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Solo with a son

Single moms face challenges in raising sons, but with a little help, boys do just fine.

By Jennifer Wolcott Feature writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2000

Fran Capo has always been a bit of a tomboy. So when her 11-year-old son, Spencer, asks her to play catch, climb a tree, or go camping, she's always game. Spencer is especially pleased about this since his dad lives several hours away, and they can't pal around as easily.

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When Ms. Capo has to work - performing stand-up comedy or writing at her computer - Spencer seeks out Grandma, who is always up for a round of Monopoly. Or, he might strike up a game of cards with his aunt or uncle.

Capo, who has been divorced since Spencer was an infant, is typical of many single parents who rely on support from extended family. In her case, the relatives share a two-family home in New York. This not only gives Capo a little time off now and then, but it also creates a wonderfully nurturing environment for both of them.

It's not necessary to live under one roof with relatives, but it is crucial for single parents to cultivate a broader community of support for both themselves and their children, whether it be among family, friends, schoolteachers, coaches, clergy, or best of all, some of each, say parenting experts.

As the American family continues to drift from any semblance of what was once "traditional," an increasing number of single-parent families are being formed. According to recent Census figures, 26 percent of American families are headed by single parents. Of those, 85 percent are headed by mothers. And it's estimated that 50 percent of all children will experience a single-parent home at some point during childhood.

As a society, we may not like those figures. Most people agree that a happy, loving, two-parent family is the ideal environment in which to raise a child. But many families fall short of this ideal. Situations such as death, divorce, and adoption without a mate often create families headed by one adult. Mothers with sons are often considered particularly vulnerable. One common concern is that without dad around, Tommy won't learn how to become a man.

'There's God, then Mom.'

But William Pollack, author of the "Real Boys" and "Real Boys' Voices" insists there are many things a single mother can do to make up for a father's absence. Reaching out to supportive extended family, as Capo has done, is certainly one of them. But, before ticking off a list of suggestions, he begins a recent telephone interview by declaring that society needs to better value the single mother.

"Single moms of boys in America get the worst rap imaginable," he says. "They are blamed for everything from hangnails to violence." In his books, Dr. Pollack comes to their defense. For this, single mothers often thank him. "They appreciate that I say that loving, well-balanced, responsible mothers are capable of bringing up happy, healthy, masculine boys," he explains, adding that this is not just his theory, but it's supported by independent studies. "Women are not only very important role models for their sons, but they are often their son's heroes."

That's indeed the case in Sue Reddy's household. "I am the sole decisionmaker, breadwinner, and disciplinarian. My word is gospel. There's God, then Mom," she says with a laugh. Her six-year-old son Kalen recently shared a dream with her. "He was being chased by bad guys who were trying to capture him," she says. "He was scared, but he called for me, and I beat them up." Then she adds: "Need I say more?"

Dad's role

Moms may be their son's heroes, but dad's role is far from insignificant, explains Pollack. The father of a teenage daughter, this role is close to his heart. He is dismayed that many two-parent homes resemble single-parent homes because often dads just aren't around much. Every chance he gets, he urges fathers to become more actively involved in their children's lives. "Fathers today are spending more time with their kids, but it's only up to 15 percent of their time from 10 percent in 1979," he explains. "Boys tell me all the time how much they love their dads, but that they aren't home enough."