05/06/2013 09:52 am ET Updated May 06, 2013

Wes Moore On Fatherless Sons: What Not To Say To A Boy Who Has No Father

Wes Moore

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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