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The Father Factor

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Christopher A. Brown

Chris is President of National Fatherhood Initiative. He is married to Kayla, has two teenage daughters and lives in Texas.
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Recent Posts

The Opportunity Costs of Absent Fathers

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

There are 24 million children (1 in 3) who will go to sleep tonight in homes in which their fathers do not live. That's a staggering number. But the problem of father absence doesn't only affect those 24 million children. It also affects the children living with fathers who are spiritually and emotionally absent from their children's lives.

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Research
shows that children with absent fathers are more likely than their peers growing up with their fathers to suffer from a range of ills, such as poverty, poor school performance, drug and alcohol abuse, and the list goes on. But, once again, it's not just physical absence or presence that makes a difference. Children who live with fathers who are but a mere presence in their homes suffer as well. The level of involvement matters; for example, a landmark study by the U.S. Department of Education found that children whose fathers are more involved in their education have better grades than fathers who are involved in their education to a lesser degree.

The costs of father absence matter, a lot. These costs have a name -- opportunity costs. An opportunity cost is any cost that results from a person's decision to do something instead of something else. From another perspective, it's the benefit a person sacrifices to do something else. When fathers are absent from their children's lives -- physically, emotionally, or spiritually -- it costs them dearly. They give up the benefits of being involved, responsible, committed dads -- such as the love of their children and the joy of seeing their children grow into adults -- and the benefits of mothers' love in raising children together.

To be fair, there are some rare instances of father absence in which fathers don't choose to be absent. Fathers' levels of involvement must also be understood within the context of how they provide for their family. A father, for example, who must work two jobs to support his family has only so much bandwidth to be physically present. The vast majority of instances of father absence, however, involve fathers who choose to do something other than be present -- to be somewhere else physically or in their minds than where they should be.

What makes father absence as a choice so incredibly heinous are the opportunity costs of it for children, the mothers left to care for absent fathers' children on their own, and our society. If the costs only accrued to absent fathers, the National Fatherhood Initiative wouldn't exist. But the costs don't only accrue to these fathers. Like the ripples that result from the rocks fathers and children throw into and skip across ponds, the impact of father absence is felt far and wide. Children, mothers, and our society need involved fathers. We can't spare a single one.

To all those fathers who have made a choice to be absent, I implore you to reverse course. Think about the opportunity costs to you. More importantly, think about the opportunity costs of your choice to your children, the mother of your children, and our society.

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The costs of father absence is high. Visit our Father Facts Page to learn more and support NFI’s work to connect father to child.

Like this post? Subcribe to the FatherSOURCE  email for tips on helping dads!

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Research to Application: The Power of the "Deviant Dad"

As the nation’s #1 provider of fatherhood skill-building programs and resources, NFI provides guidance for practitioners and organizations on how they might be able to use to use the latest research on human behavior to enhance the effectiveness of their work with fathers. NFI provides this guidance in a series of blog posts called Research to Application: Guidance for Practitioners and Programs. The series is also available in the form of quick reference guides that you can download by clicking on the button at the end of the posts.

The series offers a platform for generating dialogue among NFI, organizations, and practitioners on ways that research can be applied to addressing pain points in serving fathers. This post is the second one in the series. (To access the first post, click here. To access the second post, click here. To access the third post, click here.) It provides ideas on how you might integrate research on positive deviance into your work with fathers. Integrating this research can help you identify model fathers who have overcome great odds to become involved, responsible, committed fathers, models you can share with other fathers who struggle to do the same.

If you implement any of the ideas in this post, or develop and implement your own ideas, please share them with us at info@fatherhood.org. We’ll use your experiences to update this guide so it is even more useful.

research-to-appllication-4-1The Research
In the Power of Positive Deviance (1), Richard Pacale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin chronicle the research and share many diverse examples of how professionals have used positive deviance to create positive behavior change in populations across the globe. Don’t be thrown by the negative connotation that the word “deviance” might have for you. As the authors point out, positive deviance refers to “outliers who succeed against all odds.” Furthermore,

Positive deviance (PD) is founded on the premise that at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problem that confounds others. The individual is an outlier in the statistical sense—an exception, someone whose outcome deviates in a positive way (emphasis added) from the norm.

They share examples of how professionals have created programs to address such wide-ranging subjects as improving child nutrition (Vietnam), reducing female circumcision (Egypt), reducing hospital infections (United States), and reintegrating abducted girls—turned into soldiers after abduction—back into the community (Uganda).

What links all of these examples, and is a hallmark of using positive deviance, was the use of ethnographic research methods, primarily observation, to identify outliers who engage in positive behavior (i.e. the innovation in the community) to produce the outcomes the professionals sought (e.g. children who were well nourished and girls who weren’t circumcised), and then to understand the steps (process) that the outliers followed to produce the outcomes. The professionals used what they learned to design programs that had community involvement—indeed that were primarily community run—that spread knowledge and skill development related to the behaviors that led to the positive outcomes.

Another example in the book, which is relevant to working with fathers, involved the use of positive deviance by the international non-profit Save the Children to reduce infant mortality among the Pashtun-speaking people who live in the remote mountains of northwest Pakistan. The following description uses excerpts from the book. (Pardon the length of this example. The length provides the breadth necessary to grasp the power of using positive deviance.)

The Pashtun-speaking people in the remote mountains of North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, endure one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates. One of every twenty newborns dies within the first year of life. A fiercely independent people, their communities have a long history of rebuffing the efforts of health authorities to address this problem. Recognizing these inhibiting features as conditions in which positive deviance often flourishes, Save the Children resolved to give the process a try.

So how does one coax a community into tackling a problem it has never acknowledged as such? Most were aware that infant mortality was among the highest in all of Pakistan (85 deaths in every 1,000 births). Yet leaders and villagers were inured to all this as “Allah’s will.”

It was agreed that a good initial step would be to create reliable maps of recent village experience with newborn survival. That very evening, the first of what was to become a number of such efforts took shape with improvised materials representing houses, streets, mosque, and market-place. Hunkered on the ground, using colored felt-tipped pens to code stones into categories (e.g. families with no children, families that had lost a newborn since the previous Ramadan, etc.) the men created an epidemiological map. A green dot on a village home denoted a newborn who had survived. Black denoted less fortunate households. Orange, yellow, brown, and purple indicated cause of death—umbilical chord infection, asphyxia, diarrhea, hypothermia, or extremely low birth weight. Participants became wholly engrossed. Why had some newborns, born under exactly the same conditions as those who died, survived and flourished? These conversations would ultimately pierce the shroud of “Allah’s will."

As the men were compiling census data, a parallel endeavor unfolded among the women. In their case, beans were the artifact of choice for the mapping process. Analogous to the Eskimos’ proverbial twenty-three words for “snow,” Pashtun women traffic in the currency of beans, a staple of everyday diet. Differences between beans are subtle to the untrained eye but as distinct as words in a dictionary for the literate. The women’s maps had deeper texture. They understood precisely what went on in the first two to three weeks after each child was born. Considerable care was devoted to creating these epidemiological maps. They captured who was born, who died; babies that had diarrhea, were underweight, or experienced respiratory difficulties or umbilical cord infections but survived. The end result was a composite picture of the men’s and women’s efforts. 

Unsurprisingly, the ensuing process was not conducted as “interviews” but informed through stories. Pashtun life is captured in oral tradition. While there are no written diaries or civic records, memories provide an astonishing wealth of detail. When a baby is born, neighboring women visit, discuss, observe, and commit to memory what happened and how. To accommodate this tradition, tactile objects such as homemade stuffed dolls were employed to capture what people do, not what they know. This impelled the classic shift from the “what” to the “how.” Enactment confirmed that many households delivered the baby in an animal shed because delivery was regarded as messy. Some sessions evoked stoic accounts of tragedy as mothers-in-laws, new mothers, and traditional birth attendants (dais) elaborated on infants that had turned blue and died a few hours after a winter delivery. Reenactment with rag dolls and crude material substituting for umbilical cord and placenta revealed how the dais attention switches from the newborn to the mother as soon as the baby is born. Miriam, one of the oldest and most respected dais in the village, enacted the common practice of placing the naked newborn on the mud floor so those present could blow prayers over it. In the cold Haripur winter (with no source of heat and insulating blanket between baby and damp earth), hypothermia was the unintended result.

Once common practices had been captured, it was time for the PD inquiry itself—the search of PD’s. Earlier mapping helped the group identify families who had “at risk” newborns who had survived against all odds. Small groups of male volunteers joined Shafique and his team to visit and chat with the male members of these families to find out what they had done. A similar process took place among the women. Pashtun tradition is exquisitely sensitive to not awarding social recognition to one person at the expense of others. It was understood that “heroes” would not be singled out—rather, discoveries would highlight successful practices, not individuals.

One mother-in-law mentioned using a gadeya (pillow). “Why?” the visitors asked. “Before the baby arrives,” she answered, “I make a special pillow of rages to put on the floor and to cover the baby when it is born.” “Show us,” the visitors requested. She did. A member of the visiting team, a mother-in-law herself, interjected: “I do something similar. I immediately put the baby to the mother’s breast and put a blanket on it.” 

The men’s visits with male relatives shed light on the PD practice of using a clean razor blade to cut the umbilical chord. One PD husband had created a “clean delivery kit.” Another took his wife to the clinic for a prenatal exam. The list of practical and successful expedients gradually expanded.

In parallel conversations, men and women discussed their findings. At times this triggered heated debate. Vetting ensured the most relevant strategies and practices would gain ascendance. Convergence wasn’t always easy. 

It was time to share discoveries with the larger community. Separate male and female community meetings were carefully choreographed to share the findings from the home visits. Eager villagers came together to hear about some of the secrets that could save newborn lives. The design of this phase gave testimony to the villagers’ latent creativity, confirming yet again that a community knows best how to engage its own.

Dissemination workshops tended to follow a trajectory. They led off with an introduction of technical PD practices (e.g. clean razor blades) but turned inevitably to the importance of the husband’s involvement and support of his wife. One violated a cultural taboo by giving his pregnant wife special food (trespassing on the mother-in-law’s authority). Then questions began: “What do you think of this?” “How about a husband taking his wife to the prenatal clinic?” “Where do you draw the line?”

At the conclusion of the community meetings, volunteers gathered to develop a strategy to enable the whole community to practice the successful but sometimes controversial strategies that had resulted in newborn survival. It was decided that the men should gather once a month at the tea shop in their mohallahs (neighborhood meetings), recount stories of recent newborns, discuss what they should do, learn more about pregnancy and delivery, and perhaps practice some new behaviors. Women developed a similar plan for monthly mohallah sessions where more elaborate new behaviors were practiced as well as stories of deliveries where the new behaviors were adopted.

The point, of course, was to reinforce the focus on the effect of PD practices and to highlight the importance of the participation of both mothers and fathers in the survival and well-being of their children.


The point, of course, is not that this example has direct application to increasing father involvement in this country. It shows, however, that even in a culture in which fathers were involved only at the margins in an aspect of child well-being that the use of positive deviance can overcome extremely challenging barriers to greater father involvement.

Ideas on Application
The PD approach the authors outline involves much more than simply finding outliers. It involves getting a community to own a problem and then mobilizing the community to solve the problem. Nevertheless, you can use the “finding outliers” portion of this approach to identify models of fathers who have overcome great odds to become an involved, responsible, committed father that you can share with other fathers. You might also be able to involve fathers in developing an approach that will help other fathers to overcome great odds. Involving model fathers to influence other fathers will increase buy-in from other fathers because the solutions come from and are delivered by fathers like them. Here are some ideas to consider.

  • If you work with a father (one-on-one or in a group setting) who is involved, responsible, and committed in the lives of his children, ask him how he became a good father. Ask him questions, such as:
    • How did you become involved in the lives of your children?
    • What barriers did you face in becoming involved?
    • What steps did you take to overcome that (those) barrier(s)? (Or) How did you solve the problem(s) that (those) barrier(s) presented?
    • What advice would you give to a father who faces the same barrier(s)?

Keep an open mind to how the father overcame the odds. Resist judging his solutions. Pay particular attention to uncommon or unusual solutions the father developed. If after he shares his experience you think he provides a good model for you to share with other fathers, ask him whether he’d be willing to share his story. He could share through you via a case study you could write on his story. If he is part of a group of fathers you work with, ask him to share during a group meeting/session.

  • If you don’t work with such a father, commit now to finding such a father so you can eventually apply the idea above.
  • If you’re fortunate enough to work with several fathers who have overcome great odds, ask them whether they will volunteer to develop an approach to sharing their experience with other fathers, and whether they will share their experience. (Some or all of these model fathers will act as spokespersons, so they must be reliable and credible. Be careful in your choice of them.) If they are willing, gather them (e.g. in a focus group) and ask them the kinds of questions identified above. Then have them design an approach that focuses on strategies and tactics (i.e. specific behaviors rather than simply sharing knowledge) for overcoming barriers that will help other fathers become involved in their children’s lives. Focus them on the “how to” of transferring these behaviors to other fathers. Consider asking the fathers to not only develop an approach for transferring behaviors to fathers served by your organization, but to include ways to transfer those behaviors to fathers they can access in other parts of the community. You will probably have to hold several meetings to use this approach.

Regardless of how you apply positive deviance, approach your effort as an experiment. Keep track of what works with fathers in general and with specific kinds of fathers (e.g. custodial and non-custodial) so that you can apply what works in future work with fathers one-on-one or in groups, and avoid what doesn’t work. And last but not least, share your results with NFI at info@fatherhood.org so that we can improve future versions of this guide.

Resources
As you apply positive deviance to identify models of fathers who have overcome great odds to become an involved, responsible, committed father, consider reading The Power of Positive Deviance. We also recommend the book Switch, which discusses a similar idea the authors call following the “Bright Spots” (i.e. find what’s working and “clone it.”). This similar idea is part of a larger framework (the Switch Framework) that you might find useful in your work.

FREE SAMPLE Get the full PDF version of this study today!


Don’t forget to look for more posts and reference guides with post 1, post 2, and post 3 in this series!

[1] Pascale, R., Sternin, J., & Sternin, M. (2010). The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Boston: Harvard Business Press. 

350 Practitioners on the Challenge of Maternal Gatekeeping

Have you ever struggled to convince a mother to allow the father of her child to be more involved in the child's life? Maternal gatekeeping is one of the primary challenges practitioners face when encouraging moms to allow dads into their children's lives. Maternal gatekeeping refers to a mom’s protective beliefs about the desirability of a dad's involvement in their child’s life, and the behaviors acted upon that either facilitate or hinder effective co-parenting. Maternal gatekeeping occurs regardless of whether parents are married, divorced or unmarried, and regardless of the parents’ satisfaction with the relationship between them. But, clearly, it presents the greatest challenge when the relationship between the parents is poor.

102814blog-1350 Practitioners Speak Out

NFI surveyed more than 350 practitioners who attended NFI's free What's Mom Got to Do With It webinar on December 9th, 2014, and asked them the following question related to maternal gatekeeping: What are the most important problems the moms you work with have with involving dads in their children's lives? (To access a recorded version of the webinar, click here.) The most important problems (in descending order of importance) are:

  • History of domestic violence or other abuse
  • Poor past or current experiences with/perceptions of the dad
  • Mom doesn't like dad or is angry with him
  • Mom doesn't see dad as important in the life of her child
  • Dad isn't a good parent
  • Mom doesn't want to give up control over the life of her child (i.e. if dad becomes involved, she perceives she'll lose control)
  • Mom has no contact/relationship with the dad

The research on maternal gatekeeping supports these practitioners' experiences. The motivations for maternal gatekeeping vary widely. They depend on individual, couple, and familial circumstances and situations. Mothers might have a difficult time relinquishing familial responsibility, might want to validate their identity as “the mother” and garner recognition for their “maternal” or “feminine” contributions to the family, or might view the father as incompetent or even dangerous to the child. This latter view might be based either on actual evidence, the father’s past behaviors, or her personal perceptions of him and his failures in the male familial role. 

Helping Practitioners 

One of our primary jobs at NFI is to help practitioners to more effectively do their jobs. Accordingly, we asked those same 350 practitioners the following question related to how to help moms involve fathers: What are the two most important topics moms need help with around involving dads? The biggest topics (also in descending order of importance) are:

  • Why dad is important to their child's life 
  • Communication
  • Co-Parenting
  • Importance of putting the well-being of the child first
  • How to trust dad
  • Mutual respect (i.e. important of mom respecting dad and vice versa)
  • How to keep the dad engaged
  • Conflict resolution

The good news is NFI already has a number of low-, medium-, and high-intensity resources that address these and other challenges presented by maternal gatekeeping (e.g. the impact of the mother's history with men and her own father). These resources include the Understanding Dad™ program, Mom as Gateway™ workshop, downloadable eguidespocketbooks, and tip cards for moms. And we've already started to identify additional resources to develop that will help practitioners address the other issues because, well, that's our job and commitment to practitioners: Supporting You. Supporting Fathers. Supporting Families.™ Stay tuned. 

Have you reviewed our resources that address maternal gatekeeping?

Like this post? Subcribe to the FatherSOURCE  email for tips on helping dads!

5 Tips to Help Your Children Maintain A Healthy Weight

As I turned the "big 5-O" a couple of weeks ago, and chuckled as I received my first invitation in the mail to join AARP, I reflected on the importance of health and fitness in my life and that of my children, and on how much it pains me to see so many children these days who are overweight and obese. It also got me thinking about the ways in which dads can make a difference in the fight against childhood obesity.

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Being active has been a vital part of my life since I can remember. I played baseball, football, and golf as a child. I'm not sure where the drive to be so active came from. Neither of my parents were active, and they didn't encourage me to be either. I just loved being outside all day, getting dirty, and playing pick-up games in the neighborhood. 

When I stopped playing organized sports after high school, I continued to be active in college through intramurals. Because I was fast, several of my fraternity brothers who played soccer in high school recruited me to play on our fraternity's soccer team, which kindled a passion for the sport that remains today. In graduate school, I engaged in what was the beginning of the health and fitness craze of the 1980s. (Are you old enough to remember Physical -- as in "Let's get physical, physical!" -- by Olivia Newton-John?) I ran, swam, biked, and lifted my way to my master's degree. I continued to regularly exercise after graduate school, got married, and had kids. 

As soon as I started my fatherhood journey, I committed to not let any grass grow under my daughters' feet as far as being active was concerned. Perhaps what drove me more than anything else to ingrain in them the importance of health and fitness was the memory of the struggles my parents and my younger brother had maintaining a healthy weight. I desperately wanted to break that cycle. I placed a soccer ball at their feet soon after they started to walk and enrolled them in organized soccer by age 4. I took them to watch my road races and entered them in races soon thereafter. As someone who understands the importance of self-awareness -- the first characteristic of a 24/7 Dad -- it's been difficult for me to encourage them to be active in their own way and to let go of the process. I only hope that the model of my dedication to health and fitness has rubbed off. Fortunately, my girls have maintained a healthy weight throughout their childhood and, for my oldest, into early adulthood.

I'm sure it's not news to you that childhood obesity is a major problem in this country. You've undoubtedly seen its consequences in some of the families you know--perhaps even in your own family. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 17 percent of children -- some 12.7 million -- are obese. Many more (around 1 in 3 or 4) are overweight and on the road to becoming obese. Obesity is one of the primary drivers of the rise among children in type 2 diabetes, which typically doesn't develop until adulthood. Obesity places children at risk for a lifetime of poor health.

What might be news to you, however, is that your simple presence and involvement in the life of your child is one of the most potent weapons in the fight against childhood obesity. Research shows that family structure matters a great deal when it comes to the prevalence of childhood obesity. Children from single-mother families are at higher risk for obesity than children living with two parents. Moreover, studies show that a father's body mass index (BMI) -- the primary and, somewhat controversial, metric for determining whether someone is at a healthy weight -- predicts his children's BMI. Obese dads are more likely to have obese children. Other studies reveal that how well fathers eat and their level of activity directly affects their children's weight. When fathers (and mothers) create an environment that promotes obesity, their children are more likely to become obese.

Here are 5 tips to help your child maintain a healthy weight. (If you're a professional who works with families, encourage fathers to use these tips.)

1) Examine your eating habits and level of exercise and improve them if necessary. You must model good eating habits and regular exercise. Otherwise, your children, especially if they're in their teens, will see you as a hypocrite if you tell them to improve their eating habits and become more active.

2) Get involved in an active way in your child's life. There are many ways to get involved, but to directly affect your child's activity level, you must do things together that require regular physical activity. Find things you and your child enjoy doing that you can repeat often.

3) Eat meals together. Studies show that simply eating meals as a family lowers the risk of childhood obesity. But you must eat at least three meals together on a weekly basis to make a difference.

4) Enroll your child in a team or individual sport. Studies show that children who play organized sports are less likely to be overweight.

5) Encourage mom to examine her eating habits and level of exercise and improve them if necessary. It's better to have two good models than only one. Applying this tip might be easier said than done, but it's vital you have the courage to challenge mom if she doesn't set a good example in this regard.

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For more tips on raising healthy kids, check out our downloadable guide Tips for Raising Healthy Kids


Question > When was the last time you talked with your child about the importance of regular exercise?

