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Overcoming Barriers to Fathers

What can we do to overcome obstacles that keep fathers away from their children?

Adapted from Ross D. Park and Armin A. Brott's Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers that Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be
Copyright © 1999 by Ross D. Parke, Armin A. Brott


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Armin Brott

Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers that Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be
by Ross D. Parke and Armin Brott
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The two of us had one simple goal in mind when writing Throwaway Dads: we wanted to increase the public's awareness of the barriers--some subtle, some blatant--that have limited men's involvement with their families. Our hope is that once we all become aware of how pervasive and damaging these barriers are to all of us, we will waste no time working together to break them down. The evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, is clear: if we support fathers in their quest to become more involved with their families, if we give them the tools to do so, everyone--women, children and men themselves--will benefit greatly.

Although no one completely understands the processes involved, active fathering clearly benefits children, mothers, and fathers themselves. Encouraging fathers to be involved--and supporting them in their efforts to do so--is an investment that could yield important social dividends for all. Sadly, thought, our society has both wittingly and unwittingly erected a series of nearly insurmountable berriers that effectively reduce men's involvement with their children and families. As a result, women, children, and men have suffered greatly. And until we stop tacitly supporting these barriers, we are unlikely ever to experience fully the positive benefits of involved fathering.

The obstacles that keep fathers away from their children are significant and they extend into nearly every area of our lives. But these obstacles are not insurmountable. There are steps that all of us--men, women, state and local governments, hospitals, industry, and society as a whole--can take to reinvigorate the institution of fatherhood and start us on the path toward making fathers more involved. Here are the steps we list in Chapter 11 of Throwaway Dads. How can we start on this path? The process starts with men themselves.

Ten Things Men Can Do To Help Themselves Get More Involved

1. Be more active

Ultimately, if fathers don't start taking the initiative, they'll never be able to assume the childrearing responsibilities they really want, and that they and their children deserve. So instead of letting your partner pluck your crying or smelly baby from your arms, try something like, "No, honey, I can take care of this," or "I think I can handle things," or "That's O.K.--I really need the practice." There's also nothing wrong with asking her for advice--you both have insights that the other could benefit from. But ask her for suggestions instead of allowing her to do it for you.

2. Get more practice

Don't assume that she magically knows more than you do. Whatever she knows about raising kids, she learned by doing--just like anything else. And the way you're going to get better is by doing things, too. Research has shown that the lack of opportunity may be one of the biggest obstacles to fathers' being more affectionate with their children. Once they get to hold them, fathers are at least as affectionate with their children as their partners are. In addition, fathers seem to instinctively respond--in much the same way mothers do--to their children. Fathers are very aware of their infants' visual and behavioral cues. And, more important, they take appropriate action to respond to those cues. (So much for the old stereotypes about men not having what it takes to care for children.)

Don't be afraid to get help if you're uncertain or feel ill-prepared to be a father. You're not alone. Even among fathers who have taken childbirth classes, many feel totally unprepared for what comes after. Programs to help fathers learn the basics of caregiving are available. And they work. In one study, dads watched a videotape which provided information about the newborn infant's perceptual and social competence, about play techniques, and about caretaking skills just after their babies were born. The men who viewed the videotape knew more about infant perceptual capacities were more responsive to their infants during feeding and play; and fed and diapered their babies more often at three months than fathers who had not seen the videotape.

Learning to be an active and involved father need not be restricted to the period just after the baby is born. Some fathers may be good at the early chores of feeding and diapering, but be at a loss for how to play with their active 2-year-old. Others will do just fine when their kids are old enough for math problems and football, but will have difficulty with those early, middle-of-the-night feedings. Adoptive parents may not get their first taste of parenting until their child is months or years old. There is no clear evidence that the period right after birth is in any sense a "critical" time for men to learn fathering skills or to develop emotional ties to their infants and children.

3. Take pride in the special way you are with your kids

Men and women have different ways of interacting with their children. Men tend to stress physical and high-energy activities; women the social and emotional. But don't let anyone tell you that safely wrestling, bouncing on the bed, or other "guy things" are somehow not as important as the "girl things" your partner may do (or want you to do). In fact, not only do children enjoy the rough and tumble of father play, but it also teaches valuable lessons in learning to regulate excitement and arousal. Children with physically active dads are more popular and more successful in their relationships with other children. And the effects are not restricted to boys. In fact, there's some evidence that girls who are exposed to higher levels of physical play become more assertive in their peer interactions.

