especially those at risk, is well–nigh impossible. Finally, there is what Garbarino calls the "spiritual emptiness" of our age—the sense that life has no meaning individually or cosmically. This is compounded by the failure of adults to connect children to "non–punitive" forms of religion that can supply firm but loving adult mentors when needed, and a foundation of hope for the future.

The concept of risk accumulation allows us to see what binds inner city and suburban young killers together. It is not that the particular types of risk factors are exactly the same in every community. But they tend to constitute overlapping sets, and as the total number of risk factors rises the more likely violence is to take place. No more than 10 percent of violent youths are psychotic in the sense that they have lost touch with reality and are delusional. The rest—regardless of location—are responding with a twisted logic to accumulated pressures that most of us have mercifully been spared.

This does not mean that they should not be held accountable for their actions, Garbarino is quick to add. But if there is to be any hope of redeeming them, we also need to understand them. Some are caught up in dangerous Catch–22 situations, as exemplified by one of Garbarino's young informants who said "If I join a gang I'm 50 percent safe. If I don't I'm 0 percent safe." As a result of temperamental vulnerability combined with poor early attachment to caretakers, others fail to develop normal human empathy. Instead they come to see life through the lens of self–entitlement and a "deadly petulance" according to which the slightest evidence of "dissing" becomes the occasion for a fight to the death.

Why boys kill more than girls

A final common pathway of these varied packages of negative influence is the frequent conclusion that life is intolerable, which is why it's often a toss–up for a violence–prone boy as to whether he should kill someone else or himself. Sometimes both are orchestrated to happen at once, as we saw in the Littleton killings. Garbarino notes that the expression "suicide by cop" is used to describe how some armed young men provoke an impossible confrontation with law enforcement personnel with the intent of getting themselves killed. Overall, about 15 percent of American high school boys have seriously considered suicide, and around 5 percent have attempted it. Girls in fact make more attempts, but since their preferred mode is overdosing with pills, whereas boys are more likely to use guns, more boys succeed in killing themselves.

This brings us to the question of gender differences, and why it is boys so much more than girls who become killers. Garbarino does not attempt to review the arguments from physiological and evolutionary psychology regarding the biological origins of male violence, except to affirm that temperament may be a predisposing factor that is inflated by risk accumulation. But he does cite cross–cultural data that challenge any crude theory of biological determinism. If it's all a matter of sex–related genes and hormones, why should the homicide rate of American girls be higher than that of Japanese or Swedish boys? And why should the overall youth homicide rate be four times lower in Canada than in the United States?

Obviously, context is crucial: although American–spawned images of media violence are depressingly common in Canada, Europe, and Asia, gun control laws are much stricter. And studies in various countries of matched communities where TV was introduced at different times (usually by a factor of several years) show that the rise in youth violence correlates with years of access to TV. Television is not the sole cause of such violence, any more than smoking is the sole cause of lung cancer, but it does account for 10 to 15 percent of the variance, and may be a deciding factor especially in young men who are already psychologically at risk.

Garbarino believes that another risk factor is unhealthy gender–role socialization. Girls who are exposed to trauma are not usually discouraged from talking about it or asking for help: both are considered normal and even laudable feminine behaviors, even though the needed help is not always forthcoming in response. But too often boys are taught to devalue the direct expression of the "softer" emotions such as fear and the need for attachment. The result is a kind of hidden depression that can lead to progressive emotional numbing and the projection of responsibility for one's problems onto others. Emotional distress, rather than identified and dealt with directly, is too often parlayed into violent action.

By contrast, Garbarino cites research showing that in all kinds of cultures, simple or complex, androgyny is predictive of greater emotional resilience. "The more successfully people incorporate both traditionally masculine and feminine attributes, the more likely they are to master the situations they face. This is often a big hurdle for boys in general, but particularly for boys who live in a very macho world that rejects as second class everything that is feminine."

Given the complex relationship of risk accumulation to violence (not to mention the perennial problem that doing correlational studies isn't the same as nailing down causality) it's no wonder there are so many arguments about where to fix the blame. Do we aim first for gun control, or for a reduction in violent TV, movie and video game images? Regrettably, in America the answer often depends on who is giving more money to the ruling political party, Hollywood or the National Rifle Association.

