By Wes Moore

The author of The Other Wes Moore wants to call attention not to the things we should say to a young boy, but to the comments we should always avoid.

My father died in front of me when I was months from my fourth birthday. He died from a rare but treatable virus called acute epiglottitis, a sickness where his body essentially suffocated itself.

One day, my hero was there. The next he'd vanished. One day my mother was in a loving relationship with the man of her dreams. The next day she was widowed with three children she was going to raise on her own.

Being a fatherless child is complicated and challenging, and it is unfortunate that so many young men have to navigate a world where the first and best image of who we are is not there. It leaves us to fill in those gaps with interpretations. Many boys fill that hole with things that are counterproductive and destructive.

Many of the challenges I had growing up were born from a sense of fear, masked as apathy. I was sent to multiple schools, my performance at each one tended to get progressively worse. I found myself searching for the definition of manhood in places I had no business looking. I found myself hurting people who genuinely loved me, so I could impress those who could care less about me.

My academic challenges morphed into discipline challenges; the first time I felt handcuffs on my wrists I was 11 years old. My path wasn't easy or linear. But eventually my trajectory -- and my belief in my place in the world -- changed. I am often asked what was said to me that helped to bring about the transformation. Ironically, it was actually what was not said to me. With that in mind, here are a few things that you should never tell a fatherless boy.

  1. They should never hear that they are somehow the reason their mother is raising a child on her own. Young boys will internalize that sense of “fault” and their actions will show they feel that burden.
  2. They should never hear that expectations for them are somewhat dampened because of their realities. We all can be overwhelmed by the statistics about young boys who grow up without fathers: the high-school dropout rates, the number of boys not reading at grade levels, the number in correctional facilities. But never litter their thinking with the stats that place them in a category where success means they are some sort of anomaly.
  3. And maybe most importantly, they should never hear that an accident of birth will somehow define them or limit them. Being fatherless, despite being heartbreaking, is a circumstance; it is not a conclusion. Surround them with people who teach them that the world is much bigger than what is directly in front of them. In other words, teach them what it means to be free.

The conversation about fatherless boys often circles around what we should tell them, how we motivate them, how we incentivize them. Those things are important. But what matters most is what you don't say to them.

Wes Moore is the author of The Other Wes Moore, a former Rhodes Scholar and paratrooper and captain in the U.S. Army.

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Related On HuffPost: Celeb Dads Who Got Custody

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  • Dwayne Wade

    In March 2011, a Chicago court awarded NBA star Dwayne Wade <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/13/dwyane-wade-custody-battle_n_835101.html" target="_hplink">sole "care, custody and control" of his two sons</a>, following a bitter custody battle with ex-wife Siohvaughn Wade. At the time of the ruling, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/13/dwyane-wade-custody-battle_n_835101.html" target="_hplink">Miami Heat player told the <em>Associated Press</em></a> that "a huge weight is off my back." Wade added: "My life changed in a huge way. Mentally, I've been preparing for it for over a year now. To me, it's bigger than that. For me, it shows a lot of people that you need to fight to be in your kids' lives sometimes. You fight until you can't fight any more. That's all I was trying to be, a father in his kids' lives."

  • Jesse James

    In June 2011, Jesse James was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/27/jesse-james-custody-battl_n_911073.html" target="_hplink">awarded sole custody of his then seven-year-old daughter Sunny</a>, bringing to a close an extended court battle with ex-wife Janine Lindemulder. The "Outlaw Garage" star <a href="http://www.radaronline.com/exclusives/2012/03/jesse-james-daughter-tattoo-name-his-wrist-spring-break" target="_hplink">recently tweeted a photo</a> of Sunny inking his wrist with her name.

  • Kevin Federline

    In July 2008, Britney Spears ended her custody battle with her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, agreeing to give him <a href="http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,385582,00.html" target="_hplink">sole legal and physical custody of their two sons</a>, Sean Preston and Jayden James. Spears would continue to have visitation rights. Since then, the couple have reportedly <a href="http://health.howstuffworks.com/pregnancy-and-parenting/parenting/5-celebrity-custody-battles3.htm" target="_hplink">moved closer to shared custody</a>.

  • Lenny Kravitz

    Lenny Kravitz's daughter, Zoe, lived with his ex-wife <a href="http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=10716179" target="_hplink">Lisa Bonet until the age of 11</a>. After that, Kravitz reportedly <a href="http://globalgrind.com/entertainment/dwyane-wade-9-other-cool-celebrity-mr-moms-photos?page=5" target="_hplink">received primary custody</a> of Zoe, with Bonet <a href="http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=10716179" target="_hplink">spending summers</a> with the teen. In September 2007, Kravitz <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/25/AR2007092501160.html" target="_hplink">told the <em>Washington Post</em></a> about his life with Zoe, who is now 23 and a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/celebrity-kids-10-rising-_n_1095460.html#s475518&title=Zoe_Kravitz" target="_hplink">burgeoning actress and model</a>. "Watching my daughter grow up is the highlight of everything," the rockstar said.

  • Cristiano Ronaldo

    Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo announced the <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2010/jul/06/cristiano-ronaldo-baby-mother" target="_hplink">birth of a son, Cristiano Jr., in June 2010</a>. The identity of the boy's mother is unknown and the Real Madrid player said he had "<a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2010/jul/06/cristiano-ronaldo-baby-mother" target="_hplink">exclusive guardianship</a>" of the child. Last month, the soccer player raised eyebrows when he was photographed driving his Lamborghini with his <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2137270/Cristiano-Ronaldo-shocks-driving-son-lap--reunites-girlfriend-Irina-Shayk-rare-unity.html?ito=feeds-newsxml" target="_hplink">22-month-old son</a> sitting on his lap.