4. Be emotionally available to your children

Physical interaction is undoubtedly an important part of the father-child relationship, but being emotionally available and involved is critical too. As John Gottman, author of The Heart of Parenting suggests, "Men must allow themselves to be aware of their feelings so they can empathize with their children. Then they must take whatever steps necessary to make themselves available to their kids. They must structure their lives so they can give more time and attention to their children."

5. Be a partner, not a helper

In spite of some conservative social critics nostalgic for the Ozzie and Harriet families of the 1950's, this traditional "father as helper" model is outdated, outmoded, and simply won't work nowadays. As Rosiland Barnett and Caryl Rivers, authors of She Works/He Works observe, "A push for old family values--for more dads who are simply junior partners" for their wives--would take us back into a past that was not so wonderful for fathers or their children and one that is out of reach anyway." If men are going to be fully involved, they are going to have to share responsibility for the household and childcare in an active fashion.

6. Be available more than on week-ends

To be an effective father, get involved in the day-to-day decisions that affect your kids' lives. Leaving everything to the wife means that the father will miss out on the small pieces that give meaning to a child's life. Without getting involved in the everyday chores, the routines and activities that make up childhood, fathers are not going to know their children with the kind of intimacy and nuance that is critical to being a sensitive and involved father. To understand the "big picture" of your child's life, you need to focus on the details and not leave them to some other person or some other time. This means making a special effort to share with your partner such responsibilities as meal planning, food and clothes shopping, cooking, taking the children to the library or bookstore, getting to know their friends' parents, and planning playdates. Not doing these things can give the impression that you don't think they're important or that you're not interested in being an active parent. And by doing them, you make it more likely that your partner will feel comfortable and confident in sharing the nurturing role with you.

7. Show respect for your partner

Being an involved father means recognizing all of the ways in which your partner actively keeps the family running. And respecting decisions that have been made when you're unavailable. You can't just on Friday afternoon announce that you'll be taking the kids canoeing on Sunday; you partner may have spent the better part of a week arranging for the weekend's activities. Try to develop a system with your partner to plan parent-child and family activities together. As the children mature, integrate them into the planning process as well. This is a good way for you and your partner to teach, by example, your children, especially boys that father can be active and equal participants in planning and implementing family activities.

8. Be aware of the need to communicate

If you don't like the status quo, let your partner know. But be gentle; If she at first seems reluctant to share the role of child nurturer with you, don't take it too personally. Many women have been raised to believe that if they aren't the primary caregivers (even if they work outside the home as well), they've somehow failed as mothers. It looks like men are not the only ones whom society has done a bad job of socializing. Give her time to learn that you are serious about wanting to participate more, and that you are competent and sincerely motivated change your level of involvement in parenting.

9. Know your legal rights

Changes in the legal policies are giving fathers more rights to help the balance home and work, but you've got to educate yourself about these new rules. And you have to take advantage of these changes to improve your opportunities to become a more involved father. Find out whether you're eligible for a family leave under the Family Medical Leave Act--if you work full time and your company has 50 or more employees, you probably are. You may be eligible for leave under a state-mandated plan or by taking a personal leave of absence. Unless you insist on exercising these rights, no one is going to do it for you. Every man we know who is taken advantage of opportunities to take family leave says he'd do it again. One even told us he thought that men who didn't take family leave were "nuts." Do yourself--and your employer--a favor: give everyone at work a few months' notice before you take off. That way, they'll have time to get ready. But don't be surprised if your boss isn't 100% behind you. Even companies that already offer it feel that no amount of paternity was reasonable for a man to take.

10. Stay involved after separation and divorce

Only about 10-15% of fathers receive shared or joint custody of their children after divorce, and too many of those who don't get custody end up slowly fading out of their children's lives. But even after divorce, there are lots of ways in which dads can continue to play an active role in their children's lives. The most critical is to stay in touch, by phone, by mail and in person. And make the time with your kids meaningful. As John Gottman counsels "when fathers do spend time with their kids, whether as a visitation or as part of a joint custody arrangement, they should make that time as normal as possible." Avoid the "Disneyland Dad" syndrome of constantly making time with their children a party.

