Resources for professionals

Processes to Engage Dads

How Fathers Matter

What Dads Need to Know

Becoming More Dad-Friendly

Services that Engage Fathers

  • the fundamental shift in families

  • the problem with the infant as client approach

  • the myth of the missing man

  • why dads aren't attending

  • systems that keep dads from their infants

  • parenting services perpetuating distant dads

  • including whanau but still missing fathers

  • agencies' natural resistance to change

  • staff concerns about dealing with fathers

  • the downside of deficit targeting

  • "we can't focus on dads because not all children have a father"

  • privacy: the exclusion non-issue

  • strategies for helping men be great fathers

  • inclusive administration

  • prepared staff

  • programme design

  • what works to enrol fathers

Processes that Engage Dads

 

This section offers discussion around getting and keeping the attention of fathers and includes brief descriptions of programme ideas that can be adapted for use by organisations.

It may be useful to note that in a survey reviewed by the Families Commission, fathers described support services available to their children as being “mother-oriented” and not as friendly towards fathers as they are towards mothers.96 The survey also revealed that part of fathers’ reticence about approaching a service provider came from not knowing how the services operated or what the process would be. This is important to take into consideration if we want to engage with fathers. Interestingly, the same study found that while the surveyed fathers found approaching a service provider daunting, the more they went, the more comfortable they felt. Addressing that daunted feeling men have about parenting services is a key.

 

Learning from Childbirth Education Classes

 

Whether an agency provides childbirth education classes or not, there are some lessons to be gained by considering how they are promoted, what goes on in them, and what goes on once they end. Many expectant fathers accompany their partners to these courses. For almost all of these men, the childbirth education course is the only occasion they will ever cross a parenting support agency’s threshold. That thousands of expecting fathers come for 12-14 hours of classes every year but never return after that provides an opportunity to reflect on what brought them there in the first place, and why that is the last we see of them.

 

Regardless of the actual course content, the messages the men receive at them are critical. How they are welcomed; the acknowledgment of them as fathers (not just the supporters of their partners); the images he sees on the walls; the attitudes, delivery and body language of the educator – all of these are critical to his experience. What a father feels and thinks about these classes (or any parental support service) determines his willingness to consider other things the organisation has on offer.

 

His initial (often subtle) experience with a service provider is also important because it will shape his way of thinking about his role as a partner and father. If he experiences the course/service as being for his partner and that his role is to support her, then he will feel that he has fulfilled this function once the class ends.

However, if:

  • he is welcomed as a person in his own right

  • he is given recognition that his life is also changing hugely with the introduction of his baby

  • he can see that there are services there that could help him during this period of stress and uncertainty

  • he thinks there is real value for his child if he participates …

  • then he may think that the service provider has something further of value for him

 

Antenatal services (including childbirth education classes) could help to make him feel valued as a father and as an individual by offering information and assistance about becoming a father, learning to care for a baby and adjusting to a changed relationship with his partner.

 

In contrast, expecting fathers attending these commonly say that there was little in them about becoming or being a father. When asked what they thought of these classes, men often respond in terms of how they thought their partner had found it and what good it did her. Very few say that the experience helped to prepare them to be fathers.97 The messages that primarily come through from the childbirth education class is about the woman getting through the birth. A successful birth is the intention of the childbirth education course, but these are the single opportunity we have to build support for the family while the father is actually present. We would be more successful at supporting the mother and the baby if the father didn’t come away feeling like a spare tyre: good to have as back-up in the boot but not necessary for normal running.

 

Antenatal classes are a time when these expectant fathers are eager for information about what living with a baby is going to be like and how to be the father their baby needs. If get gets messages that imply that he peripheral or that becoming a father is not consequential or is less meaningful than it is for their partner becoming a mother, this will have the effect of fathers feeling like the secondary parent, an add-on. If that is his experience in the antenatal class, it’s little wonder he will think the service provider has no real interest in him and that mothers and babies are the real deal.

 

Many childbirth educators ask a friendly father to come in and talk to the expecting fathers about his experience of the birth of his baby. Even though these short sessions provided by a volunteer are ad hoc, random in content and have no quality control, expecting fathers often say this was the best 20 minutes of the whole 12- to 14-hour course. This surely indicates how poorly these classes accommodate fathers.

 

The tragedy of this is that we actually had fathers in our venue, they were at a transitional point in their life, they were emotionally open and eager for information – and we didn’t give it to them. We not only didn’t give them what they needed, but we have sealed the deal that they won’t be back. Finishing with them at the time – once they made an effort to come and just when they are embarking on fatherhood – is a squandered opportunity. These men will never be as available again.