Earlier on HuffPost:

Our Favorite Single Celebrity Fathers
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  • Lenny Kravitz

    Rocker Lenny Kravitz has clearly made an impression on daughter Zoe: the 23-year-old dabbles in <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/celebrity-kids-10-rising-_n_1095460.html#s475518&title=Zoe_Kravitz" target="_hplink">acting, modeling</a> and -- just like dad! -- <a href="http://www.myspace.com/elevatorfight" target="_hplink">rocking out</a>. For his part, Kravitz is a supportive parent, plugging her work whenever he gets the chance. (Zoe's music is <a href="http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2009/10/lenny-kravitz-returns-but-not-from-the-1970s" target="_hplink">"the bomb,"</a> according to her proud papa.) In September 2007, Kravitz <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/25/AR2007092501160.html" target="_hplink">opened up to the <em>Washington Post </em></a> about life with Zoe, saying, "Watching my daughter grow up is the highlight of everything."

  • Ricky Martin

    Single dad Ricky Martin is raising his twin boys all on his own. "I'm doing this on my own because I don't want to miss a moment," <a href="http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20245143,00.html" target="_hplink">Martin told <em>People</em> in December 2008</a>. "I'm the one who changes the diapers, the one that feeds them, the one that bathes them, the one that puts them to sleep." As for his fatherhood philosophy? "I want to give them information and raise them with honesty and love, and give them self-esteem and a lot of acceptance." What a dedicated dad!

  • Usher

    After a drawn-out custody battle with ex-wife, Tameka Foster, Usher was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/24/usher-tameka-foster_n_1828698.html" target="_hplink">awarded primary custody</a> of the ex-couple's two sons, Usher Raymond V and Naviyd, in August 2012. In a 2010 interview with <em>W</em> magazine, Usher said <a href="http://www.wmagazine.com/celebrities/2010/12/family_issue_usher" target="_hplink">he thinks of parenting as a gift</a> that's made him more conscious of everything around him. "When you put the passion between a man and a woman up against having children, it doesn't hold a candle," he added. "I've never known passion like what my children have helped me feel."

  • Colin Farrell

    Colin Farrell is a father of two: James, his son with former girlfriend Kim Bordenave and <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2052318/Doting-father-Colin-Farrell-bonds-son-shopping-trip.html" target="_hplink">Henry</a>, his son with ex Alicja Bachleda. James, Farrell's elder son, suffers from a rare form of cerebral palsy called Angelman Syndrome. The actor has repeatedly made an effort to <a href="http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/parenting/colin-farrell-how-my-sons-illness-made-me-a-better-man-2959090.html" target="_hplink">raise public awareness</a> to the little-known genetic disorder, even<a href="http://www.okmagazine.com/videos/colin-farrell-opens-about-his-sons-angelman-syndrome-letterman" target="_hplink"> opening up about the syndrome</a>, and the experience of raising James, in an interview with David Letterman. In 2007, Farrell told the <a href="http://www.independent.ie/national-news/colin-farrell-superstar-colin-tells-of-blessed-life-with-special-needs-child-1188872.html" target="_hplink"><em>Independent</em> that he's<a href="http://www.independent.ie/national-news/colin-farrell-superstar-colin-tells-of-blessed-life-with-special-needs-child-1188872.html" target="_hplink"></a> "dedicated to helping his son reach his own individual potential and to be as happy as he can be," adding, "I have never thought of my son as being someone with a disability. It goes back to special needs and what is a disability and what isn't."

  • Dwyane Wade

    Dwyane Wade and ex-wife Siohvaughn Wade had a notoriously messy divorce, with Siohvaughn <a href="http://news.lalate.com/2009/01/18/siohvaughn-wade-photos/" target="_hplink">accusing the NBA star of adultery and abandoning their two boys, Zion and Zaire.</a> Still, the basketball player, who eventually won <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/13/dwyane-wade-custody-battle_n_835101.html" target="_hplink">full custody of the kids</a>, has certainly picked up his fair share of honors related to parenting. In 2007, he <a href="http://www.insidehoops.com/wade-father-060507.shtml" target="_hplink">received a "Father of the Year" award</a> from the National Father's Day Committee and, in 2011, President Obama <a href="http://tailormadetalkradio.blogspot.com/2011/06/dwyane-wade-was-recently-appointed-by.html" target="_hplink">appointed him to a parenting program</a> geared toward encouraging fathers to become more involved in their children's lives. In June 2011, Wade wrote a <a href="http://www.newsweek.com/2011/06/05/my-life-as-an-nba-superstar-single.html" target="_hplink">piece for <em>Newsweek</em></a> in which he described fatherhood as being the most rewarding part of his life. "All children need their fathers, but boys especially need fathers to teach them how to be men...I had a duty to fight to be with my kids, and I did."

  • Jamie Foxx

    Oscar winner, musician, comic, and composer Jamie Foxx can add another title to his already impressive CV: great single dad. Foxx shares joint custody of his daughter, Corinne Bishop, and <a href="http://www.ventanamonthly.com/article.php?id=182&IssueNum=16" target="_hplink">has described himself</a> as being a tough parent: "I teach her to be respectful... Kids today don't have any discipline." Despite his busy schedule, Foxx always puts his daughter first. "I want to be a man who shows up for her... I want to have such a big influence on her so that she knows she can call on me for anything -- which she does." Well, we're certainly impressed.