There may be plenty of wonderful men around the son … teachers, coaches, tutors, neighbors, male relatives, friends' dads, mom's companions. But mom needs to be careful that the men she allows her son to get attached to won't also leave the picture, or their influence could be negative instead of positive, and have lifelong effects.
— Dodie Hofstetter
Depending on how long dad's been out of the picture, I wouldn't rush to find a replacement; I'd give the son more time to process the loss/absence. If your son stays active, he'll find male role models in teachers, coaches, scout leaders and so forth. Mom needs to stay involved, to help the boy separate good influences from not so good — which parents have to do even when dad's still around.
— Phil Vettel
It's probably wise to decide what role you want modeled for your son before you recruit someone for the job.
"Boys whose fathers aren't around need somebody who embodies the life of an adult male (and) need to see someone embody a meaningful, responsible masculinity," says psychologist Michael Thompson, co-author of "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" (Ballantine Books).
"The Big Brothers (bbbs.org) organization has been providing father figures for fatherless boys forever," Thompson says. "Boy Scouts (scouting.org) is another good one. Coaches, if a boy has athletic abilities. Especially coaches who are not so obsessed with wins and losses."
And don't neglect the men in your own family. "There's nothing like an uncle or cousin for a boy," Thompson says. "And probably the greatest of all is a grandfather because obviously they have the blood tie and the authority, but often they're very relaxed about who a boy is.
"In some ways it's easier to feel good about yourself with your grandfather, particularly if you had an evaluative dad who's kind of judging you, making sure you're getting good grades. Grandfathers are often totally accepting, and that can be a very powerful relationship."
Which isn't a bad model to base your own search on.
"Keep an eye out for somebody who you know is a good person and has an interest in your son's life," Thompson says. "Even if it's the next-door neighbor who wants to teach your son gardening. Let him. We all make the mistake of thinking too narrowly about what a boy needs to learn from a man."
Above all, make sure the guy is someone your son enjoys.
"I knew a school principal who, when asked, 'What's the secret to a good education?' answered, 'Hire teachers who like kids,'" Thompson says. "It's the single best piece of advice I've heard in the field of education. Same thing here. Find somebody who likes kids and has fun with kids. Kids know right away whether an adult is enjoying their company or whether it's a duty."
And don't give up the hunt, because it's an important one.
"A mother can love her son to pieces and adore him and make him a good student and make him into an empathic, loving young man," Thompson says. "But she can't model masculinity for him. She can't say to him, 'You made it into the world of men.' Only a man can do that."
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