 

Providing a Gender-Balanced Service Model

 

Two parents is a very small “village” to raise a child in. This very small village is going to do better if both the parents are on the same page. That means both of them getting good information delivered in ways that work for each of them, as well as appropriate support so that they can act well and make good decisions around their child.

 

Parenting services have an infrastructure and model that works for many mothers. Adapting these to better incorporate the child’s father requires less effort, fewer resources and will be more effective than trying to create something paralell or altogether separate for fathers. A gender-integrated service model is not only less intimidating for a father, it better reflects how parents are at home.

 

Engaging with fathers doesn’t mean aiming for a 50/50 gender split of people coming through your doors. What it means is making a commitment and putting resources into including father-related content, expecting and welcoming fathers when they arrive and being open to adding some for-fathers services if they are called for. What needs developing are better ways to adapt services so that also work for fathers. Making provision for fathers within existing programmes means that the wheel does not have to be re-invented, it’s more a matter of adjusting the tyre pressure to accommodate another adult passenger. It is about thinking that we are not about mothers, we are about children. Making deliberate choices and efforts to modernise so that services better reflect and meet the needs of modern families can probably be done within what is already there by making some relatively minor adjustments.

 

Three main things that agencies can do to implement a more father-oriented service are:

  • get his attention

  • provide a father-friendly atmosphere

  • provide services that appeal and are value to him

 

Getting Dad's Attention

 

Find His Connection Points

 

If the agency has a relationship with someone in the family or whanau – like his partner – this presents a point of connection to the father. His partner can be given notices, information, invitations and resources aimed at him. The child can take things home (or things can be sent in their child’s name) that are addressed to their father.

 

Clearly identifying to mothers that the agency recognises fathers as integral to their children’s well being and wants to get the fathers’ attention will alert mothers that (if they have a cordial relationship) they are a conduit between the agency and their partner. Having the mothers physical presence offers a link to their partners.

 

Even though the father may not present, we can still try to engage him by providing materials and resources that are clearly directed at him. Paying attention to the father in this way sends him the message that the agency values him and considers him a client and included in their service.

 

A Word on Fathers in Parents Groups

 

A father bringing his child to a daytime parents group or programme is almost always welcome. But if these are run by women and attended primarily by mothers, even the most self-confident and capable father will, over time, find these uncomfortable and probably stop coming. Perhaps he feels judged by the mothers, perhaps he feels the mothers’ disapproval if he doesn’t do things the way they do. Maybe fathers don’t relate to the things the mothers talk about.

 

There is no denying that there are fundamental differences between men and women and part of this is often reflected in how men and women behave with children. Children enjoy that difference and if the children don’t get enough father-time at home, a male can be a big attraction to toddlers at a parents’ group. This may cause mothers to bristle or feel jealous. With leadership from the organisation, the diversity a father brings can be acknowledged and supported. If we want the benefit of fathers attending parenting groups, even occasionally, they need to be sincerely welcomed and appreciated.

 

It’s unlikely that fathers will attend parenting groups in large numbers. This is mostly because there are far greater numbers of mothers than fathers staying at home during the day with young children and the hours of these groups are held collect only the at-home parent. But supporting the fathers  who do attend by validating the things he does – like the way he handles his baby or how he sets longer limits for his toddler before he intercedes – may help. If there is content or curriculum in groups, including content information that validates fathers, will help him feel he is in the right place.

 

Resources that Say “Dads”

 

Providing father-oriented printed and digital material, as well as having resources specifically for fathers (can be sent home via his partner if he doesn’t attend) is a way of acknowledging them and improving the chances of fathers taking notice of other information provided by the organisation.

 

Many men are put off by wordy documents and won’t read them. Information sent home is more likely to be read if it is short, plain English and to the point.

 

If a notice doesn’t specifically indicate it is for him (or “To the Parents” rather than to “Mum & Dad” he may dismiss it without reading. Parenting resources or information that do not say fathers specifically will feed his assumption that the agency or service is only about the mother and the baby.

 

Administration: Get His Details

 

How clients are enrolled with an agency is important and a fundamental step towards engagement. Enrollment forms should have room for at least two full parent profiles so that the contact details of both parents are recorded right from registration. If the mother is reluctant to provide her partner’s details, find out why. You could explain that this is standard procedure and part of the agency’s best practice as well as being beneficial for her child’s wellbeing. This may be a time to introduce to her some of the information in Section 1, How Fathers Matter.

