Q: This is a tough situation. My husband and I are divorced, and I have custody of my son. My son, now a sixth grader, has told me he wants to go and live with his father. The problem is his grades are already suffering and I’m afraid if he goes he’ll really fall off the edge. His father isn’t very good at keeping up with school stuff and making sure homework gets done. To be honest, he’s kind of slack and I don’t want my son to develop those same habits. What is your assessment?
Consider a different perspective for a moment: perhaps the reason your son’s grades are dropping is because he wants to be with his father.
I understand why mothers in custody conflicts are often given primary care of their children. In many if not most cases, it’s probably the best choice.
Of course we would all agree that, ideally, it is best for children to have both parents living and working together. But when that isn’t possible, there are times when nothing else will do for a child except a father. This seems especially true of young boys.
The facts bare it out. Barack Obama relayed the cold truth in a 2008 Father’s Day speech: “We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”
Things are getting worse. In the 1960s, only 5% of children were raised in single-parent households. Today, it is nearly 40%.
The reasons why fathers make such a difference are complicated, but my own experiences as a teacher support them.
I once taught a 13-year-old boy who performed very poorly in school. He never did his homework and never studied. Most of his notebooks were filled not with school notes but with diagrams of car engines, transmissions and chassis. He was a whiz as a mechanic and at his young age could diagnose most any car problem you could think of. You’ve probably already guessed that his father was a mechanic, but he lived far away in another state. As the year wore on, the boy seemed to withdraw himself from others. He seemed sadder and more distant.
I spoke to him one day about what I was seeing and asked him if I could help. “There’s nothing anyone can do,” he said as his eyes grew damp. “I just really miss my dad.”
If he could have lived with his father, I am certain things would have been much different.
I recall another boy who was new to the school. He had moved to town to live with his mother. He was a very tall, athletic student who adapted well to the new school in terms of learning, sports and grades. He was very quiet; I would say even shy. He never volunteered in class and I rarely saw him socializing with other students.
A classmate kept picking on this “new kid” until one day that harassment (along with, perhaps, other pent-up anger) erupted into a violent fistfight. In the aftermath, I noticed the new boy sitting in the office after having seen both the principal and the police. He sat still and silent, his eyes looking down. Different people tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t speak. He wouldn’t utter a sound. He just stared sullenly at the floor.
The school resource officer came and sat beside him. She couldn’t get him to talk, either and finally she asked him, “Is there anyone you can talk to?” Tears immediately began to stream down his face and his bloodied lip opened for the first time.
“My dad,” is all he said.
Look, I get it. All the reasons why some fathers shouldn’t have primary custody are probably 100 percent true: fathers are slack, they overreact and overindulge, they drink too much, they’re irresponsible, and, yes, they don’t always take important things like school nearly as seriously as they should.
Yet for many kids, especially boys, there is no substitute in the world.