Parrish is a 24-year-old father in Chicago. He wasn’t very engaged with the children he fathered as a teen, but a community-based fathering program taught him to be more attentive to his newborn daughter’s basic needs. “See if her diaper’s wet, if she’s hungry, if she wants to be played with,” he says, moving through his caregiving checklist. “If I can take care of her for twenty-four hours, I can do it for a week,” he says with a confidence that emerges from his newfound caregiving skills.
Over the past few decades, social pressure has grown to get fathers more productively engaged with their kids. Yet the culture of fatherhood and caregiving in the United States as revealed in our social policy, corporate culture, institutional practices, media messages, and public conversation is uneven; it too often discourages men from reaching their full potential as nurturing dads. Multiple messages to fathers—provide for kids, be a friend, get married, stand up and be responsible—may conflict with the time and effort needed to actually nurture children.
As a result, men are reporting more and more conflict between work and family: In 2008, 60 percent of fathers in dual-earner couples reported work-family conflict, whereas only 35 percent did so in 1977.
Moreover, compared to fathers living in many Scandinavian and European countries, American dads who want to be involved with their kids typically face bigger hurdles because they have limited access to quality paternity leave and less flexible work schedules, which inevitably affects their ability to attend pediatric checkups and PTA meetings.
Certainly, fathers themselves, in partnership with mothers, must shoulder some of the responsibility for building a more father-friendly culture. But we must not underestimate the influence that schools, clinics and hospitals, prisons and welfare agencies, and community organizations have over how fathers connect with children. And too often, these organizations implicitly or explicitly discourage dads from being more involved. Whether it be a prison system incarcerating fathers far from their children, a school policy that limits stepfathers’ access to stepchildren’s records, a pediatric office that is only open from 9 to 5, or a court system that unduly restricts fathers’ access to their children, organizations frequently do a poor job of enabling fathers to remain or become an active, positive force in their children’s lives.
Both community organizations and children miss out when fathers feel unwelcome at schools and community centers. Fathers can bring much to the table by way of their ideas, social networks, emotional support, money, and labor. Getting dads to invest time and energy in school activities, for example, can enhance classroom activities and extracurricular programs. When men and fathers are more visible, children, especially at-risk boys, are more likely to see schools less as feminine places and recognize that their future options in life hinge on their academic performance.
The following four principles are based on our research into men and community service. Taken together, they might help organizations create and sustain father-friendly programs.
1. Training professionals to support fathers
“When we meet with my son’s teacher, I often feel like she speaks only to my wife,” said one dad in San Francisco who is active with his school’s PTA. “She often won’t even make eye contact with me. The same is true for our pediatrician.”
Teachers, daycare workers, social workers, doctors and nurses, youth ministers, and Boys & Girls Club staff are often more accustomed and more comfortable dealing with moms and divorced parents—which is why they may need encouragement to work with fathers. Even holding informal discussions about father involvement with staff can make staff aware of inadvertent nonverbal cues, like limited eye contact, that can make fathers feel like they don’t belong.
Staff can be trained to inquire about how fathers interact with their children day to day, and can then share information with fathers and bridge communication gaps between fathers and children. Youth workers can be encouraged to learn how to be sensitive to key family circumstances, such as being a nonresident father, navigating life as a single dad, having children with different mothers, or having a child with special needs.
Organizations can also be creative in helping fathers identify and mobilize resources from their families and friends. Jelani, a 23-year-old father who doesn’t live with his infant son in Chicago, volunteered at a church-based adult literacy program. The staff was trained to work with nonresident dads, and when they found out he had an infant son, a caseworker referred him to a fathering program at a local community college that program provided extensive job training and parenting courses. It also worked closely with the mother of his child and their extended family to build a support system that helped Jelani become a caregiver for his son while also pursuing jobs and furthering his education.
Unfortunately, community institutions are challenged to redress deeper social problems, like long-term poverty, that often thwart engaged fathering. But even if that’s beyond their capacity, staff can still keep men engaged with their children through program activities like sports and tutoring.
Ultimately, institutionally based initiatives that expand and strengthen the pool of men who are willing to interact with kids and fathers through paid jobs or volunteering can transform the culture of care and foster stronger ties between youth workers, fathers, and children.
2. Collaboration between grassroots projects
Organizations at all levels need to collaborate with each other as they mobilize and join resources to enhance fathers’ relationships with their children. Schools, public health departments, and recreation programs can explore ways to integrate their services and teach fathers how to leave a positive imprint on their children’s health.
In particular, federal and state agencies, work sites, courts, the media, and other stakeholders may approach fathers with limited understanding of values and needs of fathers. Many agencies would be wise to identify local efforts that bring energy and new ideas to fatherhood initiatives. Grassroots projects deliver unique strengths as well, such as a longstanding commitment to families and an understanding of specific barriers that fathers face in everyday life.