 

There will be situations where the mother will say “he wouldn’t be interested”. This may or may not be true, but initially, the point of this is for the agency to show interest in him not the other way around. There will be little chance of showing interest in him if there is no way of contacting him. If client registration forms do not have space to record the contact details of both parents, they need to be re-designed.

 

Staff doing enrollments are more likely to follow through with getting both parents’ details if they are aware of the value and importance fathers bring to their children. They are likely to be more motivated and to do this well if they are familiar with the material in Section 1, How Fathers Matter.

 

Referring to a father (or mother, for that matter) as “care giver” puts them on equal terms with a babysitter. Using the term “mother’s support person” (as is in some childbirth education classes - so as not to distress women who may not have a partner) may be intended to be inclusive, but it is not an accurate or sufficient description and obscures the couple relationship. Fathers find these terms as dismissive and demeaning. If the intention is to draw fathers in, referring to him as the father or dad is a good place to begin.

 

An Invitation that is an Expectation: Put His Name on It

 

If the agency wants fathers to participate, the father has to feel genuinely invited. Most men understand an invitation “to the parents” of an under-three-year-old to mean “to the mother” and probably won’t see this as directed at him. Female staff may not understand this because they feel that by inviting “parents” they have invited the father. And mothers may not notice this nuance because they do feel invited. However, in the minds of fathers, the terms “parent” or even “parents” in the context of young children generally means mothers. His assumption is reinforced when, in practice, it is primarily mothers who respond and there are only women running the programme or service.

 

Fathers are more likely to respond if they are directly invited. The father needs to be communicated with distinctly and equally as the child’s mother is. All e-contact needs to be addressed to both parents. If they have separate email addresses, messages should be sent to each. Postal communication should be addressed to the father and the mother if they live at the same address and sent separately if they live in different households. Inviting “Dads and Mums” (or better, their actual names: John and Jane) acknowledges the father, recognises him and states that the agency is mindful of and interested in him. It also implies that if he comes he will be expected, made to feel welcome and the agency is prepared for him.

 

The intention is to create an expectation among staff and clients alike that fathers will be there.

 

Make it About His Child, not About Him

 

Putting the focus on the children, their partners or an activity will help fathers feel that they won’t be singled out. Most men will not turn up if they think the spotlight will be on them.

 

Men are less likely to come if they think it indicates that they are deficient and need help. Most men aren’t asking to be fixed themselves (no matter how much fixing they may need). Promoting fathers’ strengths, the difference they make to their children and their importance role in their family will make them feel valued and that they have something to offer. These kind of things speak to fathers.

 

Get the Right Person to Ask Him

 

If the father’s partner is unable to influence him to participate, there may be someone else who can. Fathers are more likely to pay attention and respond when someone they know and respect asks them. Since fathers tend to be reluctant starters, it can help to find a person who has some influence to ask them. This may be someone:

  • they respect

  • they have a binding relationship with

  • who has some authority over/with them

  • they feel an obligation to

 

This might be a relative (kaumatua or kuia?), workmate (boss?), their sports club captain or coach, or someone else in their whanau to whom it is difficult for them to say “no”. Discovering who that persuasive person or linking group is part of the work.

 

Invite Him Again

 

If you get no response to invitations you’ve sent to the father, try ringing up and talking to him. Personal contact is far more compelling than a printed notice or email. He will take greater notice if he sees a demonstration that he is wanted and that his presence or input is wanted and valued. This will be made clearer to him if staff make the effort to talk directly to him. Even men who have said they are not interested may respond once they are personally approached and understand they really are wanted.

 

Have a Male Review Your Promotional Material

 

It is important to be aware that the printed material produced by parenting organisations may have a gender bias that women are unaware of. Asking for men’s feedback on text and graphics (including signage, brochures and ads) may suggest improved ways of normalising fathers in and around the organisation.

 

Testimonials from men may help provide incentives in promotional material. Be aware that fathers may not relate to celebrities or other “successful” men because they may assume these men are different from them or have some advantage they don’t have. Good role models may just be ordinary men with whom your target fathers can identify. Using local men in promotional material can be effective.

 

Demonstrating Dad-Friendliness

 

Timing

 

If fathers are going to participate in something, the services need to be offered at times that work for them. Services offered between 9am and 3pm implies that they are meant for women. These hours may suit staff and mothers with school-age children but they exclude the majority fathers. Even fathers who aren’t working may feel self-conscious attending during hours that might show that they are unemployed. Offering appointments or services around lunchtime or at the end of the working day signifies a willingness to be accommodating and may motivate men to participate.

 

If given enough notice, men who are convinced that something is important are more likely to try and make arrangements around their work. That said, some industries and employers are quite inflexible and meeting outside of normal working hours may be the only time available to those fathers.