Although he is vague as to how it can all be funded, Garbarino recommends a multi–pronged approach: better prenatal care, parent education, and violence prevention programs; early professional intervention in response to chronic aggression; character education aimed at developing "core values" such as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship; reductions in school size, violent media imagery, and access to guns by children. All this comes with an appendix listing helpful resources for schools, churches and other agencies working with children.

Faith and hope

Since social scientists are known to be the most secular of all academics, it is noteworthy that Garbarino acknowledges the power of intrinsic, non–punitive religiosity in preventing and redirecting youthful violence. Although he aims to be decidedly non–confessional in his treatment of religion (he prefers the vaguer term "spirituality") he is well aware of research showing the relationship between young people's church involvement and reduced likelihood of depression, suicide, substance abuse, and engagement in casual sex. Religiously involved teens also bounce back more easily from traumatic events, not just because they have more social support, but because they are more likely to see redemptive meaning both in and despite such occurrences.

Most intriguing of all is Garbarino's conviction that prisons and other holding facilities can nurture young offenders' spiritual development and cognitive restructuring, so that gradually they come to believe "that they can live in a world where something other than survival ethics rules." For this to occur, the facility must first be free from internal violence and the temptations of drugs, sex, and the materialistic attitudes fostered by the mass media. Then, says Garbarino, it must be structured more like a monastery than a boot camp, emphasizing "contemplation, reflection, service, cooperation, meditation, and peace, instead of confrontation, dominance and power assertion."

When these conditions prevail, many of Garbarino's young confidants attest to their power to reorient thinking and give them a purpose for living, even in the face of long–term incarceration. Though he is honest about the fact that this "monastic model" is too new to have been adequately evaluated, he has hope that it will yield better results than the boot camp approach, which has been shown to have no higher rate of success than more conventional youth detention programs.

The "parenting–equals–mothering" fallacy

Garbarino competently introduces the general reader to a literature on youth violence that is often misused for political purposes by the right and left alike. That he is somewhat repetitive in doing so may reflect his concern that the record be set straight and that his readers know he is not trying to equate understanding with cheap grace.

My one minor criticism has to do with his use of the literature on infant attachment. In the longer history of this topic, going back to Freud, it was standard to see infant emotional attachment solely in mother–child terms, with fathers being distant observers whose chief function was to bring home the bacon. As a result, any later problems in children's emotional and social development were routinely attributed to the absence of "good enough mothering," with too little attention paid to temperamental differences among infants or to their interactions with siblings, fathers, and other people.

Garbarino is certainly sensitive to the temperament variable, and as already noted, he supports socialization for androgyny as one way to help young males resist the mystique of violence. But when he appeals to the attachment literature, he tends to lapse into the parenting–equals–mothering mode, without showing how important early and consistent father involvement is for loosening the rigid gender stereotypes he deplores. It is this gap, among others, that Parke's and Brott's Throwaway Dads aims to close. Parke has studied fathering since the 1960s, when he first noticed the parenting–equals–mothering bias in the literature on children and families.

There is, to be sure, a longstanding tradition in psychology of studying the effects of father absence on children, to which the burgeoning cultures of divorce and non–marital childbearing have contributed a rich lode of data. Indeed, it is so rich that despite their differing political allegiances, most researchers now agree that both these practices—quite apart from any accompanying financial hardship—have enduring, negative effects for the children involved.

On average, both the children of divorce and those of never–married parents show more antisocial behavior towards peers and adults, more depression and more learning problems than children from intact homes. They are one and a half to two times more likely to drop out of high school, to become teenage parents, and to be neither in school nor the workforce as young adults. As older adults, they have less sense of psychological well–being, less marital satisfaction, heightened risk of divorce, and even a shorter life span. And as children, almost all were raised in homes where it was fathers, not mothers, who were the absent parents.

But over the past three decades Parke and other psychologists have gone a step further in trying to understand what difference father presence makes. The resulting research, like that on youth violence, is susceptible to ideological distortion or at least oversimplification by deadline–plagued journalists and advocacy groups for women and children, so Parke and Brott aim to present it in all its complexity.

