Even though most folks we tell about our work agree that it is important, they sometimes have their doubts about whether or not it is possible to actually prevent father absence. Can you really change people's choices around such a personal issue?
For all of those who have asked that question, or have thought of asking it, watch this video:
Learn more at www.fatherhood.org/connectionsproject/
I just watched the film, What Doesnt Kill You, with Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke. Ruffalo and Hawke play childhood friends (Brian and Paulie) who get involved in Bostons organized crime scene, landing them both in prison.
In addition to the obvious victims of their crimes, Brian leaves behind a few other equally important victims his wife and two children.
His relationship with his wife is frayed before he even goes to jail as a result of his drug habit, violent outbursts, and lack of involvement in his childrens lives. When he leaves prison after a 5-year sentence, his wife seems willing to give him a second chance. Unfortunately, he starts falling into the same habits again, and is on the brink of completely ruining the second chance he has been given.
Paulie is now out of jail, too, and they are about to attempt an armored car heist. But shortly before the day of the heist, Brian has a conversation with his older son, Mark, who is about 10-years-old. Mark is sitting on the front step of their house, looking kind of sad, and Brian tells him that he is sorry for messing up. He tells his son that he is very proud of the man he is becoming, and then asks him what he can do to be a better father. His son simply says, Dont leave us again.
Where do I start?
First, if you know any 10-year-old boys, you know that they are often not very talkative, and especially not when it comes to emotional situations like this. So, for Mark to make this admission this way is very powerful.
Second, we often overcomplicate what it means to be a good father. Sure, there are skills that are needed, and habits that must be formed. But the most important thing -- the thing that children (the real experts on what fathers need to do) often articulate best -- is simply dads presence.
This is not to be underestimated. In a world where there are so many things competing for our attention, and in which there are so many temptations to succumb to, especially for men, it is easy to forget just how much a dads presence in the home communicates to his children.
A dads presence tells his children that there is nothing else in the world more important to him than them. Roland Warren, NFIs president, calls it thereness. No one else can do this for you. The best role model or mentor in the world cant show children what it means for their own father to actually be there.
The night before the heist is to take place, Brian envisions himself getting caught and being sent back to jail. After talking to his son, he knows this is not an option. He tells Paulie he cant do it. Fortunately, Paulie understands.
The movie then closes with a scene of Brian sitting in the stands at his sons football game. Mark makes a good play on the field, and then looks into the crowd and sees his dad stand up and raise his fist in the air to cheer him on. Cut to black.
What doesnt kill you? Being the kind of father your children need you to be, thats what.
A key part of National Fatherhood Initiative’s work is to equip fathers to be the best dads they can be. Our staff in the National Programming department travel around the county training facilitators at community-based organizations, correctional facilities, and military bases on how to use NFI’s programs -- like 24/7 Dad™
, InsideOut Dad™
, and Doctor Dad™
-- to help dads.
I am a step or two removed from this work, because my role is to provide administrative support to the organization’s president, and I don’t normally work closely with the programming staff.
However, last week I had the privilege of spending a day in “programming world” by attending a 24/7 Dad™ Training Institute
. It was great to see that side of NFI and hear first-hand stories from men and women who work directly with fathers.
A very diverse group of people participated in the training – from suburban moms running a domestic violence prevention program in Northern Virginia to guys working with men in urban St. Louis. People came from as far away as Georgia and Texas to learn how to use 24/7 Dad™. Some of the attendees worked with incarcerated men, some ran Head Start programs for families, and some worked at a church.
Despite the diversity of backgrounds, these 20 or so men and women became a community for the day, united by a shared passion to see fathers become more involved, responsible, and committed. The attendees were excited to find others engaged in the same challenges and to learn about a resource to help them and the dads in their community. They questioned each other between training segments on ways to handle certain situations, shared success stories and innovative ideas, and swapped contact info so they could stay in touch afterward.
At the end of the day, the participants were asked to describe in one word their experience at the 24/7 Dad™ training. “Equipped,” “inspired,” and “encouraged” were just a few of the words shared.
That described my day at the 24/7 Dad™ training, too. It was wonderful to get away from my cubicle and get a glimpse of the tremendous impact that fatherhood programs around the country are making in the lives of children, families, and communities. It gave renewed meaning to the day-to-day tasks I do and reminded me how grateful I am to be part of an organization devoted to such an important mission.
I took a road trip this summer to visit a college friend in New Jersey. One of the things that I noticed during my time in the Garden State was the billboards lining the highways. I actually found it to be a bit distracting because where I live and work there are no billboards, and I wasn’t used to looking at things along the road while driving. But one in particular caught my eye.
It was an ad for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic in the Philadelphia area. It had a picture of a man holding a toddler with the words “He’s Worth It” written underneath.
Children are good motivation for a host of positive life changes, including getting clean and staying sober. When a dad realizes that his kids need him to be present and involved in their lives, and when he has a heart-to-heart connection with his kids that makes him want to be there for them, he’s more willing to invest the effort and sacrifice to give up the habits that could take him out of the picture. These habits aren’t just limited to substance abuse addictions – unhealthy eating habits that could cause serious medical problems and long hours at the office can also prevent Dad from being involved, both in the long-term and now.