 

Operating outside of school hours certainly presents challenges. How these challenges are met is a reflection of the commitment of the agency to improve their service to children by better engaging with fathers.

 

Venue and What Is on Display

 

Parenting support venues may make women feel welcome and comfortable, but commonly feel intimidatingly like “women’s space” to men. Even the most confident men can feel they are intruders in an unmistakably female environment. To a man, entering parenting support service rooms can feel like walking into a ladies’ restroom. Female staff who only have mothers as clients may underestimate the effect of this. Getting feedback on how your rooms feel to fathers is one way to consider how to make rooms feel welcoming and not intimidating.

 

Men notice posters and other illustrations around rooms and offices. Displaying images of fathers suggests that they are in the right place. Having resources in view which are designed for fathers (like the Great Fathers “In Your Hands” DVD package and comic book “New Dads: a Journey into the Unknown”, the SKIP series of new father pamphlets and their “Great Fathers Start Early” poster, the Father & Child Trust’s “Why Fathers” booklets, and magazines like The Shed, Mana or even car or fishing magazines) can provide signposts that indicate to a hesitant father that men do come here.

 

When considering posters on the walls, are there sound reasons for fathers to be less represented than mothers? Having one or two posters that include or feature fathers may seem an adequate nod to fathers, but when almost all mothers with infants have a partner at home, it’s reasonable for this social fact to be reflected in the balance of images on display. If we make fathers invisible by excluding them from mothers and babies images, then we are demonstrating that we don’t see them.

 

Because a minority of mothers do not have a partner is not sufficient reason to ignore that the majority of women do. Depicting and connecting with those fathers is more honest than leaving them out of the picture.

 

If fathers are to feel welcome, perhaps holding events or services in a venue where fathers feel more familiar with would be more effective. These may be sports clubs, marae, community halls, back rooms in pubs, libraries, schools, church halls, work place, or anywhere else where men already belong and are welcome. Holding an event in a place where fathers are already familiar – not foreign territory – can remove a significant barrier.

 

His Interest Groups

 

Men are much less likely to present if they don’t know the other people who are going to be there. Providing a service in conjunction with a group the father already belongs to will make it more attractive or at least remove a serious obstacle. This could be a cultural group, a church group, a sports club, hapu, a workplace, even a gang. Targeting an established group means that familiarity and group cohesion may already exists and removes some of the reluctance associated with thinking he will be uncomfortable with strangers. This is also why fathers are far more likely to attend something (like a childbirth education class) that his partner will be at: there will be one person there he knows!

 

Hospitality

 

Providing food can be a good draw for fathers. Food can provide them with an excuse for coming, and eating can provide a neutral place for conversations. Pizzas or barbecues can work.

 

It is inappropriate and distracting to provide alcohol or to arrange a fathers’ session over a beer as drinking (even if not in excess) will influence the tone and expectatiln of the conversation. Such an environment changes the dynamic and may make it difficult if not impossible to keep to topic. While drinking alcohol is a social norm for most New Zealanders, it should not be modelled as appropriate behaviour around babies and young children. Meaningful discussions about children and parenting are unilkely to be enhanced by alcohol.

 

Demographics

 

People feel more confident and comfortable in settings in which they have something in common like culture, ethnicity or socio-economic status. Men prefer to be among their peers and not to feel that they are lesser or the odd ones out. This is similar to the problem with being the one dad at a parenting group. Fathers will be more willing to participate if they believe they share attitudes, interests, education levels or other identity with the others who are there. Having a cultural process (tikanga, for example) or following protocols that are familiar to a particular group will help fathers feel like they belong and more willing to participate.98

 

A Sincere but Low-Key Welcome

 

An over-zealous welcome can make men uncomfortable. They may appreciate being acknowledged, but most men will not want to stand out. And if there is a small minority of fathers (either as clients or on staff), do not to assume they wants to carry everything to do with men or boys.

 

Men would rather be occupied than idle. Giving them something to do or to be in charge of can give them a sense of belonging. Just having a small role in the proceedings can make a man feel useful and needed. That said, it’s best not to make him feel that he is just there to do the heavy lifting.

 

When introducing men, avoid discussions about what they do for paid work. A man’s occupation is a social definition of who they are and men will automatically compare themselves and make assumptions about abilities and income levels based on their job. Getting men to say what they do for a living is more likely to cause distinctions and separation between some of the group or polarize them into small groups of those with similar work experience. It is more strategic to focus on what have in common: being fathers or expectant fathers.

