If I passed my father on the street, I would not recognize him. I have never seen a photograph of Tom Kenrick, and my only mental photographs are the scratched and dusted memories of a 3 year old boy (whose mental image resolution power has been dimmed by 6 intervening decades). I do vividly remember the sound of him banging on the door of our apartment after he’d been released from prison a few years later. “Please let me in, Irene!” he begged my mother, who refused to allow him even see his two sons, both cringing in the darkness. My mother had once been madly in love with my father, but at that point, with some justification, she regarded him as a madman. “Please go away, Tom, or I’ll have to call the police.” A year or two later, I saw him standing across the street from where my brother and I were playing, but our mother again yelled at him to go away. Again, he left without ever talking to us. A decade after that, my stepfather showed me a brief article from the New York Daily News, about a man named Tom Kenrick who had apprehended for a series of armed robberies of movie houses in Queens.
When I was 18, my paternal grandmother died, but my stepfather and mother discouraged me from going to funeral, fearing I’d come in contact with my dread biological father. I don’t remember whether I protested, but I didn’t go, and I never tried too hard to find the fellow, afraid of what he’d be like.
I have two sons of my own, though, and being close to them is probably the most rewarding aspect of my life (as my older son described in his own Psych Today blog, I get to do wonderful things like sit in a theater and watch the latest animated flick with both my sons and my grandson). So, I now regret never having really met my own father, and wonder whether the separation wasn't worse on my old man than it was on me. I recently went onto a website where you could look up people by name, but unfortunately, there were a number of Thomas Kenricks, and none that I could connect to Irene Little or Astoria, Queens.
The psychology of not knowing your father
Has it hurt me not growing up with a biological father? The truth is, I have no idea. It’s hard to miss someone you never knew. Was his absence the cause of my inability to behave myself in grammar school, or of my expulsion from two high schools? Hard to know without a control group.
Of course, I’m not alone in having had an absent father. Matthew DeBell of Stanford’s Institute for Social Research recently estimated that “28% percent of White students, 39% of Hispanic students, 69% of Black students, and 36% overall live without their fathers.”
And there’s an abundant behavioral literature on those kids. DeBell notes that children without fathers are less healthy and they do worse in school. When you control for being poor, the effects don’t look so bad. Of course, things are complicated, because being without a father causes one to be poorer. My mother worked a low-paying job and we were very poor, at least until my stepfather came along.
Evolutionary psychologist David Geary reviewed evidence that children living in traditional societies were less likely to survive without a father, and other research suggests that boys without fathers are more likely to be bullied. Still other research suggest that a father’s involvement can buffer a child against later psychological maladjustment (Flouri & Buchanan, 2003).
Is there a bright side to having a missing old man?
Most of the findings I found on father-absence varied between mildly bad news and very bad news, but there is one possible upside. In searching for the causal factors linked to creative and scientific creativity, Dean Keith Simonton and Frank Sulloway have found evidence that losing a father may be positively associated with creative outputs, especially those involving rebellious new ideas. For example, 17 percent of those won a Nobel Prize for creative writing lost a father during their early years.
So after this short tour of the scientific literature, perhaps I can thank my missing father not only for having been bullied as a child and expelled from several schools as an adolescent, but also for my eventual involvement with the intellectually troublemaking, but now quite scientifically productive, gang of evolutionary psychologists.
DeBell, M. (2008). Children living without their fathers: Population estimates and indicators of educational well-being. Social Indicators Research, 87, 427-443.
Flouri, E., & Buchanan, A. (2003). The role of father involvement in children’s later mental health. Journal of adolescence, 26, 63-78.
Flouri, E., & Buchanan, A. (2003). The role of mother involvement and father involvement in adolescent bullying behavior. Journal of interpersonal violence, 18, 634-644.
Geary, D. C. (2008). Evolution of fatherhood. In C. A. Salmon & T. K. Shackelford (Eds.), Family relationships: An evolutionary perspective (pp. 115–144). New York: Oxford University Press
Simonton, D.K. (2009). Varieties of (scientific) creativity: A hierarchical model of domain-specific disposition, development, and achievement. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 441-452.
Sulloway, F.J. (1996). Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics, and creative lives. New York: Pantheon.
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