For example, in areas with large Latino populations, churches might sponsor groups that familiarize immigrant fathers with the American educational system and provide opportunities for dads to learn English alongside their children. School officials could discuss positive ways immigrant fathers can interact with teachers and administrators and, in the process, help fathers strengthen their social networks and community ties. Churches and schools could partner with the National Compadres Network, a grassroots initiative to reinforce the positive involvement of Latino males in their families, communities, and society.
Some grassroots efforts have shifted toward national initiatives for men’s nurturance. The Angel Tree program offers prison fellowship for inmates and their children, and local affiliate churches bring fathers and children together by delivering Christmas gifts. For about two decades, a program called Boot Camp for New Dads has served more than 200,000 fathers at sites across the country. Using sports and military traditions, the program focuses on teaching expectant fathers practical infant-caregiving skills. At the workshops, experienced fathers bring their infant children to demonstrate things like how to change, burp, swaddle, and calm babies. The veteran fathers also discuss matters such as creating a parenting team, child safety, preventing child abuse, and dealing with relatives.
The success of Boot Camp for New Dads depends on cross-organizational collaboration that takes the program to the places where fathers can be found, such as hospitals and health clinics in low-income neighborhoods, family resource centers, black churches, Jewish synagogues, Head Start programs, and military bases.
3. Using technologies to connect fathers with children
Organizations and programs that work with fathers who live apart from their children should support the innovative use of computer technologies so that fathers can more easily stay in contact with and nurture their kids. In an increasingly computer-literate society and world, technology is essential for connecting children to fathers who are in prison, deployed in the military, or separated by economic or marital circumstances.
During the past decade, six states have instituted “virtual visitation” programs in prisons. Reading Family Ties is a program in Florida that allows incarcerated fathers to read stories to their children using live video on the Internet. The program has been credited with enhancing family unity, easing inmates’ transition back to society, and improving both literacy for parents and children. Programs that enhance a prisoner’s ability to be a good “family man” are good public policy, in part, because they can reduce recidivism.
Some divorce courts are also starting to adopt virtual visitation arrangements to ensure that parents who live far from their kids—most often fathers—stay in contact. This use of technology is especially important to service members on military deployment, who have access to a bank of computers that allow them to “visit” with their children on a regular basis using email and Skype.
4. Targeting outreach and marketing for dads
Many facilities can better engage with fathers if they make some fairly subtle changes to how they present their programs to men.
For starters, programs can offer services during evening hours or on the weekend, outside of business hours when many fathers work. In some instances, simply hiring men to provide supportive services helps connect dads to the program. Even making the physical space appealing to men can entice them to walk through the doorway and get involved. Adding reading material for men, comfortable furniture, poster graphics, or a do-it-yourself food service may encourage fathers to hang out and spend time with staff and children.
Head Start and Early Head Start programs perhaps represent the most successful organizational effort to get fathers more involved. Reviews of these programs underscore the value of having a clear understanding of what fathers think and want in family-based programming.
Research has found that programs which single out men for being ineffective fathers are not themselves effective. It is better to frame fathers as an essential part of a larger family system, who are committed to caring or providing for a child. A recent series of five “Fatherhood First” recruitment posters produced for Head Start reflect the value of men’s involvement by showcasing the themes of play, hope, patience, strength, and heroism.
Programs also target men to attend specific activities like Dancing With Daddy, an event hosted by the Pontiac, Michigan, Head Start program: “Hey Boys and Girls! Bring your Dad (or Grandpa, or an Uncle, or any Father figure in your life) and get ready to shake things up!” Another program at Early Head Start encourages fathers to volunteer as bus drivers, storytellers, classroom aides, and coordinators. They have also been hired as staff.
Community organizations need to understand that, generally speaking, men’s friendships tend to be less child-focused than women’s friendships. Altering a program’s culture and everyday routines in certain ways could prompt fathers to communicate more with other fathers and build friendships linked to their children.
Because some men tend to look to other men rather than women for approval, it makes sense to create opportunities that increase the chances for fathers to associate in meaningful ways with other fathers. Fathers can work with each other to build playgrounds, host block parties, plan a career day, volunteer at a homeless shelter, or shoot a video to promote a community activity. When other men make it clear that being a nurturing dad is expected, fathers tend to listen.
There is no one-size-fits-all template for making community institutions and programs father-friendly. However, organizations can better entice men to be attentive, nurturing dads and active members of the community if they foster a series of partnerships between families, individuals and agencies, and a cross-section of organizations. Fathering is ultimately a social arrangement, and community institutions need to be out in front promoting and enabling men to be nurturing dads.