Avoid trying to settle old marital disputes by using the children as pawns. Parents need to cooperate and support each other for the sake of the children. Men, even if no longer members of the household, are still fathers and they and their kids need quality--and quantity--time together. Dads need to fulfill--as best they can--their child support payments. For as Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin observe, "those who don't pay don't visit."

Eight Things Women Can Do to Get Fathers More Involved

1. Look at things from your partner's perspective

"Women usually measure what their husbands do against what they do," says researcher Jay Belsky. Using this scale, most men fail miserably. But men tend to "measure their domestic contributions against what their father did," adds Belsky. "And sometimes even against what their male friends and coworkers are doing." By this standard, many husbands feel pretty satisfied with themselves and their contributions around the house.

2. Treat men as partners not as helpers

Just as men need to re-think their family roles as "assistants" to mothers, women need to change their ideas about what's reasonable to expect from their partners. Asking your partner for help only reinforces the view that men have little direct responsibility for the care and management of children. Indeed ask him to do his share. "Every women who asks her husband to help with' the dishes or change a diaper immediately puts herself at a disadvantage," says Rikki Robbins Jones, author of Negotiating Love: How Women and Men Can Resolve Their Differences. Asking for help makes it seem like whatever he's "helping" with is really the woman's job and that she should be grateful.

3. Adjust your standards

Let's face it, men and women often have very different standards. "When my husband says the kitchen is clean he means that the dishes are in the dishwasher," says a friend. "The counter can still be filthy and the floor can still be covered with dirt." Adjusting your standards to his level doesn't mean that the kids will be wearing the same clothes every day. There are also many different ways to change diapers, play, teach, and entertain the children. Yours isn't always right. And when wives adjust their standards, husbands are more involved in the household and with the kids. No child ever suffered a long term trauma by having her diaper put on a bit looser than mother would like. It's hard to shift standards because for many women attention to domestic issues is part of women's essential nature.

4. Praise your partner

As a group, men generally to dislike doing things that make them feel incompetent. At the same time, most men love compliments. Television characters Lucy Ricardo and Roseanne Conner figured this out long ago, and the same applies in real life: sweet-talk soothes; nagging only irritates. Tell him what a great job he's doing already and ask him to do the same thing again--even if it's not exactly the way that you would have done it.

5. Don't be a gatekeeper

Many women tend to take charge of the household and childcare domains because this is the one arena that they can still control. But far too many women are so intent on keeping control of the household that they don't leave enough space for their partners to participate. For other women, control is not the issue, they just assume that men are either uninterested or incompetent. And men get the message: many find it easier to just back off. This is the first generation of fathers to be seriously expected to take an active role in the home. By the time women become mothers, most have had years of subtle (or not so subtle) training. Female role models are plentiful, as are resources, from women's magazines to breastfeeding guides. But good male role models are rare, as is information specifically designed to help men prepare for fatherhood. The moral? Even if you know how to stop the baby from crying, let your partner try to figure it out for himself before jumping in. Men and women have different approaches to the same issue and fathers need the confidence that only comes with practice.

Especially after divorce, mothers need to open the gates and let their children have access to their fathers. It is important to remember that they may be ex-husbands but they'll never be ex-fathers.

6. Recognize that you can't do it all

The days of the "second shift" where women try to do it all--work outside all day and do all the work at home, too--are over. Let your spouse or partner know that you have limits, too. Increasing his awareness that you simply can't do everything will go a long way to bringing men into action on the home front. A well-timed "your arm's not broken, do it yourself" may occasionally be a helpful reminder that men and women are partners in parenting.

7. Re-define work

When dividing up responsibilities many couples have trouble defining what, exactly, the term "work" means. In many families, for example, couples err by neglecting to give parenting the same weight as other domestic chores. So when your partner is wrestling with the baby while you're making dinner, things might not seem equal. True, he may be having more fun but play is still a very important contribution to the household. Still, just to make sure that everyone gets to have fun, switch responsibilities once in a while--let him make dinner while you do some wrestling. This kind of trading can go a long way toward changing your (and your partner's) understanding of the what the other does.

Of course, some couples with strong preferences about the appeal of one sort of job over another may divide household tasks unequally but still end up satisfied. The point is that as a team, you and your partner can devise your own ways of assigning responsibilities, and then change them as preferences or schedules change, and as the needs of your growing children change over time.

