Engaging Fathers Resource from Best Start Ontario

Best Start: Ontario’s Maternal Newborn and Early Child Development Resource Centre supports service providers on health promotion initiatives to enhance the health of expectant and new parents, newborns and young children. A step-by-step guide on reaching and engaging fathers in family programs is available as part of the “How To” series in their website’s Resource section. The guide notes, “the rapid growth in fatherhood research, resources, and programs in recent years indicates an increased acceptance and understanding that responsible fathers play a vital role in their children’s development. Fathers are more than a nice, supportive add-on to the family system mostly managed by mothers. Fathers matter. They bring a special way of nurturing and bonding that must be encouraged and affirmed for the benefit of the children.”

The guide stresses that the best time to reach fathers is when they are experiencing change and are looking for support, particularly during the prenatal and postnatal periods. “Motivation is high and dads are more interested in accessing services and programs. This gives an opportunity to establish a good working relationship with fathers which encourages their involvement, educates them about the positive impact they will have on their children and connects them with other fathers.”

The manual is a step-by-step guide for family program staff to engage fathers. Each section includes:

  • Ideas from fathers
  • Ideas from practitioners, some with over a decade of experience
  • Reflections after each section to guide your work.
  • Program Perspectives give examples of effective programs currently operating

STEP ONE: Influences on Father Involvement

The following categories influence fathering capacity:

  • Mothers: “Fathers tend to be more involved in parenting when their partners are supportive and encouraging (Hoffman, 2011).” To address maternal concerns, the guide recommends:
    • Helping mothers understand that having dads more involved can be good for them and their child
    • Helping mothers see that their encouragement and support will help their partner to become the skilled and engaged parenting partner she needs
    • Discussing with mothers the benefits of her partner’s involvement in programming
    • Giving mothers a chance to share their ideas about fathers’ programming
    • His father: “Regardless of the situation men have grown up in, they are impacted by the presence, absence, action, words, and/or silence of their father.”
    • Life transitions: Men often cite the birth of their first child as the most significant life transition they go through. “Men who adapt well emotionally, psychologically, and relationally are more likely to be involved throughout their child’s life.”
    • Choice: Despite high motivation to be involved, the decisions “to change diapers, give baths, to turn off the TV and play with the kids, to come home a few minutes earlier than usual from work, or to read the same story every night” involves making active choices on a regular basis.
    • Confidence: “Confidence comes from experience and knowledge about child development…Fathers are more likely to develop confidence when they are engaged from conception and are able to spend time with and care for their babies. The nine months of pregnancy bring a lot of changes and it is good for men to gain knowledge of what is happening early on. This sets them up to be more confident in their skills when their baby arrives.”
    • Support: A network of supports including parents, their partner’s parents, peers, and social services they can access help fathers to become more involved with their families.
    • Work: Many fathers still identify providing for their families as being a key role. “Fathers’ involvement can be diminished by long work hours. Some research shows that lack of labour market success can have a negative impact on the fatherhood role (Fox, 2009).”
    • Gender: Non-heterosexual fathers often face invisibility in programs.
    • Parental Leave: “Fathers who take parental leave are doing an incredibly important thing for their children and the bond they have with them…. parental leave has emotional benefits for dad and has a positive impact on a child’s emotional and educational development. It also provides support for mothers (Statscan, 2011).”

STEP TWO: Know the Impact Fathers Have

“A consistent hook for fathers is talking with them about the kind of adult they want their child to become. Fathers appreciate the idea of legacy.” It recommends telling fathers about the research that shows their positive involvement can have positive impact on a number of aspects of child development, including cognitive, emotional, social development and physical health.

STEP THREE: Understand the Diversity of Fathers

“Men raising children can be grandfathers, uncles, step-dads, adoptive dads or big brothers. Fathers come from a diversity of situations that do not reflect the traditional family structure, including single fathers, stepfathers, newcomer fathers, young fathers, gay/bi/queer/transgendered fathers, Aboriginal fathers, etc….All types of fathers need to feel welcome, to be able to connect with other dads, and to have facilitators who they can identify with.”

