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Explaining the absence of his father

How do you answer the your child when he asks where his dad is?

Dr Richard C. Woolfson
magyoungparents@sph.com.sg

Life is challenging enough when you are a single mother, having to cope with the parental demands of raising a child on your own and the emotional demands of balancing work and home. And just when you think you have everything under control, your child aged three or four years asks that inevitable question – “Where’s my daddy?

Have confidence in yourself as a single parent. Psychologists have looked closely at the development of children from one-parent families compared with children from intact two-parent families, and have not found any consistent psychological differences. Of course, some individual children from one-parent families have emotional difficulties, but so do some children from two-parent families. A child (whether boy or girl) raised by a single mother is not, therefore, automatically disadvantaged emotionally.

There are many different reasons why a family is headed by mum alone. One factor is separation or divorce, another is bereavement, and then there are some single mothers who never had a meaningful relationship with the child’s father and consequently, had to raise her child alone. Each single-parent family is unique, because each mother-and-child duo are unique. Even so, the chances are that the growing child will want information about his father sooner or later. 

Don’t take this question personally. It is not a sign of your child’s dissatisfaction with you – his questions stem from a natural curiosity, perhaps triggered by seeing other children in the nursery with their fathers, or by seeing children with their fathers on television. His question about dad is natural. Far better for you to be prepared in advance for this than to have to think on your feet. And whatever you do, don’t react in a way that makes your child feel guilty about asking you. Even if you don’t have a ready answer, say something positive like, “That’s a very clever question. We’ll talk about that later when we get home.” 

When the time comes, give your child an honest answer about his father. Explain the reason in simple terms that he will understand. Resist any temptation you might feel to express negative sentiments about his father. Your child wants information that he can easily digest; he won’t be helped by being drawn into any negative reflections on his dad.

Make sure that by the end of the conversation, your child does not think his father’s absence is his fault. Children can be very quick to take the blame for something their parents do, so check this out with your three-year-old so that there is no misunderstanding. 

Some single mums try to compensate for the absent father by specifically introducing a male role-model into their child’s life, especially when boys are involved. For instance, a friendly, sensible and reliable uncle might be asked to spend time with his nephew or a male neighbour or family friend might be asked to take on this role. Although that can be helpful for some growing boys – and also for some growing girls – it is certainly not necessary. 

A child from a family led by a single mother can still be raised to have a solid sense of himself and his gender identity without having any especially significant contact with a caring male during the early years. He forms his views about “male-ness” from watching other people, from having informal contact with other boys and men socially, and from the media, coupled with the attitudes and values you have.

If you have a positive view of yourself as a single parent and a positive view of fathers in general despite whatever difficult personal experience you might have had with your child’s dad, there is no reason why your child shouldn’t grow up with a clear and positive view of himself as a male.


(Photo: Aleksei Ivanov/123RF.com)

Related stories:
Raising a boy as a single mum

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