“Celebrate Our Favorite Guys” reads a banner on Hallmark’s website this week. Yes, with Father’s Day approaching, the media is filled with positive images of dads.
As researchers who have worked with fathers and families for decades, we’re delighted to see fathers honored in this way, just as we saw mothers honored last month.
But what about the rest of the year? Too often, we find that messages about dads are decidedly negative in tone: Why don’t they hear the baby’s cries in the middle of the night? Why don’t they help more around the house? What can we do about “deadbeat dads”? The impression seems to be that men aren’t motivated to become involved with their kids or simply don’t understand what children need. We have to spend public money to persuade or compel men to be “responsible fathers.”
While there are certainly men who don’t take their role as fathers seriously, our experiences over the past three decades tell a different story. In our work with working-class, middle-class, and low-income families, what we hear from men is that they want to be good, devoted fathers—more involved and more approachable than their fathers were with them. What’s stopping them?
We’ve identified a number of barriers—obstacles that don’t prevent men from taking an active role, but surely make it difficult.
First, there are the messages they get from the parenting experts. Despite current interest in father involvement, an extremely large proportion of family research focuses on mothers and children. Scan the myriad of “parenting” books, and it is clear that the majority are addressed to and read by mothers, with an occasional nod to fathers.
Then there are the ways that health care agencies and other organizations exclude fathers, often unwittingly. Starting with pregnancy and labor and delivery, most appointments are set up for mothers and held at times when fathers work. The same is true for most pediatric visits. School records and files in family service organizations often have the child’s and mother’s name on the label, and not the father’s.
In the family agencies we have visited here and abroad, the walls are typically pastel colors, the pictures on the wall are of mothers, flowers, and babies, the magazines in the waiting room are for women, and the staff is predominantly female. In most welfare offices, fathers are not invited to case planning meetings, and when a home visitor is greeted at the door by a man, she often asks to speak with the mother. Given these scenarios, fathers are likely to get the message that they are invisible or irrelevant to their children’s welfare.
So how can we overcome these barriers and encourage more father involvement? Some organizations have simply tried to urge men to get more involved, as if the problem has been one of low motivation. Another approach has been to involve men in support groups led by men, focusing on fatherhood and family issues.
Instead, our approach is guided by a crucial finding from our research: The single strongest predictor of whether a father will be positively involved with his children is the quality of his relationship with the children’s mother. This is true regardless of whether parents are married or divorced, living together or separated, well-off or poor.
It’s not hard to imagine that when parents are fighting over custody or financial arrangements and the child lives with the mother, fathers may have a difficult time arranging to visit the child regularly. Yet similar dynamics occur when parents are married and living together. In high-conflict couples, the issues they fight about often have to do with child-rearing: “You’re too soft on Billy.” “Well, you’re too strict.” Even when parents generally get along, differences between their parenting styles often mean the mother is viewed as the “expert” who wants the father to be involved, but in particular ways.
Here’s the lesson we take from our research: If we want to promote fathers’ involvement with their children, we should work with moms and dads on strengthening the relationship between them—not just as romantic partners but as co-parents.
This approach is supported by two long-term studies we’ve run with working-class and middle-class families. Both studies enrolled the couples in groups, with trained co-leaders, that offered help on challenges in parenting and the couple’s relationship, even though they hadn’t been seeking help for either. One study involved expectant couples for six months, from the third trimester of pregnancy into the first few months of parenthood; the other study targeted couples with first children about to enter kindergarten, working with the couples for four months.
In both studies, we found that the group participants fared much better than people we observed who were not offered a group: Their parenting was more effective—they were warmer, more encouraging, more responsive to their child’s needs, and better at setting limits—and their kids did better in school. These benefits lasted for five years in the first study (pregnancy through the transition to kindergarten) and for 10 years in the second (from pre-kindergarten through the transition to high school).
What’s more, groups that focused more on the couple relationship than on parenting not only improved the couple’s effectiveness as parents but also maintained the quality of their relationship with one another. When the parents’ relationship as a couple was affected positively, their parenting was more effective and their children were less likely to act out aggressively or seem shy and withdrawn in school, and their achievement test scores were significantly higher than those of children whose parents had no special help.
Building on these findings, with funding from the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention, we designed and have been evaluating the Supporting Father Involvement Project, in collaboration with Marsha Kline Pruett at Smith College and Kyle Pruett at Yale University. Over the past eight years, trained staff in five California counties have worked in small groups with almost 900 low-income European-American, Mexican-American, and African-American families. Rather than just taking the traditional approach, in which men gather in fathers groups led by men to discuss the family issues faced by men, our project has created groups that both partners attend weekly for 16 weeks. We are comparing the results from these groups with the results from groups geared exclusively to fathers. Both groups have the same male-female co-leader teams.
In an already-published study of the first 300 families, we found that, compared with couples not offered either group, fathers groups and couples groups both produced significant increases in father involvement over an 18-month period and prevented a rise in behavior problems in the children.
But the couples groups had those benefits and more: The parents maintained satisfaction with their relationship, and their conflict and parenting stress declined.
While fathers often stay out of family conversations about childrearing, we find that when men are invited into such discussions in the safety of a group setting, they have as many ideas as women do about how they want to conduct their relationships with their children and their partners. One important intervention made by the group leaders is to help the mothers stand back a bit to make room for fathers to step in and become parents in their own way.
These positive results have been replicated with another 300 families, and a third trial is currently underway, this time with families who are at-risk not only because of low incomes but because they have come to the attention of welfare agencies for suspected child abuse, neglect, or domestic violence. Preliminary results suggest that the couples groups, with trained male-female co-leaders, are helping these parents use more productive problem-solving strategies, lower their parenting stress, and keep their children’s problem behaviors from escalating.
Of course, there’s good reason to want dads to be involved in their kids’ lives: Research shows that, in many different family arrangements, when dads are actively and positively involved, their kids develop fewer behavior problems, do better in school, avoid using drugs, delay sexual activity, and develop stronger close relationships with others as they become adults. What’s more, mothers of children with involved fathers do better financially and emotionally, and these involved dads themselves are healthier and more likely to hold a job and have a strong sense of purpose.
But if we want families to reap these benefits, simply encouraging fathers to be more involved isn’t enough. That’s why we’re working in partnership with the Office of Child Abuse Prevention and with others to make father involvement and family relationship services more available in California, and to disseminate the results across the country.
We realize that the majority of parents, though, may not seek or want services from outside agencies. For them, we can stress the key message from our research: In addition to focusing on what they should be doing to, for, or with their children, they shouldn’t forget to take care of their relationship as partners and as co-parents. This approach will be good for them and for their kids—on Father’s Day and any day.