In the name of the father

Fathers are playing a more active part in their young
children’s upbringing – something that voluntary groups and
social care agencies are now waking up to. Not before time, writes
Kate Coxon.

From this April British fathers will finally have the right to
two weeks’ paid paternity leave. Later this year, Grimsby
Maternity Hospital is to open a pioneering new unit with
purpose-built double bedrooms and en-suite facilities where both
parents can stay for the period of the mother’s admission to
hospital. Fathers will be actively brought into caring for partners
and infants. The message is clear: involving fathers in their
children’s lives from early on is vital.

A growing body of research points to the importance of father
involvement. Having an involved father helps a child’s social
and emotional well-being and improves academic performance. It may
also reduce the risk of adverse outcomes in later life, such as
participation in crime.

Even so, the good news about fathers is often overshadowed by
the bad. A review of fatherhood in 2000 for the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation by professor Charlie Lewis concluded that: “Men’s
parenting is often depicted as a social problem rather than a
social strength. Fathers are often visible only in terms of their
absence: working long hours, not living with their children or
lacking legal rights as parents.”

Jack O’ Sullivan of the charity Fathers Direct cites
research undertaken last year at the University of East Anglia,
which suggested that fathers actually undertake a third of all
child care duties. “Men are in charge of their kids more than we
think, perhaps more than we care to admit. It’s vital that
they are competent, able and confident with their children.”

But while mothers may attend parent-toddler groups and other
facilities, it can be harder to encourage fathers to take up
opportunities for support with their parenting. John Roberts, a
consultant and trainer at Leicester Family Service Unit (FSU) has
run fathers’ groups for several years. While he has noticed
an enormous cultural shift in this time – “superdads” like David
Beckham have made pushing a pram acceptable – he feels that
practitioners must address men very differently from women if they
want fathers to be involved or even turn up at all.

“It’s no good expecting dads to attend touchy feely groups
sitting in a circle in a health centre. In my experience, men need
to be given a degree of choice and some autonomy.” The informal
structure of a drop-in is ideal, according to Roberts. “There can
still be structured activities, but fathers can come and go as they
please.” He advises a proactive approach: to attract fathers you
need to go out and find them. This might mean leaving flyers in
pubs, clubs, barbers shops and supermarkets.

The venue must be right: spaces for fathers need to be inclusive
and welcoming. The Leicester FSU fathers meet in a purpose-built
community centre which receives funding from the education
department. Computer terminals were found to be a welcoming and
inviting influence.

Developing good communication skills with men is important. “If
a father does come to a group, don’t ask too many questions
at the first point of contact,” advises Roberts. “On the whole, men
don’t tend to feel comfortable sharing personal information
or exploring feelings straightaway – they need to be relaxed to do
that.” They are more likely to open up when things are kept on a
factual, knowledge-based level and may find it easier to interact
with their children and other fathers over a shared activity, such
as a sport or a computer game.

Similar thinking has inspired Dads and Lads, an innovative
project which uses sport to enhance positive interaction and
communication within the home environment. The Home Office has
funded YMCA England in conjunction with Care for the Family to set
up such projects across England. In many areas, Dads and Lads
groups have formed links with local football clubs, involving
fathers and sons from pre-school age to late teens.

But there may be other obstacles to overcome. Keith Nicholls, a
father and facilitator of a fathers’ group in Barrow, Cumbria
points out that some people are suspicious of men around children.
“This can operate as a barrier both for fathers who want to take
part in activities with their children, and for practitioners
trying to involve them,” he says.

To coincide with the introduction of paid paternity leave, a new
magazine will be launched for new fathers and distributed through
maternity hospitals. Jack O’ Sullivan believes that this kind
of early intervention is the real way forward. “We know that around
90 per cent of men are present at the first scan and 95 per cent at
the birth. Some midwives and health visitors have realised that
this is a fantastic opportunity to get men involved from the start
and begin to explore issues of fatherhood at this point.” He adds:
“We need to make this good practice universal. The earlier fathers
become involved, the better it is for their children.”

 More information from YMCA England Dads and Lads project:
07850 112641; Fathers Direct 

Fathers are important too

Continuing research at the University of Oxford based on the
National Child Development Study (NCDS) has followed up 17, 000
children at ages seven, 11, 16, 23 and 33. Key findings of the
research to date are that:

  • Once fathers are “involved” they tend to remain so throughout
  • Father involvement at age seven is strongly related to
    children’s later educational attainment.
  • Father involvement is associated with good parent-child
    relationships in adolescence and later satisfactory partnerships in
    adult life
  • Children with involved fathers are less likely to be in trouble
    with the police.
  • Early father involvement protects against an adult experience
    of homelessness in sons of manual workers.

Make your venue father-friendly

  • Use a pool table, table-tennis, or table football to create a
  • Avoid pastel colours and flowery décor.
  • Make sure chairs are comfortable and large enough and
    don’t arrange them in a circle.
  • Include pictures and images of fathers with their
  • Provide magazines and leaflets for men as well as women.

Dads RUs:

Barrow Sure Start, Cumbria
Dads R Us runs informal meeting groups for male carers and
their children in Barrow. The first group was set up in March 2001
by Dave Morrison, community support manager for Barrow Sure Start
who oversees Dads R Us groups in five different wards in Barrow.
“At the start, it was to tackle the ‘McDonald’s dad
syndrome’ – separated dads with nowhere to take their kids on
Saturday. Now we have 50 to 60 resident and non-resident dads and
their children attending the groups. The majority of children are
primary-school age.”

One of the schemes users, Dave Heseltine, says: “I was a bit
dubious at the start but the kids love it and the camaraderie is
great. I now manage the football team.”

The five groups come together for roller discos and swimming,
day trips and weekend breaks. “Cook and eat” courses have proved
especially popular and there are also activities targeted at new
fathers such as parenting classes.

Barrow is a former shipbuilding area, with high levels of
unemployment. Promoting fatherhood has played a role in community
regeneration. “It’s successful because local dads have
ownership over the group. Some unemployed fathers have retrained as
community workers,” says Dave Morrison.

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