Growing up without a dad

Georgene Rice of KPDQ-FM talks with Donald Miller, author of Father Fiction: Chapters for a Fatherless Generation. He provides practical advice for anybody whose dad may not have been around, either physically or emotionally. The book raises awareness of America’s fatherlessness epidemic. He describes what it is like to grow up without a dad, struggling with what it means to be a man. He provides practical advice for readers of any age to avoid the mistakes that hold people back when dealing with subjects such as dating and friendships.

Georgene: This is a tough book to read, but one of my favorites because it is so personal for you in sharing what it was like to grow up without a dad in your own life. Why write such a personal account?

Donald: There are millions who have also had a dad who was absent or neglectful emotionally. I wanted people to identify with that and people can’t identify with you unless you tell the truth, which means being vulnerable and open. But, this has also been my funniest book. I try to bring in a lot of humor to lighten what some of us know is a pretty dark world.

Georgene: Today, in sitcoms, they often project dads as buffoons and not really essential. Why was growing up without a dad so important to you?

Donald: You’ve brought up a very good point. I think there are a lot of dads today who, themselves, think they are expendable and really not that important in the lives of their children. But, that is not what psychologists show at all. Dads are enormously impactful on their kids. When a dad says to their child “I love you” or “great job” they could have make the greatest impact on a human being they will make in their entire life.

When I was young I used to break into houses with a friend of mine. A man who was in a nearby church said he thought I was good at literature and asked me to write some guest columns. That was the first time anyone had affirmed me or paid attention to me. It was because of the brief encounters I had with positive male role models that turned my life around and made me the writer I am today. That’s what’s often missing in a boy’s life who is growing up without a dad. He is going to affirm his masculinity somehow. Often it is with sexual conquests rather than by being empowered by positive male role models that let him know that he can have power by doing good things.

Georgene: How do young men without fathers learn about relating to women or character and integrity or the value of work? Or do they not?

Donald: They tend to do it a little later and a higher percentage of them have these values corrupted, like by becoming involved with gangs rather than developing a strong work ethic. When you are growing up without a dad there is a sense that the world is growing up around you and you are marginalized and you don’t really understand why. You certainly don’t learn how to interact with women, so you either tend to become very weak and look for a rescuer, or you become very overbearing. Neither of which creates a very healthy relationship. 85% of men in prison grew up without dads and 94% of people in prison are men. So, this affects men. They become victimizers and women tend to become victims when there isn’t a positive male role model in the picture.

There are some controversial things that we discuss in this book. What a man should be looking for in a woman. Things a dad should have probably taught their son. The importance of friendship, including controversial things such as what to do if your friends are doing drugs or getting involved in the wrong things. When the churches heard that advice I got some push-back. They said what about grace. I said, yes, forgive them, but just don’t join them.

Geogene: What should the churches being doing for fatherless children, in particular, young boys?

Donald: I think the church is doing a terrific job at trying to keep families together. But, when I started my mentoring project I couldn’t find a church anywhere in the country that had a program set up to mentor to fatherless children. These are our modern day orphans. Now, we have 600 churches on our waiting list to start a program.

Churches already have the infrastructure to mentor. They have the theological mandate to look out for orphans and the men in their church who have the heart to change the lives of kids. Our goal with The Mentoring Project is to shut down 15% of our prisons within 20 years.  

We are already seeing successes. President Obama asked that we send a mentor with his mentee to the White House. They were the talk of their hometown. As a matter of fact they live right here in Portland and when they returned from Washington the school held an Assembly and had them come and speak. That is going to change that young boy’s life.

Georgene: What would you say to the dad who has left their son and are now struck by how significant their absence is to their son?

Donald: I meet a lot of these guys and I’ve learned grace and compassion. There are reasons men get into these situations. I’d say you are noble for wanting to get back into your son’s life and to please just sacrifice yourself and see it through. Your influence on your son is incredibly important and you will be rewarded for that.

 Georgene: If you could give one piece of advice to a boy growing up without a dad what would you say to him?

Donald: It wouldn’t be a piece of advice. It would be a truth and the truth is your father did not abandon you. Your real father, your Heavenly Father loves you and He will never abandon you and He affirms you as a man.

Donald Miller serves on the Fatherhood and Healthy Families Task Force for the Obama Administration and is the founder of The Mentoring Project to establish mentors who can be positive male role models for these children.

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