Look around any public school classroom and you'll see something that cuts across lines of race, class and creed — boys growing up with absent fathers. All too often, the lack of a strong male influence can lead such boys into drugs, crime and lack of educational achievement.
But it doesn't have to be that way, said J.W. Doncan, a Jefferson High School language arts instructor and the author of Fatherless Boys and Mothers on Their Own (Authorhouse paperback, $9.80).
"Across the board, boys are having difficulties," Doncan said, "because maybe our society nurtures boys and men to move away from familial responsibilities."
And in the place of those responsibilities, she said — caregiving of others, emotional support for and from family members — popular culture offers boys a hypermasculine image of manhood: the violent, misogynistic "thug" persona found so often in music and television, or the idealized soldier persona currently glamorized by the war in Iraq. Neither image, she said, offers much of an example in terms of behaving like a responsible, compassionate adult.
"Boys are taught to eliminate things that are natural tendencies among all children," she said. "They're taught that you don't talk about things, emotions, as much. They're taught, by the media, to glamorize behavior that's largely superficial.
"When young men have an interest in things that are gentler, they are often called 'gay' by their peers, when that's not at all the case."
Doncan is herself a single mother. Her own experience, combined with the many fatherless boys she has encountered as an educator, prompted her to write the book.
But she didn't write it in a way you might expect. With a title like Fatherless Boys and Mothers on Their Own, a reader might think the book was a self-help book full of advice for single mothers struggling to raise well-adjusted sons. But it's not.
For one thing, the book doesn't contain specific advice about setting limits, encouraging achievement or a myriad other parenting techniques. Instead, it centers on a theme of learning to behave like a true adult.
For another, it's written entirely in verse. Why?
"I just like poetry," Doncan said, laughing.
From a detached perspective, then, the book doesn't read anything like a guide for single mothers, nor does it seem like a conventional collection of poetry. But taken together, Doncan's poems describe a sort of philosophical approach for parenting motherless sons, one that relies upon modeling the sort of behavior that parents want to see in their kids.
Take the following poem, for instance, called "Two Generations At Breakfast." It describes a testy, volatile exchange over the breakfast table:
Today at breakfast we laughed and haltingly took turns
One after another smiled and added approximately
Two cents — give or take.
Mom tried to stay appropriate
Though through passion this was difficult
We all made it through the meal.
But a simple wreathed offering I tossed
Bared its sharp edges and cut in all directions before
It became dried carbon fueling a volatile airborne volume.
It was heavily consumed
Igniting magnetically — nervous laughter, seething silence
And lastly — an attempt to extinguish the resulting heat
Then it fell with a splash like gasoline.
A quelled attempt at intimacy
An apologetic resignation to hostile and phrenetic silence
The air briefly had been stirred.
Maybe at a later date
This will give way and nurture fragrances and songs
But for today overtures were slapped back
And four people left to resume their distance in the four corners of the world.
Like the rest of Doncan's book, the message is between the lines: It's the experience that counts, the attempt at real communication that matters rather than what's actually said or not said.
What stands out about Doncan's philosophy is that she doesn't call on single mothers to find good men for their sons to emulate, although she certainly doesn't discourage this. Rather, she abandons traditional gender roles in favor of teaching boys not to act as men — as men are traditionally defined — but simply as responsible adults. If more boys can learn this, she said, and understand that things like compassion, humility and intellectualism for its own sake aren't "gay" or feminine, they will grow to be happy men — and, ultimately, won't be absent fathers themselves.
Doncan said the modern era has allowed girls and women a greater scope of accepted behavior, personally and professionally, than ever before. Girls are encouraged to push themselves and define themselves in terms of their accomplishments — much as men have always done — rather than to fall back into traditional feminine roles.
But boys and men, she said, have far less structure and guidance through the current period of shifting gender roles. Many are left wondering what it truly means to be a man, and those growing up without fathers often turn to the negative stereotypes in the media.
"The notion that we tie certain behaviors to certain genders needs to be looked at and evaluated," Doncan said. "Women get a chance to do what we want to do these days, but men are boxed in. They aren't told that they can have a full complement of emotions."
And for what it's worth, Doncan's philosophy worked for her own son. He's a graduate of Brown University and just spent a year studying in Paris.
Fatherless Boys and Mothers on Their Own doesn't spell out the perfect set of parental techniques for single mothers, nor does it explicitly define how boys and men ought to behave. But it does offer glimpses at a world that is perhaps more sane, more balanced, more whole.
"I just want boys to learn how to behave like grownups," Doncan said.