Serving All Families and All Family Members by Engaging Fathers

 

By: Von Jessee, MA

We are sharing this blog from our Help Me Grow National Center website. The National Center is one of a variety of programs that make up the Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

I recently had the opportunity to be a guest blogger for Help Me Grow Utah, addressing fathers’ importance in their child’s development. You can read my thoughts in this guest blog post. It was the request from Help Me Grow Utah that prompted me to discuss outreach to men, even in the earliest stages of fatherhood.

Research has made it increasingly apparent that achieving optimal child development must begin in the womb, if not before conception, because a child’s developmental trajectory is critically informed by her parent(s)’ resourcefulness, resiliency, and availability.

As a man dedicated to the field of early childhood and as an advocate of fathers, I am deeply concerned with how men are supported as they prepare physically, financially, and emotionally for fatherhood. I believe that father involvement should take place in each area of a child’s life (home, school, medical, and social), as well as each stage of life, including before birth. And I believe that HMG and all working in early childhood systems must proactively and persistently promote this involvement.

Many people and organizations include and even focus on father involvement, but may experience an underwhelming male turn out for their programs, services, or events. There are many reasons for this disconnect, including a historical emphasis on men’s role as “breadwinner” over “nurturer,” social judgment of man-child interactions prior to fatherhood, and the lack of positive male role models for men themselves.

However, these barriers to active fatherhood are not insurmountable, and they should in no way hinder further efforts to provide support to fathers. It is critical for fathers to be actively involved in the lives of their children, even before they are born.

Optimal outcomes, such as higher rates of employment and healthier relationships later in the child’s life, are more likely to occur when fathers are physically present, supportive, and emotionally available to children.1 Furthermore, this involvement during childhood has been significantly linked to the father’s level of engagement during pregnancy.2

A father has many roles during pregnancy, such as attending medical appointments, contributing to family decisions, and supporting the mother to limit physical and emotional stressors that can affect the baby’s development. Men who engage in the many activities between conception and delivery often feel a greater attachment to their unborn child and are often more involved in the early years of their child’s life. And this involvement, as noted above, has been linked to better long-term outcomes in children.

As HMG and the broader early childhood system strive to promote optimal development in our nation’s children, we must recognize the unique contribution of fathers. Systems, organizations, and services can contribute to this by not only allowing fathers to participate, but by actively promoting fathers, educating fathers, and contributing to the normalization of active male involvement in the lives of children through visual marketing, employing male staff at all levels, and acknowledging fathers uniquely from mothers).

Help Me Grow and everyone within the early childhood system must engage and support fathers, as well as mothers, at the earliest possible point. This will require actively seeking fathers through family/community outreach efforts, identifying supports for fathers in the community, and developing a bidirectional relationship with these organizations.

Von Jessee, MA, is a program specialist for research and evaluation at the Help Me Grow National Center.

References

1Nettle (2008). Why do some dads get more involved than others? Evidence from a large British cohort. Evolution and Behavior, 29, 416-423.

2Shannon JD, Cabrera NJ, Tamis-Lemonda C, Lamb ME. (2009). Who stays and who leaves: Father accessibility across children’s first 5 years. Parent Sci Practice, 9 (1-2),78-100.

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