Fathers can take on a diversity of roles at all stages of a child’s life. When planning programming, the guide suggests, “Consider the diversity of strengths and needs of fathers in your programming, as well as the diversity of backgrounds and family situations.” The discussion includes:

  1. The Provider Father (for the necessities of life)
  2. The Interactive Father (for human interaction)
  3. The Nurturing Father (for care and comfort)
  4. The Affectionate Father (for warmth and love)
  5. The Responsible Father (for guidance and protection)
  6. The Committed Father (for being important to someone) (Hoffman, 1999)

STEP FOUR: Acknowledge how Fathers Relate with their Children

“Providing a place for men to be with their children encourages one of the things that dads do best: connect with their children through play”, including:

  • Urging a child’s independence
  • Encouraging risk taking
  • Focusing on stimulation, protection, and self-control
  • Using their bodies as the toy (being climbed on, wrestling, etc.)

The guide notes, “It is not enough to play with and excite a child. Responding to children when they are in distress is a key attachment behavior. Healthy attachment between fathers and adolescents has been connected to dads’ level of play sensitivity when those children were toddlers (Grossman, et al, 2002).”

STEP FIVE: Assess your Father-friendliness

Barriers to dads’ participation in programming includes:

  • Stigma: “Some men sense a social stigma that can discourage them from asking for help, being part of a group, or playing with their children…. Some men experience shame when there are issues in the home that need addressing.”
  • Time: Pressures of time are mounting throughout society, and “finding time to attend a program or even read up on an issue is becoming more difficult. As one father commented, ‘Coming to the fathering group without my kids takes my time away from them even more.’”
  • Outnumbered: “Many men will not feel comfortable being the only guy in a room full of women and children. It’s important for staff members to be aware of this and to work hard to make fathers feel welcome and accepted.”
  • Work and finances: “Dads often find long hours, long commutes, and stressful work environments take them away from their time with their family. Work culture can make it difficult to take parental leave and to take time off for children’s medical appointments, school functions, etc.”
  • Value: Some men “may not see the link between involvement in programs and the parenting they do at home.”
  • Off the Hook: “Some fathers believe they are not expected to attend appointments, meetings and home visits…As one program coordinator said, ‘Men are able not to be there.’”
  • Environment: “First impressions matter to men…Some things that may turn a man off are:
    • An over-zealous welcome – Men don’t want to be put on the spot or centered out.
    • The physical layout – Men are less attracted to a program if the space feels crowded, the chairs are too small, if it is not comfortable to get down on the floor to play, or if the décor feels too feminine.”
    • Timing: There are exceptions, but evenings and weekends usually work best for dads’ programs.
    • Biases: “Fathers sometimes detect subtle signs of bias in family program environments. Men will be turned off if they sense that staff members operate out of a deficit perspective…making decisions for men or telling them how to parent instead of engaging them in planning or tapping into their innate ability and desire to be good dads.”
    • Cultural Influence: “fathers who are newcomers to Canada may bring with them expectations of the father’s role based on their culture. This can sometimes be at odds with expected parenting practices in Canada and can lead some fathers to be wary of social services programs.”
    • Father’s Age: “Fathering is different for a 22 year old, a 32 year old, and a 42 year old. These men will have different attitudes, peer influences, maturity levels, and experiences with their own fathers. These need to be taken into account in the planning of services, resources, and programs.”
    • Rural Areas: “Many rural sites report that weather, certain seasons, seasonal/out of town work, and transportation are barriers to reaching fathers in a consistent manner. Maintaining confidentiality, limited access to internet and cell service, and fewer programs available are also significant.”

STEP SIX: Outline Potential Strategies

“Success in engaging fathers requires being strategic, methodical, welcoming and relevant.” This section offers a wide range of practical suggestions in each of these areas.

Be Strategic:

  • Talk with the Dads
  • Determine your population of interest, for example:
    • Universal programs
    • Fathers at transition points
    • Fathers facing stressors
    • Unique issues (e.g. domestic violence programs or therapy for men and couples)
    • Create an identity (a good, catchy name)
    • Develop partnerships

Be Methodical:

  • Get staff on board
  • Staff development: “There is value in getting father-friendliness training for all staff, including managers, board members, funders, and other decision makers.”

