Wednesday, November 6, 1991

FAMILY LEAVE AS A WEAPON AGAINST CRIME


Myrlam Mledzlan, Ph.D.

For the sixth year in a row, the Family and Medical Leave Act is being hotly debated on Capitol Hill. Legislators need to be made aware that if enacted, the bill's parental leave provision may turn out to be an important piece of anti-crime legislation - that is, if fathers as well as mothers use it. Social science research informs us that boys raised with a nurturing, involved father in the home are less likely than fatherless boys to indulge in anti-social and violent behavior: In t he past 30 years, homicide rates have doubled while rates of children born to single mothers have gone up by 350 percent. Divorce rates have soared, with close to half of divorced fathers having no contact with their children.

(None of this is to deny that many single mothers succeed in raising fine, responsible sons. Our concern is with statistically significant trends.)

Millions of American boys are growing up with little or no fathering. Encouraging fathers 10 take parental leaves would be an important step in remedying this situation, for studies show that fathers involved in the daily care of their children form a deep emotional bond that eludes many traditional fathers. They are far more likely to remain caring and responsible.

When a boy has an involved, loving father, he has someone to model himself on. He develops a solid sense of masculinity, which includes the nurturing and empathic qualities embodied in his father. (Empathy is inversely related to violent behavior.).


A boy without such a role model tends to have difficulty in developing a masculine identity, and often resorts to what anthropologists describe as "protest masculinity and sociologists have dubbed "hypermasculinity."

To prove that he is a real man, he rejects everything feminine including all "soft" feelings, and becomes tough; ready, even eager to fight: and he develops denigrating, callous attitudes towards women. A growing psychoanalytic literature supports these findings and provides a deeper understanding of the negative effects on boys
of being raised exclusively or primarily by women.

We must let today's fathers know just how important they are. We must also encourage boys to view themselves as future fathers, so that if the time comes, they will take advantage of parental leave.

Until the age of about 5 or 6, there is no difference in boys' and girls' interest in babies. But by the time they ate in elementary school, most boys have heard the message that childrearing, nurturing, caring are "girls' stuff."

Children, however, are extraordinarily malleable. When I visited child-rearing classes in inner-city public elementary schools and upper class private schools, I learned that, when given permission, boys of all socio-economic classes become enthusiastic about interacting with very young children and interested in learning about them.

These classes encourage boys to view themselves as future responsible fathers. They discourage child-battering, which puts children at higher risk for future violence. Teen-age pregnancy rates go down: When children understand the enormous' responsibility of parenthood, they generally become inclined to wait until they are financially and emotionally ready.

As matters stand today, for millions of single teen-age mothers and their sons, talk of paternal leave is irrelevant since there is no father around at all. Some girls are getting pregnant by the age of 12. This is why mandatory child-rearing classes should start no later than fifth grade.

That encouragement of responsible, nurturing fatherhood would also improve the mothering. When mothers are sole or primary caretakers of their children, they are often overwhelmed and sometimes resort to emotional or physical abuse.

Mothers and fathers educated in nurturing, nonviolent child-rearing, and given the opportunity by passage of the Family Leave Bill to bond with their children and share equally in the task of parenting, could play an important role in helping us move away from being the most violent nation in the industrialized world.

 

Myriam Miedzian of New York Is the author of "Boys will Be Boys: Breaking the link Between Masculinity and Violence" (Doubleday, 1991). This article is based on research for the book.