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  • Men who give their time to father-hungry kids can be the difference between a child going down a destructive road or staying on the path to becoming a successful adult.  Tweet This
  • According to Kenneth Braswell, even the best father figures cannot “erase the hole left by a child’s missing biological father. All we can do is try to make the hole less painful.” Tweet This
  • As any child with an absent father knows, when dad is missing or distant, the empty place left behind is hard for any other man on earth to completely fill. Tweet This
Category: Fathers, Men

The power of education and hard work. Those are two of the life lessons Justice Clarence Thomas says he learned from his maternal grandfather—the man he called “Daddy” and the “greatest man I’ve ever known.” Justice Thomas talks a lot about his grandfather in a documentary that recently aired on PBS. 

Abandoned by his biological father when he was only two, Thomas lived for awhile in both rural and urban poverty with his single mother. But around the time he started elementary school, his struggling mother sent her two young sons to live with their maternal grandparents in their modest home in a safe neighborhood. As he explains in the documentary and in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, moving in with his grandparents changed the trajectory of his life. 

Myers Anderson only had a third-grade education and struggled to read the daily newspaper and his Bible, but he had a deep faith and steely character, which he used, along with a firm hand, to put his grandsons on the path to success. 

“The family farm and our unheated oil truck became my most important classrooms, the schools in which Daddy passed on the wisdom he had acquired in the course of a long life as an ill-educated, modestly successful black man in the Deep South,” Thomas writes, noting that he and brother were his grandfather’s “second chance to live, to take part in America’s opportunities, and he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort so they would be fully open to us.” 

Although they had a rocky relationship at times, Justice Thomas eventually came to embrace his grandfather’s values. Today, he keeps a bronze bust of his grandfather in his office that includes the words Daddy would often say to him: “Old Man Can’t is Dead—I helped bury him.” 

“He is the one hero in my life," he writes about his grandfather. "What I am is what he made me.” 

Listening to Justice Thomas talk about the pivotal role his grandfather played in his success brought to my mind the countless other men who step in to serve as father figures and role models for kids whose dads are not there—men who often get little thanks for doing so. Many of these men are family members, maybe an uncle, older cousin, or grandparent, but sometimes they are coaches, school counselors, pastors or priests, teachers, or family friends. 

“[A]sk any successful person how they got to where they are today,” President Barack Obama once said, “chances are they'll tell you about a mentor they had somewhere along the way.”

As Obama described: 

We know the difference a responsible, caring adult can make in a child's life: buck them up when they're discouraged; provide tough love when they veer off track; being that person in their lives who doesn't want to let them down, and that they don't want to let down; and refusing to give up on them—even when they want to give up on themselves. 

For my 17-year-old nephew, who has only seen his biological father twice, “that person” in his life is a dedicated youth pastor. Pastor Chris also grew up without his biological father and was raised by his grandparents, so he knows the sting of father-hunger. Although my nephew still longs to know and be known by his biological father, his friendship with Pastor Chris has served as a lifeline out of a traumatic childhood and into a life of stability and hope. Despite having kids and grandkids of his own, not to mention a busy ministry schedule, Pastor Chris has spent countless hours over the years with my nephew—teaching him how to drive a jeep and surf, talking with him about things only a man understands, and ultimately pointing him toward his Heavenly Father. The once sad, confused, and lonely boy who struggled in school is now a confident, happy, and hopeful young man taking honor’s classes and on a path to college—in part thanks to Pastor Chris’ investment in his life. 

For Kenneth Braswell, CEO of Fathers Incorporated, his stepfather was the man who was “always there” when his own father disappeared. Braswell’s single mom introduced her new man to him when he was about age 7, and although he resisted his stepfather’s efforts at first, he told me “that didn’t stop him from doing what he did for the family.” 

His mother and stepfather had a complicated and even turbulent relationship at times, with his stepfather ending up in prison. But prison had a positive impact on him. As Braswell put it, “after prison, he became ‘that guy.’” Even though his mom and stepfather split up, Braswell continued to visit him, often spending summers at his house. Without his stepfather’s consistent presence in his life, he said, “I wouldn’t have been able to hear the other men who served as role models for me later on.” 

One of the most important things Braswell learned was how to be a stepfather himself: “He taught me family comes first, it doesn’t matter the blood line.”

“I learned never to step in to try to fill that space left by a child’s own father. Instead, I always try to leave room for him to come back in.”—Kenneth Braswell

A consistent mentoring relationship with a trusted adult male can have a lasting, positive impact on an at-risk boy. According to NFI, mentors "offer significant potential to reduce the adverse effects of father absence by improving young people’s attitudes toward parents, encouraging students to focus on their education, and helping children face daily challenges."

Often those who are mentored well by others grow up to pay it forward with father-absent kids in their own lives. One of the best initiatives launched by President Obama during his administration was My Brother’s Keeper, a national mentoring program for at-risk youth that continues today. 

Justice Thomas and his wife took in his great-nephew when was only six years old. “We did for him what my grandparents had done for my brother and me at roughly the same age and under very similar circumstances,” Thomas writes, adding “it is my hope that he benefits as much from being raised by us as I did from being raised by my grandparents.” 

As for Kenneth Braswell, he is working hard to be a consistent and loving influence for his own stepdaughters, and he spends his life encouraging and equipping other men—who often grew up fatherless themselves—to be the fathers their children deserve. 

And while Braswell agrees that mentors are vital for at-risk kids, he emphasized that “mentoring is not a replacement for a child’s real father.” 

“I learned [from my stepfather] never to step in to try to fill that space left by a child’s own father,” he explained. “Instead, I always try to leave room for him to come back in.”

It’s a lesson he incorporates into his responsible fatherhood programs. He teaches that even the best father figures cannot “erase the hole left by a child’s missing biological father. All we can do is try to make the hole less painful.”

Research on fatherhood confirms his point: we seem to learn more every day about the irreplaceable role of fathers in fostering child well-being. And as any child who has lost a father knows, when dad is missing or even distant, the empty place left behind is hard for any other man on earth to completely fill. 

But because many biological fathers never do come back, strong male role models are critical for father-hungry children. Men who give their time to at-risk kids, especially boys, can have a big impact on the trajectory of their lives—sometimes the difference between a child going down a destructive road or that child overcoming the negative effects of father absence and staying on a path to becoming a successful adult. 

There’s no better time than Father’s Day to say a special thanks to the grandpas, uncles, priests, youth leaders, coaches, and other men who help ease the pain of father absence for a young person—even as we continue to work toward the hope that biological fathers who are absent will find a way back into their child’s life.

Alysse ElHage is Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.