 

If you re asking fathers to introduce themselves, perhaps suggest they say something about:

where they are from originally and how long they have lived where they live now
the names and ages of their children or, if they are expecting, the due date
what experience/history they have with babies or toddlers

 

Be aware that men are as sensitive to stereotypical bias towards men as women are to sexism. Men will back off if staff:

  • operate from a deficit perspective towards men

  • make them feel lectured at

  • use humour that depicts men as stupid, inept or incapable

  • see fathers as the mothers’ helpers

  • assume that fathers are less knowledgeable, skilled or interested than mothers

 

Using humour can be an effective way of getting a group to relax and share a laugh. But men will be sensitive to humour that uses male that implies men are gormless (“have you heard about the dad who took two hours to change the baby?”). These may get a laugh, but not buy-in from fathers.

 

About Dads Groups

 

Organisations wanting to provide something for dads may decide to start a dads. These often work for mums, why not dads? Such an initiative may be well intentioned, but it is rare to find an active, functioning dads group. Those that work are probably connected to some other interest like a sport, marae, church or even a health condition – not just being random dads with their kids of similar age. Even the term “group” is problematic for fathers. It implies something on-going and has a ring of commitment – something the fathers of young children have already used up on their family and job.

 

The intention behind a dads group may be admirable, but dads groups are unlikely to work if the organisation isn’t already integrating fathers in other ways. Father inclusiveness is about having information fathers want, it’s about being a place where men feel expected and made to feel like the organisation acknowledges and cares about them. If these things are not in place, an agency-related dads group may just be a nod towards fathers with minimal effort and without having to make any change real change to anything else the agency does.

 

Being father-friendly is chiefly about incorporating fathers into much of what the agency offers, not giving them a single option they can go off and do on their own.

 

Differentiate Parenting Support from "Struggling Dads" Services

 

Fathers can be attracted to services that help if they are having family legal problems, custody issues, child support or if they are being denied access to their children. It can be heartbreaking for a man to lose the ability to be with his children and this can be so distressing and unjustified that he seeks out a support service. Such services need skilled facilitators who are conversant with the relevant legal statutes and who are able to work one-on-one with fathers in a counselling or legal role. There are only a handful of these very valuable services in New Zealand.

 

These or other forms of support for fathers who are struggling (like supervised access or anger management courses) are important but probably should be held at arms length from father-inclusive parenting services or programmes. If the aim is to make parenting services attractive and used by fathers as readily as mothers use them, the services need to be described and promoted as “just what New Zealand dads do,” not something that targets struggling men. If fathers think that services are directed at them because they need fixing or because they are bad dads, then they won’t come.

Father-Friendly Staff and Facilitation

 

Men feel more comfortable if they aren’t the only man present. Having other men around (staff or clients) says a lot to a father.

 

Having a female/male facilitation team can model good gender cooperation and respectful communication. Such a delivery team will go a long way towards telling fathers they are in the right place. In a perfect world, all services offered to parents would be co-facilitated by a female/male team. Getting staff gender balance in children’s services may be impossible in the current social climate, but being open and intentional about recruiting males on staff may have never been seriously attempted. Some service organisations have men employed, but these are usually in backroom roles like ITC, accounting or marketing, not as practitioners.

 

Male facilitators might be found among the board or committee members or other stakeholders, or these people might make recommendations. Partners of staff or fathers who have used the services may be willing to balance a team. There may be men who work in other social service agencies who can do bits and pieces. Requiring such facilitators/staff to have qualifications around this work will probably mean you will be unable to fill roles with a males and it may be worth considering what trade-offs could be made to remedy the low levels of males in the sector.

 

We should also take note that women have a historical tradition of doing unpaid, volunteer work which most men do not. It has to be considered that men may be more likely to act as a facilitator or co-facilitator if they are paid or somehow compensated, especially if their commitment is expected to be on-going.

 

If a male staff member is hired (or a volunteer is found), it’s best not to load everything to do with fathers onto him. The value of having male staff is to normalise the presence of men and to help integrate some male thinking into service areas. Pigeon-holing the sole male staff (or volunteer) as the go-to person for anything to do with fathers displays the same imbalance we are trying to put behind us. It may also lead to him feeling isolated, overwhelmed and possibly without support.

 

Getting the right male staff may not be possible but that doesn’t mean programmes or services for fathers can’t go ahead. Well trained and supported female staff can work successfully with fathers. Such women need to have good gender awareness, display interest and respect for fathers and be able to communicate well and draw men out.

 

Beginning by talking about valuing a balanced gender model and working towards it can help create awareness and alter attitudes and balance of an organisation’s culture.