Tavis: Donald Miller is the founder of The Mentoring Project, a nonprofit group that creates mentoring programs for fatherless boys. He is also a member of the presidential task force on fatherhood and healthy families.
His new text is called, “Father Fiction: Chapters for a Fatherless Generation.” Donald, good to have you on the program.
Donald Miller: Very good to be here.
Tavis: When you say “fatherless generation,” you mean by that what, specifically?
Miller: Well, the fact that there are about 27 million kids right now growing up in fatherless homes. Since the Industrial Revolution that number has continued to increase, get larger and larger, and I think it’s safe to say it’s at a point of crisis at this point, because fatherlessness is associated with teen dropout rates, teen drug use, unwanted pregnancy, crime and a lot of other issues.
Tavis: You track it back to the Industrial Revolution. Why since then have the numbers been rising so steadily?
Miller: Well, I’m not the only one to do that. I think when men were taken out of their homes and put on an assembly line to screw a bumper on a truck, their affirmation in terms of their masculinity went from raising kids, having a happy wife, plowing the family land, to taken out of that social context, a family context, into industry, where their affirmation and their feelings of masculinity came from making a profit for a company.
That’s a dramatic change. When we talk about the decline of the American family, I think we have to go back to the Industrial Revolution.
Tavis: Is it just a feeling of masculinity or greater masculinity, or is it also about the fact that society, in a lot of different ways, has put those kinds of pressures on families to make ends meet, which on demand and on necessity takes folk out of the household more than they perhaps ought to be, want to be or should be?
Miller: Yeah, there’s no question. I don’t know how we can change it, but that is a part of the equation. We sort of his a point as Americans where we had everything that we needed, and so in the advertising age, advertisers convinced us that we needed more than we actually needed in order to stimulate the economy.
So now we’ve got parents working two jobs and all that kind of stuff to make ends meet, and this is a problem in terms of family structure. So it’s gone back to this issue of fatherlessness, and we discovered on the father task force that the issue was more than just a fatherless crisis. The issue was a masculinity crisis.
We didn’t know how to be men. We didn’t know what a man did or what a man does. One statistic I heard said 94 percent of people in prison are men. We don’t have a femininity crisis in this country; we have a masculinity crisis.
Tavis: How does one go about teaching what it is or means to be a man, and I ask that because I suspect in 2010 that that notion in and of itself has a bunch of different –
Miller: Yeah, I’ve got people cheering for me –
Tavis: You see where I’m going with the.
Miller: – and I got people hating me, but nobody knows what I’m actually talking about. They think I’m talking about –
Tavis: Exactly, yeah.
Miller: Yeah, well, Rollin Warren at the National Fatherhood Institute, said it rightly. He said, “You cannot be what you cannot see.” So without a positive male role model in your life it is extremely difficult to become a man who benefits his family and benefits society.
It’s not impossible. In fact, most men who grow up without dads do it. But statistically, those are the guys who are at the most risk, and so it has to be shown to us. We have to have positive male role models. I had that when I was a kid. Without that – I remember when I was a kid, I was in junior high and there was a house across the street.
Me and my friend would break into this house once or twice a week because the guy had guns, and we would go into his house, we’d get into his gun cabinet, we’d put a phone book at the end of the hallway and we’d lay down in the living room and do target practice.
Right about that time, this guy took me under his wing, a guy down at the local church, local Baptist church, took me under his wing. He invited me to this little book study, we studied this piece of literature, and I faked it. I pretended like I’d read a book before. I’d never finished a book. He told me I was smart and gave me a little column in the youth group newsletter.
I wrote this column and somebody stopped me at the church and said, “You’re a good writer,” and that was it. If people ask me why I write today, it’s because somebody stopped me in a hallway at a church and probably lied to me and said I was a good writer. (Laughter) I’ve been looking for that affirmation ever since.
Tavis: Since you raised your childhood, one of the more fascinating things about the book is your own coming to terms with your own manhood and your own fatherless experience, and how you – how might I put this – you fiated, you substituted a variety of people into that vacancy. Tell me more about that.
Miller: Well, I was blessed enough to have guys just notice, and I think my mom would tell me today that she kind of went around and said, “Hey, will you pay attention to my son?” So those guys kind of stepped up. I tell some funny stories about some of these guys and how goofy they were, but there were about four or five guys who maybe without knowing it became like father figures to me. I sat down to write this book, I’d written –
Tavis: Some of them, in fact, on television, who don’t even know that you exist, maybe.
Miller: (Laughs) Yeah, yeah. Bill Cosby was like the father that I always wished I had, right? Seriously, I’d sit there and look at “The Cosby Show” and just wish that I was one of them. So that was part of it.