Twelve Things that Government and the Private Sector Can Do

1. Reduce gender stereotyping in schools

There's no reason to emphasize gender in schools--boys and girls can line up together rather than in separate lines. Some contemporary parents and schools are working toward reducing the degree of gender typing. In open preschools, where the staff consciously attempts to minimize gender stereotyping, children spend more time in mixed-sex groups and less time in conventional gender-typed activities than children in traditional schools. In these schools, children of both sexes are likely to be playing house and gassing up their toy trucks.

2. Encourage schools to provide parenting education earlier

As one noted researcher has said, "almost nothing in the prefatherhood learning of most males is oriented in any way to training them for this role. Males are actively discouraged as children from play activities involving baby surrogates, and, except in rare instances of large families with few or no older sisters, they are not usually required to help much in the daily care of young siblings. In short, a new father has only the vaguest idea of what he is expected to do and how he ought to do it."

As early as 1925, the national PTA began advocating for education for parenthood begin during adolescence. Today, there are many pre-parent programs across the United States aimed at preparing girls and boys for the day when they will become parents. For the adolescent boys who take them, such courses provide an opportunity to acquire caretaking skills and realistic expectations about fatherhood.

The problem is we need to provide formal parenting education earlier--a lot earlier. By about age six, most boys have already learned that anything to do with babies and child care is "girls' stuff," says educator Miriam Miedzian. Teaching kids--especially boys--parenting skills while they're still in elementary school and repeating them at a more sophisticated level in high school, we would have far fewer fatherless boys and far more nonviolent, responsible, involved fathers," she adds.

Parenting classes have been proven to sensitize boys and girls to the needs of young children, deter them from child battering, and encourage young boys to view themselves as future involved, caring, responsible fathers. They also serve as teenage pregnancy deterrents. "Once children learn how demanding and important it is to be a good parent," they become far more interested in putting it off until they are psychologically and financially ready. The startup costs for these early parenting education programs can be relatively little per student--not much when weighed against what it costs to give government benefits to pregnant teens and their kids, put neglected kids in foster care, and run thousands through the justice system.

3. Provide government funds and other support for fatherhood projects on the local level

Communities need to develop fatherhood policies aimed at increasing and encouraging father involvement in the lives of their children. As James Levine and Edward Pitt document in "New Expectations: Community Strategies for Responsible Fatherhood," a host of programs are in operation across the United States are aimed at teaching fathers about the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood. And these programs work.

To be successful, these programs need to be tailored to suit the ages, ethnic backgrounds, and social class of the fathers. A variety of programs are currently available that are specially organized for fathers of different ethnic backgrounds. This kind of cultural sensitivity is crucial to attracting and retaining men in these programs.

The programs also need to accommodate men's schedules. Most men can't show up to a parenting class in the middle of the day. Nor can many fathers travel long distances to attend these groups. By scheduling classes for fathers in the evenings and on weekends and in convenient locations in the local communities, more men will participate and reap the benefits of these efforts.

4. Make fathers welcome in doctors' offices

Too often hospitals and doctors treat fathers (and expectant fathers) as second class citizens whose primary usefulness is to pay the bills. Fathers--perhaps even more than mothers--need opportunities to learn about the care and feeding of new babies in the hospital and to have programs available that are sensitive to their needs and roles. When dads are encouraged and included in these sessions about how to care for babies during the post-partum period, they are more involved later in infant care and housework. But too often the medical environment is indifferent about new fathers' needs for instruction and support and even to the important role fathers play in raising their children. Pediatricians can play a more active role too by encouraging dads to be present at well-child check ups. Providing fathers with accurate information about their child's expected developmental milestones is an important way to increase fathers' sensitivity to children of different ages and stages of development.

5. Fund more public awareness campaigns by Federal, state and local governments about the importance of fathers

At present, there are more public awareness campaigns devoted to the advantages of recycling, the benefits of exercise, the evils of smoking, and the risks of unsafe sex than there are to the importance of fathers. Existing public awareness campaigns have achieved much and there's no reason to believe that programs aimed at educating men and women about the importance of fathers in the lives of families would be any less successful.

People need to know about the connection between father absence and such negative social consequences as increased school dropout and teen pregnancy rates, more juvenile delinquency, and increased risk of psychiatric illness. The state of Virginia recently began a state-wide public awareness campaign to increase father involvement and responsibility. Other states need to follow their lead.

