For want of a father (National Post February 28, 2007)

Earlier this month, the Vanier Institute of the Family published a report -- The Rise in the Number of Children and Adolescents who exhibit Problematic Behaviours: Multiple Causes -- claiming to identify the sources of a well-documented rise in youth behavioural problems since 1970.

According to lead author Anne-Marie Ambert, a retired York University sociology professor, the situation is dire. She alleges that a "disturbing shift of behaviour" over the last 35 years is producing severe behavioural problems in one of five children today; and in some disadvantaged schools and neighbourhoods, in as many as one in two.

By "severe," Ambert means toxic conduct such as promiscuity, gang association, assault, cruelty to animals, property damage, weapons crimes and rape. (A particularly worrying trend is the rising rate of aggression and gang association amongst girls.)

To explain the statistical uptick, Ambert describes an "enabling environment" for negative behaviours: lowered levels of public civility; the ubiquity of violence-promoting media; soaring divorce rates; reduced parental availability and supervision; disadvantaged neighbourhoods; and the diminished influence of religious institutions.

On the surface, the report seems objective. A closer reading, however, reveals a disconcerting undercurrent of gender bias as well as a significant professional oversight.

First the bias. Although the harmful practices of parents in tandem are detailed at length, only fathers are singled out for negative genderized comment.

For example, Ambert cites a study suggesting that aggressive fathers "provide rearing experiences that contribute to the development of their children's antisocial behaviour." She goes on to say that when both parents have problematic personalities, it's worse for the child. But there is no mention of decent fathers and aggressive mothers.

She notes that children growing up "with a lone mother or lone father" are "at greater risk for behavioural and emotional problems," implying the risk is parentally gender-neutral. In fact, lone parents are virtually all mothers, which means it is mainly children without fathers who are at risk.

Ambert further states that "domestic violence is one of the best predictors of child abuse." Men who abuse are not accorded excuses. But in the case of women, it is sympathetically noted that "abused mothers use harsh punishment more often than non-abused." Problematic fathers exhibit "very anti-social" behaviour, while the harmful effect of a pregnant mother's drinking or smoking (surely a choice for which she is responsible) is referred to as an "environmental influence."

Finally, Ambert states that "definitions of masculinity emphasizing macho posturing and the devaluation of nurturance have encouraged aggressive behaviours." Note that a negative interpretation of "masculinity" is singled out for censure, while the term "nurturance" -- code for mother -- though lightly rebuked as devalued, is left ungenderized.

Now for the more significant professional lapse. Under the heading "Quality of Neighbourhoods," Ambert states: "Children in neighbourhoods that are both poor and beset by social problems, including gangs, are often not adequately socialized"; "These neighbourhoods are also disproportionately populated by single-parent families" (her coy euphemism, again, for mother-headed families); "Native and minority-group children, especially black, are at risk for negative behaviours because a large proportion live in high-poverty areas" (my emphasis).

ut it is not the case that "negative behaviours" arise from poverty in minority neighbourhoods; rather poverty and "negative behaviours" arise from a common cause: the disproportionate absence of fathers. Socio-economic profiles of Toronto's ethnic communities, for instance, show that widely disparate variations in a host of social indicators were correlated with absent fathers.

Indeed, fatherlessness in general, now recognized by sociologists and front-line workers with at-risk youth to be a major predictor of exactly the aggression in boys and promiscuity in girls that lead to Ambert's "severe" behaviours, is nowhere identified in the report as a critical factor in creating problem children.

The report's subtle gender bias and its failure to acknowledge the elephant in this sociological room calls the utility of the whole report into question. Despite all its scholarly ruffles and bows, I am afraid I must give this report a failing grade.

© National Post 2007