In the process they endorse neither the men's rights movement, which seems bent on demonizing all forms of feminism, nor the emerging "good fatherhood" movement, whose good family man is really the 1950s bourgeois father "with a new coat of paint." And they readily concede that fathers of previous generations helped fuel the resentment towards men felt by many of today's women: "Men, for the most part, were the ones who created the traditional stereotypes concerning work and family. They kept what they thought was the 'good stuff' and left the women to take care of the house and kids." Parke and Brott also concede that some divorced fathers enjoy expensive cars and houses while their ex–wives and children struggle on the edges of poverty, thus providing more grist for the mills of women' advocacy groups and male–bashing radical feminists.

Oafs and ogres

For the most part, however, Parke and Brott are concerned to expose the empirical inaccuracies of the "oafs and ogres" view of fathers perpetuated by much of the media, pop psychology, and the various forces of political correctness. They want to show that nurturant fathering is both possible and valuable, and to challenge various barriers that keep too many men from being the involved fathers that they could be.

They begin by reviewing research on fathers' interaction with infants and young children and its relationship to children's future wellbeing. Contrary to popular stereotypes, new fathers' physiological responses to their infant children do not differ from mothers', nor are they any less competent in handling them, comforting them, or interpreting their distress signals. With older infants and toddlers, fathers on average do have a somewhat different style of interaction than mothers—less verbal and more physical, more exploratory and more tolerant of children's attempts at independence. But since children's entire development is a complex dance between the needs for attachment and autonomy, and since they need to develop both verbal and spatial skills, this modest division of labor is not a bad thing.

Nor are these distinctions in parenting styles absolute: as with almost all behavioral sex differences, the range of scores within groups of men or women is much greater than any small average difference between groups. And it bears repeating that since the relevant research is correlational, not experimental, we do not know the extent to which any obtained differences are rooted in nature, nurture, or both.

What Parke and Brott do demonstrate is that, whatever its origins, involved fathering is a strong predictor of good peer play and friendship formation in older children, enhanced verbal and math performance, and independence and assertiveness in both sons and daughters. One theory is that, done correctly, fathers' interaction style, including "controlled rough–housing," not only helps teach children spatial skills, but also emotion management—that is, the ability to discern when playfulness crosses the line into obnoxiousness or violence, and to monitor both their own and others' behavioral responses accordingly.

The crucial qualifier is the phrase "done correctly." Both the quantity and quality of fathers' involvement matters: "Too many fathers are unavailable to their children because of their work schedules, travel, or lack of interest. Furthermore, kids whose fathers are cold and authoritarian, derogatory and intrusive, have the hardest time with grades and social relationships. They are even worse off than kids who live in homes with no father at all."

Here we see one probable origin of the radical feminist conviction that fathers are unfit, dangerous, financially unreliable, or at best irrelevant to family life. A minority of absentee and/or abusive fathers give fathering a very bad name, and the rest suffer from guilt by association, especially in a culture whose media moguls believe that good news is no news and that whatever bleeds, leads.

Parke and Brott tackle such distortions by reviewing a wide range of studies challenging the myth that all fathers are by nature irresponsible, dangerous, or incompetent. For example, of approximately one million annual verified cases of child abuse in the United States, half involve physical, emotional, or educational neglect, and in close to 90 percent of these, it a mother or other female who is responsible. Of those who physically abuse their children, 60 percent are mothers, as are 55 percent of those who kill. And among boys who acknowledge having been sexually abused, women are the identified abusers just as frequently as men.

Such figures are available in a variety of government sources, but rarely get reported in a cultural climate that, having often denigrated and demonized women in the past, now seems determined to do the same to men. As Parke and Brott observe, it seems as if we have just traded one double standard for another.

The "lazy dad" and the "deadbeat dad" are two other stereotypes that these authors challenge. Well–designed time–budget studies of two–parent families (those that look at the total paid and unpaid work done by both fathers and mothers) show that in contemporary America, women on average do about ten hours per week more than men of unpaid domestic work while men do about ten hours more per week of paid work.

The time bind

Since the total number of hours worked by both sexes ends up virtually the same, the good news is that women's "second shift" burden is being shared more and more by men. The bad news, as Arlie Hochschild also documented in her 1997 book, The Time Bind, is that everyone is working unconscionably long hours: "Neither fathers nor mothers in today's hectic society have enough time for the kids, themselves, their relationships, or to just 'do nothing.'"

Such problems are compounded for fathers trying to stay involved with their children after divorce. Self–indulgent deadbeat dads certainly do exist, but fully two–thirds of mothers who receive less support that they are entitled to agree that their ex–spouses are unable to contribute for legitimate reasons such as injury, unemployment, or inadequate pay.