6. Overhaul welfare practices to encourage father involvement

When it comes to fathers, current welfare regulations are punitive, and, ultimately, anti-family. As it stands, most states continue to require that fathers abandon their families before their wives or girlfriends can get government benefits. In short, writes Wade Horn, Director of the National Fatherhood Initiative, "Welfare rules continue to discourage, rather than encourage, family formation and the presence of a father in the home." Several states have made moves in this direction but they've been small and have yet to be imitated on a wide level.

7. Encourage joint custody

Encouraging joint custody is the surest way to accomplish our goal of keeping more fathers involved in their children's lives, and reducing the ravages of divorce on the children. Men with joint custody are far more likely to pay their child support on time and in full--they're also a lot more likely to be involved with their kids after the divorce. Making joint custody a rebuttable presumption in divorce cases will ensure that every parent is at least given the opportunity to spend as much time as possible with his or her children. The individual wishes of the parties should, of course, be taken into consideration. And if there is documented proof of abuse or irresponsible behavior, the courts should be free to make their decisions accordingly.

8. Uphold divorced fathers' visitation rights

One of the ways to keep fathers involved after divorce is to provide stronger enforcement of child visitation rights for non-custodial parents--which generally means fathers. Efforts should be made to educate judges, social workers, and other decision-makers about the important roles that a father plays in the lives of his children--even if he's not living in the same household. It will probably be a long time and a slow process of education before we are able to overcome the judicial bias against giving fathers access to their children. In the meantime, stronger enforcement of child visitation agreements will at least ensure that men have more contact with their children.

9. Implement father-friendly employment practices

The family leave act allows fathers the same rights as mothers to take some time off after the birth of their children. But most don't. Men need to be made aware of the importance of taking time off and be assured that it won't kill their careers. This will trigger a snowball effect, as more men see that their peers are allowed and encouraged to take leave, or enjoy other family-friendly benefits such as job sharing, flex-time, part-time, and telecommuting. There's proof that it works, also. Los Angeles Power and Water found that the costs of more father-friendly policies were greatly offset by increased morale and lower turnover.

10. Insist on more accurate portrayals of fathers in the media

Fathers are still portrayed in a majority of television programs as inept, uninvolved, or unimportant. The longer the media continues to promote outdated images of fatherhood, the harder it will be to change the impressions boys and girls have about the importance of fathers, and the harder it will be to get men to change the way view being or becoming fathers. Progress has been made in convincing TV producers to voluntarily modify programs to reduce violence and increase the positive portrayals of women and minorities. Now it's time to apply the same logic to fathers and to seriously commit not only to accurate portrayals of

fatherhood, but to using television to help shape our visions of men as partners for their wives and as involved and equal contributors to the care and upbringing of their kids. One good place to start might be with soap operas in which a shockingly large portion of fathers seem to lie, cheat, and have weekly affairs.

Changing television commercials wouldn't be hard either. Can't devoted and attentive dads sell products just as well as caricatures of fathers?

11. Encourage better books for better fathers

Book publishers should be encouraged to make more books that provide tips for fathers available. While there are a multitude of books aimed at new mothers, divorced mothers, and breastfeeding mothers, there are only a handful targeted to dads. The unavailability of these books itself sends a strong message to men every time they visit a bookstore: women as mothers are important and crucial, while men as fathers are peripheral players on the parenting stage.

Novels focus on men in action and on adventures. Rarely do they feature plots that highlight the impact of involved fathering on the story characters. Instead, you have to turn to historical or political books or memoirs to read about fathers. Publishers, in response to feminist critics, have begun to publish plots about powerful women and effective minorities, with the goal of empowering girls to be more assertive and self-confident. We need to empower boys and young men as well by letting them know that being an active and involved father is a viable and important choice for a man to make. We need to tell stories that inspire boys to want to be an involved and responsible father and to show them that it is not incompatible with being successful, exciting and adventurous.

12. There is no single solution; only multiple ones.

Promoting a cultural change in the ways that society views fathers and the ways that men view themselves in this role is no easy task. No single program, book or corporate policy alone is going to change fathering in our time. Just as there are myriad barriers that converge and conspire to limit father involvement, it will take a coordinated effort by men, women, media, government and the private sector to bring about a new and more involved era of fatherhood. It's no easy task, but children, women and men themselves will all benefit if we can increase father involvement as we enter the 21st century.

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