On Psychology

Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 1999 /25 Shevat, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

Basics Remain the Same for Single, Custodial Dads

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: Do you have any advice to offer single fathers? I have a 3-year-old who I am raising by myself and could use all the advise I can get!

A: I've been getting a lot of questions from single fathers lately -- and with good reason. Single fathers are the fastest growing family form in the U.S. today. First, the facts.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 2.1 million single father headed households with children present, up a whopping 25 percent since just 1995. Today, single fathers comprise one out of every six of the nation's 11.9 million single parents. Overall, 3.1 million children under the age of 18 live with their single fathers.

Of course, there have always been single fathers raising children. The difference is that in the past, most single father headed households were created when a mother died. Today, the major pathway to a single father headed household is divorce. Among the single fathers caring for children, 56 percent are divorced or separated, and 35 percent are never married.

There are important differences between single father headed households and single mother headed households. Perhaps most importantly, single fathers are more likely to be employed and to have better jobs than single mothers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for single fathers is approximately $24,000, compared to about $15,000 for single mothers and $48,000 for two-parent households.

A second difference is that single fathers, compared to single mothers, are more likely to have another adult present in the home. Only about one-quarter of children living in single father households reside only with their divorced, separated, or never married father. Over one-third live with their father's cohabiting partner and another one-third live with their father and other adults, such as the father's parents.

Thus, single fathers are financially better off than single mothers and are more likely to have another pair of adult hands to help them with the daily tasks of childrearing. The downside to having higher incomes, however, is that single fathers are less likely to qualify for such services as government subsidized child care and transportation services.

Despite being better off financially, single fathers tend to feel more socially isolated than do single mothers. Indeed, a University of Florida study examining the life satisfaction of men and women, married and single, with children and childless, found single fathers to be the unhappiest of any group.

So what does all this mean to the single father?

First, don't be afraid to seek advice. You may have noticed that us guys don't like to stop and ask for directions. Instead, we'll wander around for hours searching for some clue as to where we might be, as if asking for directions is an affront to our manhood.

Unfortunately, this male tendency can carry over into much more important aspects of our lives, like parenting. That's why the most popular parenting books are those that are targeted to women. Dads are much less likely to seek information about parenting by buying books.

If you are a married dad you can get away with this because your wife will buy the books for you. Then, when she's not looking, you can sneak a peak at that parenting book lying on the bedside table.

Single fathers are less fortunate. You're going to have to buy that book yourself. Fortunately, there are many new good ones, including Single Parenting From a Father's Heart by Steve Horner, as well as my The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. So swallow your pride and go to the nearest bookstore and pick up a book or two.

Second, don't be afraid to ask for help. Although books will help you understand the rudiments of child development and provide hints on such topics as effective limit setting, books can not take over when you are completely and utterly exhausted (and what parent isn't at least once in a while?). For that assistance, you're going to have to ask another adult. Don't be afraid to ask.

Third, don't cohabit with a romantic partner. Seeking help from another adult doesn't mean you should shack up with your girlfriend. One of the most important tasks of parenting is to instill a set of moral values in our children. If you want your children to believe that sex between adults is something that should be reserved for marriage, you must live this example.

Fourth, pay more attention to process. We guys like to set a goal, make a plan, and then enact the plan to attain the goal. This tendency spills over into parenting. When reading to our kids, for example, fathers want to finish the book. Moms are more content to take side-trips into interesting conversations, even if that means the book never gets finished.

Here, fathers need to take a lesson from moms. Good parenting is not a race to the finish line. It's more like a stroll. Don't get too hung up on accomplishing every household task on some precise schedule. Instead, focus more on the process of parenting, not just accomplishing daily tasks.

Finally, and most importantly, be a loving dad, unafraid to set limits. Sometimes single fathers worry so much about being a good parent, that they mistake being their kids' pal for being their dad. But the basics for parenting as a single father are the same as the basics for parenting as a married father: Give your kids lots of love, set limits where necessary, and do so consistently.

In the end, if you do these three things right, your kids will turn out just fine.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn