Podium: Fathers ought to be engaged

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From a speech by

the Institute for

Public Policy Research fellow to a

National Children's Bureau conference

As you'll have noticed, fatherhood is a hot topic with the Government. Yet I think there's a great deal of confusion about fathers - even resistance to involving them.

I have, recently, even seen it asserted that to consider special policies for fathers is out of order because mothers don't have any. I have to say I cannot agree: it seems to me that, in parenting education and support, services are overwhelmingly designed with mothers in mind and fail to take fathers into account. Even the research in this field generally looks mainly or exclusively at mothers. There is work done on fathers, but it is hidden away in a ghetto called "fatherhood" and is rarely drawn upon in mainstream provision or by mainstream researchers.

In mainstream parenting education and support services, I regularly note the use of the word "parent" to mean "mother". I'm sure the intention is good - that parent is being used instead of mother in a conscious effort to include fathers. Sadly, I think it sometimes has the opposite effect. It can exclude fathers further, by masking their relatively rare use of services.

Using "parent" for "mother" can also reinforce complacency. For example if a "mother and toddler" group is renamed a "parent and toddler" group and still only attracts one father every six months, it can easily confirm prejudices about fathers not being interested, rather than help to stimulate providers to look critically at the design or delivery of the programme itself.

The waters are further muddied by the fact that, in terms of parenting education, course content will often be equally and similarly relevant to men and women. Children's needs and the facts about child development remain constant, whether the parents considering them are male or female. Nor do mothers and fathers parent in particularly different ways. Couples tend to develop a communal parenting style, and there are far greater differences in styles between parents of the same sex, than between parents of different sexes.

Power is also an issue. I have been intrigued to note that where gender is addressed in parenting education and support, it is invariably from a perspective that sees women as powerless.

Women are commonly depicted as victims, forced to grind away at those parts of parenting that the fathers airily discard after they have picked out the best bits for themselves - and personally unable, due to patriarchal power structures, to assert themselves against their male partners.

The research shows that where a father's participation at home is low, this does not depend exclusively, or even mainly, on his personal willingness. Men's involvement in intimate parenting is determined by many things: by their own and their partners' working patterns; by women's competence - on the whole, the more competent the mother, the less involved the father; by the happiness of the marriage and so on. Certainly, the man's own personal aspirations and beliefs will be part of the picture but, interestingly, they are less salient than their partner's genuine aspirations for, and beliefs about, men as fathers!

When I see a man performing his conventional role as the family's main or sole breadwinner, I see above all a man who is missing out - someone who is likely to be funding his own alienation from his children.

If we are sincere about engaging fathers, what we are talking about is no small beer. Fatherhood is not an extra module, that can be added on to existing programmes.

Any New Deal for Children that attempted to deliver their fathers to them via parenting education and support, would mean thinking through all family services in completely new ways. Substantial resources would have to be allocated to engage men as clients. In turn, that would involve changing the gender balance for the workforce, drawing in substantial numbers of men as staff. That would mean job losses for women, and demands on resources currently focused on mothers.

Engaging fathers successfully also means challenging negative stereotypes of men as fathers at a national level. Family services would need to engage gender watchdogs, to challenge stereotypical thinking about fathers as intimate parents.

Would all this be worth it? Since today I am invited to give my personal vision - I will say that I think it is. Or rather, that unless parenting education and support services engage fully with fathers, they may not get very far.