Are Boys Really Better off Without Fathers?

By Glenn Sacks

Peggy Drexler’s new book Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men contends that father-absent homes—particularly "single mother by choice" and lesbian homes—are the best environments for boys. Drexler recently told Good Morning America that boys do just fine without dads, and her "maverick moms" always seem to have a better way of handling their sons than dad would. While Raising Boys may seem like a harmless, feel-good affirmation for these mothers, it could have a damaging impact on children by affecting both the choices women make and family law.

Drexler contends that sons from fatherless families "grow up emotionally stronger," "have a wider range of interests and friendships," and "appear more at ease in situations of conflict" than boys from "traditional" (i.e., father-present) households. Her research, however, is flawed.

For one, the families she studied were older, middle to upper class women who volunteered to have their lives intimately scrutinized over a multiyear period—a self-selected and highly unrepresentative sample. Also, Drexler’s research suffers from confirmatory bias. Drexler is a passionate advocate for single and lesbian mothers. She personally conducted interviews of several dozen single and lesbian mothers and their sons in order to examine their family lives and—no surprise—found them to her liking. But while Raising Boyspraises father-absent households for instilling in boys many intangible, difficult-to-measure qualities, objective measures of child well-being belie Drexler’s rose-colored image of fatherless families.

The rates of the four major youth pathologies—juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, and school dropouts—are tightly correlated with fatherlessness, often more so than with any other socioeconomic factor. While Drexler waxes poetic about fatherless parenting, she makes little attempt to explain why it results in bad outcomes for so many kids.

Counterposed to the fathers she says boys don’t need, Drexler holds up a wide collection of males—"grandfathers, godfathers, uncles, family friends, coaches"—who, she assures us, can "provide figures for horsing around, mentoring," etc. for the boys of female-headed households. She enthuses that these boys enjoy "more male figures in their lives than boys from traditional families." But more does not mean better, and a group of men with little stake in a boy’s life are a poor substitute for a father’s love and devotion to his children. Certainly many fatherless boys grow up to become fine men, but the best way for a boy to learn how to become a good husband and father is to watch his father do it. And it is telling that the first benefit Drexler cites that male figures can provide for boys is someone for "horsing around."

Raising Boys does provide encouragement for mothers whose ex-husbands or lovers abandoned or mistreated them, and who soldiered on in the raising of their children without the father those children should have had. Drexler’s call for respect for lesbian parents is commendable. And of course there are many single and lesbian mothers who can and do effectively raise boys, just as there are many "traditional" couples who can’t. But children raised by a mother and a father fare much better, on average, than children raised by single mothers. As comedian Chris Rock famously noted, yes, certainly women can raise children without fathers, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Drexler encourages women to choose to have fatherless children, a choice which generally is not in children’s best interests.

Raising Boys also has serious implications for family law. The most damaging part of divorce for children is the way some custodial parents—usually the mother—cut the noncustodial parent out of their children’s lives. While this is at times done out of legitimate concern for the children’s well-being, too often it is brought about by anger or shortsightedness. Visitation is often interfered with, kept to a minimum, or denied altogether, and some divorcing mothers relocate not out of necessity but instead to remove fathers from their children’s lives.

As evidenced by last year’s California Supreme Court ruling in the LaMusga relocation case, family law is moving towards a greater respect for and protection of the loving bonds children of divorce share with their fathers. Drexler cites Raising Boys’ potential impact on child custody cases, and her flawed research could become the underpinnings of a new trend towards pushing fathers away from their children. That’s the last thing our boys (or girls) need.

Note (11/29/15): Drexler and her book get a tongue-lashing in this piece and in Raising Boys Without Men: Lesbian Parents Good, Dads Bad (World Net Daily, 9/10/05) and I can’t say it wasn’t merited. But my mother always taught me "people grow and change" and, to Drexler’s credit, her view of men and fathers, as expressed via her Huffington Post columns, is now far more progressive than what she expressed in this book many years ago.