Jobs with the boys

There are two opposing opinions on the social and behavioural problems experienced by boys who are raised by single mothers.

In one corner are the traditionalists who believe that the family unit is the only way to bring up children and that anyone who deviates from the married mother and father template is really asking for trouble. Boys need a male role model, they say, and are likely to go off the rails without one.

In the other corner are the feminist social commentators who point out that many of the problems encountered by these boys (violence, antisocial behaviour and increased criminality, for instance) are inherently male characteristics. Lone mothers are therefore better off without their male partners and should be supported in raising their children in a less abusive environment.

Caught between these two ideological extremes are the growing numbers of mothers facing the daily reality of raising sons who have little or no contact with their fathers. Nearly one in four children in Great Britain is brought up by a lone parent (a figure that has tripled in the past 30 years). In most cases, that lone parent is the mother, and for those raising sons there are many
potential pitfalls.

The one thing both traditionalist and feminist camps agree about is that boys raised by single mothers face a difficult future. Problems identified in hundreds of studies include:

  • Involvement in crime. Boys in lone-parent families are more than one and a half times more likely to be persistent offenders as those from two-natural-parent families. Seventy per cent of young offenders identified by youth offending teams come from lone-parent families.
  • Drug abuse. They are twice as likely as those from two-parent households to have taken drugs (22.4 per cent compared with 10.8 per cent).
  • Truancy. They are three times more likely to truant than those from two-parent households.

    Other common problems include: poor mental and physical health; a tendency to display hostility to adults and other children and aggressive and delinquent behaviour; and problems with unemployment and homelessness in adult life.

    It is difficult to determine exactly why these boys are so vulnerable. Certainly the absence of a father figure is one factor. But single parent families also face a variety of other problems: poverty; the loss of the main breadwinner; the trauma of the divorce or separation; the circumstances that precipitated the split; and so on. 

    Tackling such a diverse range of problems is never going to be easy. Nevertheless, there are a number of projects around the country that are trying to support single mothers and their sons.

    For instance, the boys2men project run by the Coram Family in north London (see Reality Check) has achieved notable success in supporting disaffected boys, most of whom have little or no contact with their natural fathers.

    In Gipsy Hill, south London, the charity Working with Men has recently completed its Raising Boys pilot project, focusing on teaching single mothers practical ways of communicating with their sons. Project director Trefor Lloyd says one of the main objectives was to increase the mothers’ confidence.

    “There are a lot of very competent single mothers out there. But there are also a lot of negative stereotypes,” he says. “Sometimes it’s like they are being blamed for all society’s problems: ‘If only single mums could raise their sons properly then none of this would happen.’ Of course that’s nonsense, but it’s bound to affect these women’s confidence.”

    Lloyd believes that too much emphasis can be placed on the absence of a male figure as the root cause of these boys’ problems.  He says it is perfectly possible for mothers to learn the techniques and strategies that work better with boys than with girls (see Top Tips).

    “It’s not just a matter of wheeling a man in and hoping his presence will do the rest,” he says.

    “We try to help mothers understand what their boys might be dealing with, how to set boundaries and how to discipline. Gender is less important than the strategies you use. If you go into a primary school where the staff are female you will find some teachers are far better at dealing with the boys than others. It comes down to personality and matching the style of teaching to the pupils.”

    Top 12 tips for success

  • Praise, praise, praise.
  • Connect before you direct.
  • Say please and thank you a lot.
  • Stay brief and simple.
  • Ask your son to repeat your request.
  • Offer a reason (to those aged over two).
  • Be positive (instead of “no running” say “we don’t run in this house”).
  • Start your sentences with “I’d like you to …”.
  • Get close (proximity) before you tell him off.
  • Give choices (”Do you want to do your teeth or get dressed first?”).
  • Always let your son know if you are going out.
  • Ask open-ended questions (“What did you enjoy most at school today?”).


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