Women Working with Men:

  • The guide offers these suggestions from women who have done this work:
    • Hear men out. Find out their interests.
    • Do more facilitation of discussions than teaching of content.
    • Be prepared for some men to challenge your role in this work from time to time.
    • Ask, “What do you think?” instead of “How do you feel?”
    • Keep discussions solution-focused, rather than idea or sharing focused.
    • Promote the message that dads can go to parent meetings, field trips, and volunteer at schools.
    • Start with the assumption that dad is important to his family and really wants to be part of the group.
    • Have a sense of humour.
    • Try to make icebreakers activity-based and relevant to the topic at hand.
    • Fathers who have been in women-led groups offer the following suggestions:
      • Do not openly challenge a man to respond in front of the class.
      • There is a danger in thinking too much about how men and women are different. This can lead to condescending behavior and change the focus of the group.
      • Men like to be direct and to the point.
      • Allow the men to be the experts of their lives and families.
      • Be patient, and curious about what they have to say. Learn from your learners.

Format of Service:

  • Dad-only programs (e.g. activities for dad and their kids, drop-in programs, dads’ conferences, parenting groups, prenatal classes for dads, and father discussion groups)
  • Integrating fathers into existing programs “means being more welcoming for fathers at family drop-ins, engaging fathers in conversations about issues their children are facing, offering parenting programs when the dads are available, and having posters and resources that speak directly to dads.”

Diversity of Opt-Ins:

  • “Although one program may not be able to do everything, increasing the points of contact will allow fathers to connect in ways they are comfortable with, such as:
    • Offering father-child activities that give dads time with their children, evenings and weekends. “By offering different times, fathers can attend when they are available.”
    • Providing parenting groups for fathers.
    • Using the internet to share information and provide quality resources for dads.
    • Using social media (e.g. Twitter & Facebook) to share information about parenting and about programs

Activity-based Programming:

  • “In general, fathers want to be playing and teaching in very active and concrete ways. Activities can be the doorway fathers use to enter a program.” Many activity-based programs require good connections with community partners.

Be Guy-friendly:

  • Create an environment that is attractive to dads:
    • Make the centre as open and spacious as possible
    • Use neutral colours on the walls
    • Offer magazines that guys will not feel embarrassed to pick up
    • Put up posters showing fathers in positive relationships with their children
    • Ensure a baby-change areas is easily accessible for dads
    • Display resources, booklets and pamphlets that deal with issues dads may face
    • Ask a few dads to walk through the centre, office or waiting room to identify attractive or unattractive features, and make use of suggestions that fit the overall purpose of the centre.

Keep in Touch:

  • “Personal contact is very important. Many centres admit that the face-to-face invitation or conversation clinches a father’s attendance.”
    • If a dad misses a scheduled event, a phone call or quick email is a nice touch that is rarely rejected.
    • Email regular updates of scheduled events
    • Call fathers who have not been around for recent events
    • Send notes to fathers with their children
    • Have specific questions for dads during pre/postnatal appointments, interviews and home visits
    • Encourage fathers to attend prenatal appointments and confirmation of the pregnancy
    • Offer classes and programs in places like libraries, schools, religious centres, or even local restaurants. These may be more accessible to fathers who may be uncomfortable with going to an agency or centre.

Practical Stuff:

  • Forms: Reflect diversity in families by having forms say, for example, “parent 1” and “parent 2”. “This way everyone feels welcomed. It sends the message that both matter and either may be contacted if necessary.”
  • Food: “Meals provide a place to talk and give the guys something to do while talking around the table. Meals also require the dads to feed their children, which is an important part of the bond between father and child.”
  • Access: Consider ways to help men get to programs (e.g. bus tickets or pick up).

Be Relevant:

  • Some ways in which fathers’ needs and interests may differ somewhat from those of mothers include:
    • Goal oriented: use charts, pictures and examples to make information practical and accessible.
    • Timely information: the impending and/or recent birth of a child and other transition points include the toddler stage and heading off to school.
    • Teaching their child: “Fathers are often focused on their children’s ability (potential) to be ready for school. Engage father through literacy, numeracy, and science activities.” Offer charts, graphs, videos, pictures and printed follow-up activities to take home.
    • Facilitation: There are advantages to engaging male facilitators for dads’ groups, but it can be difficult for programs to find them or fund a position to hire them. Some strategies that have been used successfully to find a point of contact for dads interested in or joining the program include:
      • Looking to community partners for volunteers
      • Asking board members or other stakeholders
      • Approaching partners of staff
      • Finding a dad who is committed and consistent in the program to volunteer to be the face of the program
      • Ownership: This can be encouraged by:
        • Involving the men in a leadership team that plots the course for the program and activities
        • Giving the dads a project to complete
        • Delegating tasks (e.g. cooking and preparing meals or leading crafts)
        • A Word of Caution: Avoid intentional discussions about occupations in the group.
        • In the Reflections section, the guide offers a checklist of potential strategies for program staff to reach fathers.