But I sat down to write this book literally arrogantly thinking that I’d made it, that I was one of the guys who was not affected by fatherlessness because somehow I was just so smart. Then when I started studying the issue and issues related to fatherlessness, I realized I had all of them. Fear of intimacy, fear of commitment, poor work ethic, just stuff that you don’t have when you don’t have a man in your life to look you in the eye and say, “You’re good,” or “Good job.”
I didn’t realize that I had spent my life looking for that. So this book is a somewhat comical exploration of those desires that I think as men we all have.
Tavis: There is an increase in fatherless homes, again, for a lot of different reasons, but the rate, the percentage of single-parent families headed by women is up in White America, it’s up in Black America –
Miller: Across the board.
Tavis: It’s up across the board, to your point. Without demonizing those mothers who are against the odds doing everything they can, doing their level best to raise these boys, without demonizing them, how do you address this issue forthrightly?
Miller: Well, there’s no reason to demonize them. These are heroic women. They didn’t leave. That’s not the person that you demonize. The temptation should not be to demonize the mom. If there is a temptation, it’s to demonize the guys who took off.
But I don’t want to do that either. They’re on a journey, they can’t figure out what it is to be a man. The sexual conquest is huge with men in terms of affirming themselves and their feelings of masculinity. That’s a misguided kind of affirmation. That is not helpful, but that stuff happens.
My mom was a hero. She’s heroic to me, and we meet single moms all over the country in the work that I do, and I think they’re remarkable. But what we have to do is we have to focus on the young boys who are going to become the next generation of fathers to abandon their kids, and that’s who we’re focusing on.
Tavis: What’s the mandate of President Obama’s task force on this issue? Your mandate is to do what, exactly?
Miller: Well, we spent the first year of the administration researching and convening in and around the White House on the issue. Then we’ve just issued a pretty substantial report to the president and the administration that they can reference in terms of moving forward.
But it’s an issue that the president cares very much about. Father’s Day around the White House is a pretty epic event. It feels like it’s bigger than Christmas in some ways, so it’s something that – he grew up, his father was not present. He had positive male role models, including his grandfather. So it’s part of his life and his legacy.
But not only President Obama, George W. Bush cares about this issue too, and the more of those guys, Republicans and Democrats who can focus on this issue, I think it’s the lead domino. I think if you can tackle fatherlessness, then you can tackle overpopulation in prison, you can tackle teen drug use. If the abortion issue is important to me, this is how you tackle that issue. Across the board, it covers a lot of this stuff.
Tavis: So to your point now, top-line for me – I know there’s an entire report about this – but top-line for me what, then, the task force is recommending to the president.
Miller: Well, one of the things that the president is, believe it or not, concerned with is that we don’t spend a whole lot of cash on stuff and not create this huge system. So the convening power of the White House, bringing leaders in from across the board, getting agencies together to talk about the issue and what they can do about the issue, putting it on people’s radar, taking organizations like The Mentoring Project, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Mentor out of Chicago, shining a spotlight on them.
Finding guys who are role model fathers and giving them awards. These are all the things that we’ve recommended to the president and certainly believe he’ll follow through.
Tavis: How do you address this issue without making people feel like one, you’re being preachy on the one hand, and on the other hand, not just being preachy but that it’s coming from a faith-based platform? Because so often when you get this kind of a lecture – not that you’re lecturing us – but so often when you get this kind of lecture it seems to be coming from some faith-based institution. Does that make sense?
Tavis: So it takes on this preachy sort of feel and form.
Miller: Yeah, I hear you, and anybody who knows my work knows that that’s a turnoff for me. So I think an apology, first of all, is warranted to communities that feel like they’ve been preached to or have been talked to in a condescending way, so that’s not part of our heart, my heart. Our heart is to turn people toward this issue of fatherlessness.
That said, I am a person of faith, so I come from a community that’s involved in 360,000 churches across the country, that is an institution that could, in a relatively short period of time, provide hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of positive male role models.
Now, part of our – what we do, part of our group is not to go in and convert people, so we’ll work with any kind of faith system. We just want positive male role models to step into the lives of these kids. But Big Brothers/Big Sisters will take you and there’s a bunch of organizations that will take you, regardless of faith. We just happen to be one of the organizations that recruits using churches.
Tavis: His name is Donald Miller. His book is called “Father Fiction: Chapters for a Fatherless Generation.” It’s a humorous look, in some ways, and I think the picture on the front kind of underscores that. Donald, good to have you on the program.
Miller: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Thanks for being here.