Our findings identify seven barriers to engaging fathers in parenting support. Poor evaluation of programs prevents us identifying what works for families.
Overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates the unique and important role that fathers play in their children’s development. The effects are profound and wide-ranging, in terms of children’s biological, physiological, and psychological wellbeing, as well as in their behavioral, social, and educational outcomes throughout infancy, childhood, and adolescence, even into adulthood. Fathers make a difference when it comes to children’s survival, self-esteem, academic performance, emotional and behavioral problems, substance misuse, criminality and delinquency, peer relationships, sexual partnerships, and economic prospects, as well as their capacity for empathy and life satisfaction.
This evidence would seem to dictate that policy makers and practitioners should fashion programs to maximize benefits to children from their fathers. To do this effectively, they would evaluate programs to understand what works best. At the moment, there is a great deal of room for improvement in both program planning and evaluation. Most parenting programs focus solely on mothers — fathers are frequently sidelined. And even if policy makers and practitioners decided to broaden their approach, they would face difficulties because they often do not evaluate what works to take advantage of the “father factor”.
We know that it is more cost-effective to fund programs that support children and families early in life than to remedy problems later on. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” as Frederick Douglass, an African American leader of the anti-slavery movement, so beautifully said. Our research into father exclusion suggests major opportunities worldwide, for improving the planning, construction and evaluation of policies to support children by leveraging the contribution that fathers can make.
“Around the world, most parenting programs sideline fathers, focusing only on mothers. We have little robust knowledge of what works well to leverage the game changing ‘father factor’.”
Our thorough search of the literature found, world wide, 199 studies that presented evidence on fathers’ participation and impact in programs to support parents. The evidence on men, in their roles as fathers, was patchy, involving small samples and very different approaches, often making it impossible to draw conclusions on best practice. We found seven major barriers—cultural, institutional, professional, operational, content, resource, and policy biases—that work to marginalize fathers from the outset in the design of parenting programs.
As a result, we advise program planners to refocus parenting interventions so that they are relevant and attractive to co-parents. Institutions have to know how father-friendly they are in terms of policies, recruitment, support, and how well their parenting interventions respond to gender-related differences in parenting goals. It is also important that they know whether staff capabilities and attitudes toward parents tend to exclude fathers.
Programs need to examine how they collect data on “parents” — are the data, for example, disaggregated by sex? Do they identify co-parents among mixed groups of participants? Is the content of a program relevant to fathers as well as mothers? Does an organization have sufficient resources to audit current practices and implement change? In terms of policy, we recommend that policy makers ask themselves whether their strategy gives clear attention to gender and co-parenting issues.
We have found good examples of innovation in this field. For example, the Supporting Father Involvement program in the US focuses explicitly on fathers’ roles and co-parenting. Also in the US, Head Start supports the father-preschooler relationship, looking to improve child behavior, social skills and school readiness by increasing fathers’ engagement with their children and enhancing their support and child-rearing skills. In Niger, the program Ecole des Maris engages with fathers at the outset, recognizing that men are often the gate-keepers of access to maternal and child health.
In Turkey, the Mother-Child Education Foundation (ACEV) invites fathers to meet in men-only workshops to develop parenting skills, to find alternatives to harsh parenting, and to change gender dynamics around caregiving responsibilities for their children. The Australian Dads on Board program works on fatherhood with men who have attended behavioral-change programs because of their use of violence. Remarkably, Brazil’s Instituto Promundo program has demonstrated how men in dire circumstances in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas can turn away from domestic violence to engage in effective parenting and empathetic family life for the sake of their sons or daughters. The global fatherhood campaign led by MenCare provides further concrete examples regarding why and how engaging with fathers is effective for reducing violence and promoting family wellbeing and gender equity.
Such work raises intriguing possibilities. Young men are frequently on the front line of domestic violence, gang violence, and war. They soon become fathers, in contexts where violence, mental health, and social skills cascade from one generation to another. We know that first-time fatherhood can provide a turning point in the lives of many young men, who take this opportunity to reframe notions of masculinity. If these programs are successful in changing a disposition to violence in the home, could they be implemented in conflict zones with benefits for the wider community? Could promoting effective caregiving skills around parenthood to men open transformative and lasting means to turn away from violence and promote peace?
James Leckman, Rima Salah and I have edited a new book — Pathways to Peace — that examines the role families and early child development can play in peace building in many regions of the world. It has been promoted at the United Nations, to mark events such as the 20th anniversary of the UN International Year of the Family and the UN High Level Forum on the Culture of Peace.
We suggest that supporting fathers properly is not just about enhancing the lives of the some of the world’s most disadvantaged children. It is also about raising healthy, productive, and peaceful citizens, and, specifically, preventing the perpetuation of violence within and outside the home in order to heal the communities most afflicted by violence and gender inequality. Scientific work across cultures provides much evidence for this pathway to peace, regardless of the particular composition of the family: we strongly recommend engaging not just mothers but all caregivers, promoting a community of care on behalf of children.
Policy makers should ask themselves whether their strategy gives clear attention to gender and co-parenting issues. If programs for fathers are successful in changing a disposition to violence in the home, could they be implemented in conflict zones with benefits for the wider community?
Program planners to refocus parenting interventions so that they are relevant and attractive to co-parents.
Panter-Brick C, Burgess A, Eggerman M, McAllister F, Pruett K & Leckman J (2014), Engaging fathers: Recommendations for a game change in parenting interventions based on a systematic review of the global evidence, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 55.11
Leckman J, Panter-Brick C & Salah R (2014), Pathways to peace: The transformative power of children and families, MIT Press