It doesn’t seem particularly newsworthy to say that children need engaged fathers for healthy development, but how best to foster that involvement remains something of a mystery to schools and other family institutions.
Joe Kelly, president and co-founder of Dads & Daughters, said the movement to engage fathers more in child-rearing is still in its infancy. People have talked about it for years, but “I don’t think much has been said,” Kelly said, adding the focus is on the margins such as deadbeat dads.
Robert “Clarence” Jones, community outreach director for Q Health Services, a division of Minneapolis-based Southside Health Services, calls “father engagement” the elephant in the room. “Fathers want to be engaged. We don’t know how to play the game,” he said.
Trying to push the issue forward, Jones and Kelly recently led a four-hour workshop, “Father Force: How organizations can accomplish more by mobilizing and utilizing dads,” at Open Book in Minneapolis. The event drew approximately 60 school, nonprofit and community leaders seeking new ideas. The men also serve on the board of Minnesota Fathers Families Network.
Ben Bement, assistant human services director for the White Earth Indian Reservation, said his community is on the ground floor looking for answers. “Women have been holding up the sky for a long time,” he said, explaining that men seem to be absent and removed from the responsibility of rearing children.
Jill Vollmer, family and community partnerships coordinator for Kootasca Community Action in Grand Rapids, Minn., said her program struggles to get dads involved. Many work long hours at the paper mills or mines. For divorced fathers, one big hurdle is getting moms to realize the importance of having dads involved in their kids’ lives.
During a brainstorming session, one Head Start worker said her agency had worked on scrapbooks and baking cakes during the parent meetings. “Suddenly, we realized, ‘How many guys will come to a meeting where they will be scrap-booking?’ ” she said.
They decided making picture frames was a happy medium, because everyone can pound a nail.
Few words, more grunts
The workshop was amicable and constructive, yet a conversation that mixes gender and parenting roles hit a nerve or two.
For instance, Kelly said that while the majority of the helping professions’ front-line workers are women, the “odds of success of a fatherhood program are pretty slim if the program is led by a woman,” a comment that seemed to draw an awkward silence.
Much discussion focused on men’s cultural baggage — how they are reared, their lack of emotional literacy and that they often don’t talk to anyone about being fathers.
At the end of the session, one female attendee said it was important to remember women’s struggles. “We are the ones saying, ‘Talk to me, talk to me, why don’t you talk to me?’ ” she said. “We are not the ones with the power.”
Another woman asked for more ideas on “guy talk” and how to use it to engage fathers.
Jones said men talk less, and they grunt.
“How do you put grunts on a flier?” the woman quipped.
“It’s in the visuals,” Jones said, suggesting using things like fishing poles or fishing lures.
In a post-workshop interview, Jones said there were no quick fixes for engaging fathers. “It was to start a dialogue,” he said. “Four hours is not enough.”
The University of Minnesota’s Center for Leadership in Education in Maternal and Child Health sponsored the event. Julia Johnsen, the center’s director of outreach, said part of the impetus came from a recent conference. She talked to a man who was upset about how fathers get excluded, complaining that even the name Maternal and Child Health excluded men.
Johnsen said MCH addresses family health disparities, which fall on women and children. But the comment got her thinking. In a time of scarce resources, engaging fathers is a way programs could improve services without needing more money.
The center produced a 16-page newsletter on fathers (PDF), hosted this workshop and will hold a summer institute June 12 on developing family-centric programs and advocacy (PDF). Just in time for Father’s Day.