CONNECT WITH MEN: Connect with Dads – Marketing to Men

It’s About how Men Shop:

  • Men “tend to not do much grazing or looking around….They must see the program as practical, to the point, having a clear purpose, and of value to themselves and their families. They are less likely to respond to something that seems too self-reflective or sounds like a support group. So keep titles and descriptions short but accurate and focused on the children or the family.”

Involve All Male Caregivers:

  • Look for phrases that catch all the men who are actively involved in raising children (e.g. “Me and My Dad: Activities for all guys raising kids.”

Who Can Carry the Message:

  • Mothers, nannies, and grandparents can take flyers, resources and information home to dads.” Even better, have the children take something home to dad.”
  • There are many community partners who can help spread the word (e.g. local stores, religious centres, doctors’ offices and other medical services, local sports complexes, arenas, community centres, gyms and clubs.
  • Offer “lunch and learn” events at local businesses
  • Word of mouth often works the best

Use the Media:

  • Request interview on local radio or TV
  • Write articles for local newspapers or websites
  • PSAs for local TV or radio stations

Stay in Touch through Social Media

  • “Having a known and respected man in the community speaking about the importance of fathers is very helpful. This person can be a voice for fathers, speak at fathering events, and give support in many ways to reaching fathers.”

STEP EIGHT: Signs of Success

  • Some marks of a mature, vibrant, well-developed fathering program include:
    • Attention is focused on the dads as men, not just in their role as fathers
    • The program values the role of mothers.
    • The program has staff time dedicated to engaging fathers.
    • The program is consistently providing training opportunities for staff to keep up-to-date on new resources, ideas, and innovation in working with fathers.
    • The program recognizes and responds to the diversity of fathers.
    • The program creates a father-friendly atmosphere.
    • The program forges partnerships with other community agencies.
    • The program does regular self-reflection work on their work with fathers, highlighting successes and adjusting to barriers as they come along.

STEP NINE: Consider Key Issues

Preconception Period:

  • “87% of men aged 15-44 who currently do not have children hope to become a father one day (Pew Research, 2011) . Men in the preconception stage can benefit from information about how to improve their health… Men also need to prepare for sharing the responsibilities of caring for a baby…A new baby will impact work, lifestyle, and finances.” Questions to consider include:
    • Will one parent be a stay-at-home parent?
    • Will the parental leave be shared?
    • How flexible are their employers with medical appointments and emergencies?
    • Does work provide for drug plans, dental and life insurance?
    • Is their life insurance up to date and adequate?

Prenatal Period

  • The manual offers a range of suggestions service providers can offer to encourage fathers to plan an active role in the pregnancy.

Postnatal Period

  • Fathers have many different expectations about parenthood, but these do not necessarily come to pass, and there can be disappointment. “People are not as interested in their baby as they had hoped, their employer is not being flexible with then, they do not have as much time with the baby as planned, and the relationship with mum is strained.” The manual stresses the importance of offering realistic guidance and support to enable dads and mums to deal with the transition to parenthood. Parenting support groups are of great value at this time and have shown to significantly reduce the likelihood of divorce.”

Postpartum Mood Disorders

  • Dads are helped by being made aware of postpartum mood disorders (PPMD), affecting about 25% of families. Ideally this information can be made available during pregnancy. The guide gives a range of suggestions to encourage dads in supporting their partner.
  • Dads, particularly new fathers, can also experience postpartum depressions, particularly if they have partners who are also suffering with PPMD (Paulson and Bazemore, 2010). The manual stresses that, if symptoms last more than two weeks, families need to consult with a doctor. “Since paternal depression is not widely acknowledged, it is important that more efforts be made for screening and referrals. There is growing evidence that paternal depression may have significant emotional, behavioural and developmental effects on children.”