Boys are suffering from `Dad Deficit'

Parenting: Research stresses importance of father-son relationships, as number of babies conceived inside marriage falls again `Highly Involved Man' can boost sons' self-esteem and guard against

BOYS WITH low self-esteem suffer from "Dad Deficit" - a low level of emotional support from their fathers, according to a survey published yesterday.

Lack of paternal involvement is linked to a son's poor opinion of himself, his "anti-school" attitudes and a tendency to get into trouble with the police, the nationwide survey of 1,400 boys between the ages of 13 and 19 indicated.

However, it is unclear which comes first - the low self-esteem or the "Dad Deficit". Independent research suggests that fathers find it easier to be close to sons who they perceive as successful and that their increased interest feeds into the son's confidence.

Researchers measured the level of interaction between fathers and sons by how much time they spend together, how much interest the father pays to the son's schoolwork, and to what extent the father is willing to talk through the son's worries.

At one end of the scale was the "Dad Deficit" (DD) and, at the other extreme, the "Highly Involved Man" (HIM), whose supportive influence proved disproportionately positive.

HIM fathering was as effective regardless of whether the man lived at home or was the biological father.

Adrienne Katz, the author of the study, "Leading Lads", wants to encourage men who come into contact with boys, be they fathers, teachers, youth workers or sports coaches, to be more aware of their responsibility. "Men don't seem to understand the power of their input," she said yesterday."Boys are much less likely to turn to a friend than girls and so they need emotional support from the family. If a father models behaviour which never talks about feelings, it is hard for a boy to seek help if he's depressed or troubled."

The study showed that HIM fathering protects against depression and even suicide. According to the Samaritans, suicide attempts by young men have increased by 118 per cent in the past 10 years.

In 1996, 547 young men took their lives, compared with 157 young women.

One of the most striking findings of the "Leading Lads" study was the extent to which boys put up barriers to avoid getting help. However, boys with highly involved fathers were less likely than "Dad Deficit" sons to believe that boys are expected to cope with problems on their own.

Cultural beliefs about how a man should act and what boys do or do not do were found to be felt most keenly by those boys with the poorest self- image. They are also most likely to have fathers who tell them, "boys don't cry".

Boys are inclined to protect their parents by keeping the problems to themselves. They know that their fathers want to be proud of them and believe that to tell them they are not coping would be to let them down.

As one interviewee, Danny Evans, 17, from north London, put it: "Boys have a secret second life on the inside and a shell outside... Every father wants to be proud of his son, enforcing definitions of what these children should be - and it's doing harm. Some people are dying inside but too scared to admit it to themselves."

As the "Leading Lads" survey was conducted only over one year it was unable to establish whether there is a causal link between low self-esteem and "Dad Deficit".

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