HOW AND WHY FATHER ENGAGEMENT MATTERS
BY LANA BEASLEY, PHD
Father figure involvement in parenting is associated with better outcomes for children, including better social-emotional, behavioral and psychological outcomes and improved academic performance. Although home visiting (HV) programs have traditionally focused on pregnant women and first-time mothers, fathers can also benefit from these parenting supports. However, engaging fathers in HV programs presents unique challenges. Young fathers may have relationship instability, logistical obstacles associated with low income/resource and developmental immaturity, which make engagement in parenting and HV programs more difficult. Not only can HV improve fathers’ parenting skills alongside mothers, but the inclusion of fathers in HV can improve their parental involvement and foster a healthier family dynamic.
Core constructs that impact father figure engagement were found in several Oklahoma HV programs: Children First, Parents as Teachers and SafeCare. Specifically, it was shared that father figures may work long hours, resulting in the need for after-hours or weekend visits. To support father figures in joining a visit, it is first essential to formally invite the father figure. Inviting father figures might include an invitation through the mother but should also include reaching out directly to father figures. When father figures attend a visit, the importance of including them in the conversation was made clear. It was reported that questions are often directed at mothers, but it is imperative to ask questions directly to father figures. This acknowledges the importance of their caregiving role. Teaching information and explaining the importance of the HV program was another key factor in engagement. It was also shared that it is important to praise father figures to help build confidence in their parenting role. In thinking of these engagement strategies, it became obvious that they are best used together. For example, when HV providers can truly engage father figures, they are able to orchestrate a beautiful dance of praising father figures for attendance, directing questions to them, praising when information is shared and sharing important parenting information.
It is evident from interviewing mothers, father figures, and HV providers that we need to think about the culture of fatherhood. How do we move toward looking at father figures as playing a prominent role in caregiving? The current research indicates that changing the culture starts with inviting and encouraging father figures to be involved in caregiving activities, praising them for their ability to support their child(ren) and educating and supporting father figures in learning how to increase their caregiving responsibilities. It is important to remember that not all father figures had a strong model for supporting children, which can make a parenting role seem daunting. To help mitigate this, it is the responsibility of everyone to make positive comments to father figures. So, when you see a sweet father figure in the environment, don’t be afraid to say something nice. Saying things like “you are such a great father,” “look at how happy your child is when spending time with you,” and “I can tell how much you enjoy being with your child” are simple things you can say to a father figure to make him feel more confident in his wonderful role as a father figure!
Author information: Lana Beasley, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Oklahoma State University in the Department of Human Development and Family Science. She is also a Community Resilience Trainer with the Potts Family Foundation