It was 1984 and my parent’s silver anniversary was approaching. I am the oldest of four and my sister Kelly and I were like pirates in my parent’s attic rummaging for marital mementos for the surprise celebration. Eventually, we found an assortment of items appropriate for table display.
“Look at this” shouted my sister.
I scampered over to her location. She is holding a bundle of letters. One was unfolded. I saw the gleam in Kelly’s eyes.
“What?” I asked.
She had discovered the treasure -- love letters from Dad to Mom written during one of his long business trips. We did as pirates do -- we invaded their privacy. We read each letter and they made us blush -- they were not appropriate for table display. They were not appropriate for any means of public consumption.
Each letter began with, “My Dearest Darling.” What followed was… well-you know. I will leave that to your imagination.
These letters were a treasure -- an appreciation of the romantic and lasting connection between parents. They were never published -- except one.
My parents were surprised. Many came to celebrate their marital bliss of 25 years. When it was my turn to speak, I reached into my pocket for a letter. I began to read, “My Dearest Darling.”
I paused. I looked at Dad and smiled. He wasn’t smiling. He was familiar with those words and it scared him. He knew what followed would make his friends squeamish -- maybe run.
I continued, “This is truly a sad day for our country for we have lost a great man.”
My Dad wrote from an Atlanta hotel. We lived in Albuquerque at the time. The letter was dated April 4, 1968 -- the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
This letter helped me to understand why I am who I am in so many ways. The studies on paternal influence in the development of children are quite explicable. For example, a father’s warmth and nurturance can significantly impact a child’s moral maturity, is associated with more pro-social and positive moral behavior in boys and girls and is positively correlated with higher scores on measures of internal moral judgment and moral values.
Since early childhood, my Dad made it quite clear that skin color was insignificant. He was not fearful of what others would think of him – or do to him -- when it came to the dignity and respect of others. I grew up watching my Dad reach across racial barriers in an era in which being an “n-lover”” was sometimes as dangerous as being black.
The strongest predictor of empathic concern in children and adults is paternal involvement. Despite my Dad’s extensive travels, he made himself known to us kids.
My fondest memory was at age 10 and Dad rousting me from bed at 4 a.m. on a school day to take me fishing. It felt good to skip school -- it felt better to spend the day with Dad and learning to bait a hook and cast a line.
The studies are consistent that between 60-80 percent of youth involved in the juvenile justice system do not know their father’s name, have never seen their father, or have no contact with their father. This is unfortunate knowing that father involvement protects children from engaging in delinquent behavior, dropping out of school. It is also associated with less substance abuse among adolescents.
Other studies show that boys without father involvement consistently score lower on a variety of moral indexes -- such as measures of internal moral judgment, guilt following transgressions, acceptance of blame, moral values and rule conformity.
In our work with troubled youth, this is a risk factor that is difficult to overcome -- how do you replace an absent father? We can’t, but we can do the next best thing -- recruit men to mentor these youth. Mentoring is not a science -- it’s about spending time with a kid, time that otherwise would be spent with a gangbanger smoking weed or “hitting a lick.”
While in our nation’s capitol recently, I visited some members of our Georgia congressional delegation to discuss juvenile justice funding and other issues. While meeting with U.S. Rep. David Scott (D), this issue of absent fathers and it’s correlation to delinquency came up. We agreed that mentoring programs are essential to preventing delinquency and promoting good qualities in our youth. Rep. Scott shared a program in Riverdale, Ga., developed by Pastor Michael Baldwin at his church Christians for Change. We picked up the phone and called the pastor. A meeting was scheduled on my return to Clayton County. My wife and I visited the church and we were impressed with the many kids involved in the afterschool program and the many men volunteering their time to be with them. But for this program, I know that some of these youth would be in my court.
Sometimes it’s not so much what we do after the kid comes to court, but what we do before.
I am fortunate to have had a father. I am more fortunate to have had one with strong moral values and judgment -- and not afraid to act on them in the face of ridicule or physical harm. I know the best gift I can give my Dad is to emulate his kindness, respect and love for others no matter the opposition and personal risk. Better yet, to pass it on to my son and to the young men who come before me every day.