The UK is not generally recognised as family-friendly. Scandinavian governments, for example, recognise that parenting is a difficult job and make stigma-free training and guidance universally available. Here, the state has historically feared intruding on family autonomy.
But times are changing. Every Child Matters recognised the need to “develop more and better universal services, open to all families as and when they need them”.
And families mean fathers as well as mothers. Our understanding of the importance of fathers has grown just as their role as parents sharing the care is shifting. In two parent families with children under five, men do one third of the caring of children; an 800% increase on 30 years ago.
Parenting support is more available now – but how much of it is aimed at fathers? Two years ago Sandra Rotenberg ran parenting groups for mothers in Peckham, south London, and realised that there were no groups oriented towards fathers.
Rotenberg, a psychologist, family support worker and parenting group facilitator, began to become more attentive to the central role played by fathers in society, particularly when other difficulties were associated with single fathering, such as divorce, wife returning to work, alcoholism, drug abuse or mental health issues.
With this realisation and the belief that fathers can have unrealistic expectations about their children’s emotional and physical development which frequently compromises their relationships, she concluded that a targeted service to fathers from all walks of life would be most beneficial.
Rotenberg set up a 10-week pilot parenting programme based on the model designed by US psychologist and therapist Carolyn Webster-Stratton. It began in October last year. “We had eight fathers enrolled at the charity Welcare and used a male co-facilitator from Generate, a local agency. Both organisations are part of the umbrella consortium funded by the Children’s Fund.” Welcare is based in Wandsworth, also in south London. The area has pockets of deprivation and affluence alongside each other.
The group aimed to alleviate fathers’ isolation when dealing with parenting issues; to facilitate learning and sharing of parenting strategies in order to improve relationships within their families; and to prevent children being put at risk by fathers experiencing psychological and social difficulties.
“Before starting the group, we individually assessed each father in order to confirm their suitability,” says Rotenberg. “Our discussions with the group included the importance of developing new strategies with their children such as playing, praising, rewarding and establishing effective boundaries as well as the importance of consequences for non-compliance or aggressive behaviour.”
Rotenberg reports that fathers gained parental confidence, learned how to control their anger and avoid situations where they could create unreasonably high expectations for themselves and for their children.
“The group demonstrated enthusiasm, commitment and hard work. They shared their personal experience and learning, and showed they would be willing to make important changes to the benefit of their children and families.”
This momentum led to a Christmas party in 2006 when the fathers were proud to introduce their own children to the rest of the group. By the end of the programme, the fathers had become friends and they continue to support each other.
For Rotenberg, the project proved that these groups could provide parental support and improve their children’s educational, social and emotional integration in school and the community. “Educating children successfully implies also educating the parents,” she says. “Children’s secure attachment is the key for social development. Creating strong father role models can prevent children from getting in trouble with the police or even joining gangs: the majority of children’s misbehaviour occurs when a feeling of disconnection prevails between children and families.”
This experience has reaffirmed Rotenberg’s conviction that to overcome the social challenge that troubled children represent, it is essential for children to have a strong and positive male role model and for fathers to have an involvement in the parenting process. She adds: “Certainly this kind of structured fathers’ group represents a preventive and positive action that should be encouraged within the community.”
What the fathers said
● “Very enjoyable. It is really great to talk and listen to other dads in return. It already feels as though we are helping each other and we have only just started.”
● “I’ve gained a lot more understanding of the play I am involved in with my son and I am improving what I thought was a perfect relationship.”
● “I learn a lot to develop the good behaviour of children and their attitude. I will try my best to apply all these good things in my real life.”
● “The group is getting along well, every one seems to be coming to one mind when it comes to parenting skills.”
● “Enjoyed being part of the group, makes it feel less lonely being a dad.”
● “Great to hear others’ experiences and willingness to open up to everyone.”
➔ For more details about the project, contact Sandra Rotenberg at Welcare in Wandsworth on 020 8767 1020. The next group begins on 28 September.
Contact the author
This article appeared in the 5 July issue under the headline “Father where art thou?”