Moreover, there is a strong correlation between child support compliance and the amount of time divorced fathers get to spend with their children: 90 percent of fathers with joint child custody meet their financial support obligations on time. Thus, "treating men like nothing more than walking wallets bolsters traditional stereotypes of men as uncaring and ignores the deep feeling of loss they experience of loss when their children are taken away from them."

All this, along with the literature on positive effects of nurturant, hands–on fathering, argues for a more equitable approach to custody as part of a larger "children first" policy in dealing with divorces.

Parke and Brott do a trenchant analysis of the negative portrayal of fathers in movies, TV, children's books and even op–ed pieces written about fathers' day. They also have severe words for corporations who, while putting up glass ceilings for women also erect "glass walls" that make it difficult for men to blend waged employment with an involved family life.

America's 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act has hardly helped, since only 10 percent of work sites are covered by it, and even in those most workers can't afford to take an unpaid leave for family purposes. And in fifteen hundred large corporations surveyed recently, 61 percent of CEOs said that it was unreasonable for men to take any paternity leave. Worse still, among the subset of companies that actually offered it as a paid benefit, 41 percent of CEOs agreed. The message is all too clear: Ambitious males beware; having a family may be hazardous to your career.

As with youth violence, the culture of "throwaway dads" has multiple causes and so needs multiple solutions. Parke and Brott have lists of things both men and women can do to increase active fathering, and another list of things that government and the private sector can do to help them. These include (for men) learning to be a partner—not just a "helper"—to one's spouse; learning (with outside help if necessary) how to be more emotionally available to one's children; being an active parent on weekdays, not just weekends; and staying involved with children after a separation or divorce.

Women are encouraged to adjust their expectations somewhat—to recognize that a husband's different parenting style is not necessarily a worse one. They are also urged to examine their own "gatekeeping" tendencies—saying they want father involvement, but then interfering too quickly when they get it—and to avoid the kind of legalistic hair–splitting that requires all household duties to be divided exactly evenly at all times.

For government and the private sector, Parke and Brott recommend such actions as having parenting education for children of both sexes from an early age; overhauling welfare practices to reward father involvement; implementing father–friendly employment practices; upholding divorced fathers' visiting rights and encouraging joint custody.

Evangelicals and divorce

An unhappy irony runs through Parke's and Brott's writing, as well as through other current books on fathering. It is quite true that in intact, two–parent families fathers are getting progressively more involved in hands–on child rearing. At the same time, with a divorce rate of about 50 percent in America there are progressively fewer intact families.

These authors are not unique in expending far more effort on the problem of keeping divorced fathers connected to their children than on the problem of reducing the divorce rate in the first place. Nor should we be surprised that, except for an ambivalent reference to the Promise Keepers, Parke and Brott make no appeal to Protestant Christianity as a resource for strengthening marriages. In the 1970s and '80s most mainline denominations severely cut back their funding of family ministries. Their leaders concluded that rising levels of teenage sexual activity, divorce, and single parenting were at least irreversible, if not totally laudable, and so focused on lobbying for governmental and therapeutic programs to cushion the worst effects of these trends.

Happily, more recent efforts like the Religion, Culture and Family Project are challenging such assumptions and encouraging mainline churches once more to engage in theological, ethical and practical projects to support stable, gender–egalitarian families. Less happily, evangelical churches have some catching up to do.

Perhaps because they endorsed (or at least ignored) the divorce revolution much earlier, many mainline church leaders have now come to realize that the divorce culture is a disaster for both adults and children, and that the church should be central in helping reverse it. By contrast, in many evangelical churches serial monogamy seems to have become an accepted form of sexual license and a high divorce rate is seen as either unavoidable or just another opportunity to tap into God's amazing grace.

To show adequate leadership in an age of growing youth violence and uncertain gender relations churches need both to preach and model the normativity of faithful monogamy and active co–parenting, supported by the wider kingdom–family that is the Body of Christ. If they do so they will find that, unlike 30 years ago when the divorce revolution began, more and more contemporary social scientists are firmly on their side.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor of philosophy and psychology at Eastern College.

NOTE: For your convenience, the following products, which were mentioned above, are available for purchase:

Lost Boys, James Garbarino
Throwaway Dads, Ross D. Parke and Armin A. Brott

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