Two examples illustrate this: When NFI’s president Roland C. Warren realized that his family medical history put him at risk for a shortened lifespan, he decided to exercise, change his diet, and lose weight so he could be around not only for his two grown sons, but also for future grandchildren. As Roland likes to say, “To be an involved, responsible, and committed father, you have to be alive."
Second, research shows that men who are released from prison are significantly more likely to have a successful re-entry and avoid additional run-ins with the law if they have a family to go back to. Their relationship with their children motivates them to be law-abiding citizens and avoid the activities that put them behind bars and separated them from their kids.
NFI is focused on helping dads develop a heart-to-heart connection with their children that motivates them to stop bad habits and cultivate good ones. After all, the kids are worth it.
A few days ago, William Shatner, as part of his new A&E show called Aftermath
, interviewed DC sniper, Lee Malvo. I have spoken and written about Malvo frequently over the years because his situation impacted me in several very personal ways.
First, at the time of the shootings, I had just moved from the Philadelphia area—the City of Brotherly Love—to the DC area. Now, Philly, despite the moniker, was no bastion of safety and security but at least we didn’t have to deal with snipers. I remember well that random activities like walking my dog, getting gas and loading groceries in the car became random acts of courage. It was indeed a very scary time that still haunts me a bit today.
Second, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop in Maryland on Route 70. It turns out that this stop is the next exit up from my wife’s office. She is a family practice doctor in a little town called Myersville. It’s a very isolated and rural place and her office is just a “rock throw” from the highway. There’s a little BP gas station across the street from her office where she often fills her tank. You get the point…I have thanked God often that an alert trucker spotted Muhammad and Malvo’s car that October night.
Finally, I remember well the morning that the news reported Muhammad and Malvo had been caught. What especially caught my attention was that they said that the suspects were a 38 year-old man and a 17 year-old boy. I instinctively looked over at my 17 year-old son and thought: What would it take to turn him into someone who would shoot a woman in the face with no remorse? There’s a fatherhood story in here somewhere.
Sure enough, a few days later, the Washington Post reported that they had found Lee Malvo’s father who had essentially abandoned him years ago. And the rest, tragically, is history.
In any case, what makes the Malvo story “news” now is that a celebrity is interviewing him and that he has suggested that there were supposed to be other snipers involved. That’s fine. But what makes this story important for me is what made it important years ago. Malvo’s story is less about crime than about how crime is connected to father absence.
“He was a kid who was brainwashed. He was a malleable teenager and lacking love in his life," Shatner said. "John Muhammad supplies the love and influences him to become a killer, and he becomes a coldblooded killer at the age of 17.”
Shatner’s statement is on point but it’s incomplete. Malvo had a mom who seemed to care about him but what he didn’t have was a loving father. Indeed, Muhammad did more than “supply” love. He became the father that Malvo longed for much of his young life. Of note, psychiatrist Diane Schetky, who served as an expert witness for the defense at Malvo's 2003 trial, quoted him as saying of Muhammad, “Anything he asked me to do I'd do. He knew I didn't have a father.
He knew my weaknesses and what was missing.”
I often talk about “what was missing” in a child’s life—it’s a hole in a kid’s soul in the shape of his dad. Unfortunately, still today, Malvo shares a potential “weakness” with millions of other kids who are more at-risk to become prey for the many “Muhammads” of this world. However, these guys don’t always come as sniper trainers but rather as gang leaders, pimps and drug dealers who encourage children to sell their bodies and their souls.
It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of Malvo’s fellow inmates tend to grow up in father absent homes. Despite this fact, we have done too little to address father absence in our nation. Indeed, most of the fatherhood programs that are committed to addressing this issue are grossly underfunded. I know that in NFI’s case, despite that great work that we have been doing to educate and inspire dads and the many testimonials from fathers, mothers and, even kids about the good work we do, it is a daily challenge to raise the needed funds for our important work. But, we press on because the stakes are high and we don’t have a fatherless kid to spare.
I suspect that Shatner’s Aftermath
show will do well. Sadly, it seems that time and again we are more interested in the entertainment of the “aftermath” than what needs to be done beforehand to prevent it.
The headline sounds like a bad joke, but it is actually a real and terribly sad news story. You can get the details here
Hayden, the four-year-old whose parents are getting divorced and whose father is in jail, apparently runs away often looking for his father. The mom said, "He runs away trying to find his father. He wants to get in trouble so he can go to jail because that's where his daddy is."
That is heartbreaking on so many levels. It gives a real world example of the "intergenerational cycle" of crime (parent goes to jail, child more likely to go to jail). It shows how the "father wound" can run deep and embed itself very early in a child's life. It is also especially heartbreaking that the boy is trying to re-create a happy Christmas in his home by taking other people's presents -- he knows if his daddy was home, then he would be having the same fun time as his neighbors whose daddies are still home.
It is depressing to think how this child may act out when he is a teenager.
Just another sad reminder of why father absence is so destructive to families and communities.