On the profound impact of fathers

July 29, 2015

FathersWe lived just two houses apart, but we might as well have lived in separate worlds.

He was a foster kid, and for a few months he stayed down the road with my neighbours, who were constantly opening their house to children who needed a loving, safe place to live.

He was like a lot of the children they took in. He was an angry, sometimes violent boy, untrusting of most people, and looked like he carried a grown man’s weight on his small shoulders. Like so many of the other foster kids who lived with my big-hearted neighbours, he was a handful, and inevitably, would be shuffled to some other foster home in some other community.

As another Father’s Day passed by last month, I couldn’t help but think about how our dads had such a profound influence on us, and in such different ways.

My father built the neighbourhood kids a baseball diamond on our front yard, taught us how to catch and throw, how to fix a bike and how to start a campfire. He was everything you’d want a dad to be — fun, reliable, selfless, loving, full of answers and able to solve any problem.

I can’t pretend to know much about the other boy’s father, but I know he wasn’t the kind of dad most kids would want. The boy wore a reminder of that on his own face — a nasty scar given to him by his old man, who marked him for life on the forehead.

That was the story the boy told us, and it helped partly explained why social workers had taken him away from his biological father and put him in the province’s foster care system. By then, his mother was already dead.

As an eight-year-old boy, I tried to imagine what his life was like, but had no concept of how angry he was and how betrayed he must have felt by the people who were supposed to love him the most.

More than 25 years later, I had forgotten about his temporary appearance in my happy childhood bubble. That is, until news reports last month dragged him out of my memory. Now in his mid-30s, he was charged with the murder of a Toronto man, after a manhunt that stretched halfway across the country.

Today, his story has me thinking about the long-term impact on kids who grow up without a good guy to call Dad in their life.

While most won’t end up like him, there are lots of kids who don’t have the benefit of a father in their home.

More than 1.2 million families in Canada are run by single moms, according to Statistics Canada. Over 13 per cent of Ontario’s kids are being raised in a ‘fatherless’ house.

My own new-found fatherhood makes me appreciate all the single mothers who are trying to do the work of two parents. And it makes me even more in awe of people who choose to be foster parents, trying to help kids who can’t be cared for by their biological parents.

I know the boy from my childhood is an extreme example. But the impact of fathers on children has been well studied and well understood for a long time. Kids who grow up with a good father figure in their lives go on to be healthier, more successful, happier, and less likely to be involved in crime as adults.

Right now, I’m thinking about that boy and the kind of dad he didn’t have, and how it all seems so sadly inevitable.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer whose column appears every third Saturday. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca. Follow him on Twitter at @MercerRecord

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