Growing Minneapolis: Children need two attentive parents

  • Article by: BRUCE PETERSON
  • Updated: September 28, 2013 - 5:05 PM

Children’s achievement starts with having two parents engaged in their well-being.

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Minneapolis Foundation President Sandy Vargas proposed thoughtful ideas to “RESET” education, better use housing subsidies and help minority-owned businesses. Contributing writer Katherine Kersten weighed in with pointed criticisms of recent rollbacks of standardized testing.

On Thursday, Vina Kay of the Organizing Apprenticeship Project raised the important issue of how much of the problem is due to racism (“What causes gaps? Let’s face the truth,” Sept. 26).

None of these commentaries even mentioned what might be the most significant gap of all — the very high rate of unmarried parenting among low-income groups, which include many people of color.

The only comment that came close to acknowledging this huge elephant in the room was a quote from Al Quie in Lori Sturdevant’s column (“Elder statesman has something to say about education,” Sept. 22): “Family should be where you learn about human interrelatedness. Some families need help with that, and it’s in everybody’s interest that they get that help …”

The overall unmarried parenting rate in Minnesota is about 34 percent. But among non-immigrant African-Americans becoming mothers for the first time, it is 88 percent. Among all women with any college, the rate is only 15 percent.

These rates matter. Unmarried fathers often drift away. Children of unmarried parents drop out of high school or experience a teenage pregnancy at a rate more than three times that of children of married parents. In his 2011 book “From Family Collapse to America’s Decline,” local public-policy analyst Mitch Pearlstein documented the high correlation between unmarried parenting and the educational struggles of children.

High-quality coparenting can reduce these disparities.

There are some good things happening. For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to preside over Hennepin County’s unique Co-Parent Court, where workshops provide low-income, unmarried parents practical advice on how to resolve conflicts and work together. They also get assistance with essential resources for parenting, such as stable housing and health care, and help working out a parenting plan for their child.

The Goodwill/Easter Seals FATHER Project, which over the past 15 years has developed a model of comprehensive services for low-income fathers in Minneapolis, has received federal funding to take its program outstate. Fathers are also ably assisted locally by groups like the African American Men Project, Urban Ventures, the Resource Center for Fathers and Families, and Young Dads EAC. Fatherhood groups statewide are effectively linked through the Minnesota Fathers and Families Network.

Public-policy responses are not enough, however. We need a shift in cultural expectations: We must do better at informing unmarried parents of the risks they are creating for their child and what they need to do about it.

A young married man about to become a father is well aware that his priorities are about to shift dramatically. Evenings out with his friends are going to get pretty rare. Workouts might be relegated to 6 a.m. Being unemployed is not an option. Friends and family understand and reinforce these expectations.

The same reordering is not necessarily expected of unmarried fathers. I simply do not always see the same recognition that now life must be organized around the needs of the baby.

One modest proposal: A Commitment to Parenting ceremony, conducted with the formality and ritual of a wedding, in which new parents publicly affirm to do what it takes to nurture their child and to work together respectfully no matter what the current state of their own relationship.

By all means, let’s improve schools, housing, health care and employment. But it is at home that children will gain the self-control, the resiliency, the optimism and the openheartedness to take advantage of the good opportunities available to them.

After 90 years, Gov. Quie knows what he is talking about — some families need help with that.

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Bruce Peterson is a Hennepin County district judge.

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