How Three Consumer Brands Helped Dads and Kids Score a Touchdown on Super Bowl Sunday

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Three consumer brands helped dads and kids score a touchdown on Super Bowl Sunday. Nissan, Toyota, and Dove Men+Care focused their annual Super Bowl campaigns on celebrating dads.

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Nissan's #WithDad campaign was its first Super Bowl campaign in 20 years. The fact that they jumped back into the frenzy of consumerism associated with the most widely watched TV event in the world was a huge undertaking in and of itself, but their choice to focus on dads' struggles to balance work and family made it even more remarkable. On the other hand, Nissan's ads have had a strong focus on dads for several years, so this campaign was a somewhat natural extension of that focus.

Toyota's #OneBoldChoice campaign was one of the best father-focused campaigns I've seen. What made it unique is the range of emotions it invoked. The ads (a series of varying length that don't resemble typical commercials) not only invoked feelings of warmth and love, they invoked sadness as viewers learned of the everyday challenges many dads face in raising children. These current and former NFL players and working dads (e.g. a construction worker and a fireman) appeared with their children and discussed the bold, difficult choices dads have to make daily for their families.

Dove Men+Care is, of course, a brand that focuses on men. So it's not as surprising that their campaign focused on dads. What made their #RealStrength campaign unique, however, was its use of "Real Dad Moments" that challenge the macho male stereotype prevalent in advertising. It was also unique in its reach into communities. The brand sponsored workshops for dads on January 17th at Sam's Club locations in approximately 20 states during which dads received materials on how to be a better dad.

Going Against the Grain

As I've written elsewhere in this blog, consumer brands often portray fathers in a negative light. They often portray dads as bungling, incompetent parents in need of rescue by nurturing, competent mothers. So perhaps we should be surprised that three well-known brands independently arrived at a decision to celebrate dads with extremely positive portrayals that emphasize dads' competence as parents and the importance of dads in children's lives.

On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Many companies now recognize that dads are a major buying force, especially in certain areas, such as automobile purchases. A recent study by ESPN Research and Analytics found that men almost always outspend women during holiday seasons. The percentage of men who are the primary buyers in their households has jumped from 14 percent in 1985 to 33 percent today. Men are buyers rather than shoppers, an important distinction to a company's bottom line. The business case for a focus on dads has indeed arrived.

The Next Step

Regardless of whether we should be surprised, the next step for brands is to build on the business case for marketing to dads and help combat, through their social responsibility efforts, of one of the most consequential social problems of recent decades -- widespread father absence in the lives of children. Approximately 1 in 3 children (some 24 million) in America will sleep tonight in a home without their father, and 9 in 10 parents agree that there is a father absence crisis. Father absence has devastated communities across the country. Some of the hardest-hit communities have father absence rates above 50 percent. Many of the dads, kids, and moms affected by this problem don't have the buying power of the consumers portrayed in advertising. Toyota's campaign is the first I've seen that touches on this problem. Many of the fathers in the ads discussed the impact of being raised without their own fathers in their lives or by present fathers who were poor parents. Some of the children discussed the impact on their lives of having involved fathers.

Unfortunately, none of the campaigns included a social responsibility component that would have made them truly remarkable. To take the next step in promoting the importance of involved, responsible, committed dads, brands must provide resources that help fathers in whatever circumstance they find themselves (e.g. living with or without their children) to be as involved as possible in their children's lives. They must provide these resources directly to disenfranchised families and through the thousands of organizations that serve them in communities across the country.

This next step would not only help these families and communities, it would help companies respond to the belief among 75 percent of Millennials -- the largest generation of consumers the U.S. has ever seen who represent most of today's new and young parents -- that corporations should create economic value by addressing society's needs, and for their preference to do business with socially-responsible companies. The vast majority of Millennials, 4 in 5, are more likely to do business with a company that supports a cause they care about. And they care about parenthood. More than half of them say that parenthood is one of the most important things in life.

Question: Did you see any of the Super Bowl campaigns mentioned in this post? Which one was your favorite?

Like this post? Subcribe to the FatherSOURCE  email for tips on helping dads!

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Is It Finally Time to Put Marriage in the Dustbin?

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Recently, economist and long-time promoter of marriage Isabel V. Sawhill made a surprising about face with the release of her book Generation Unbound. As Brigid Shulte wrote in the Washington Post, Sawhill has reversed her position as an unlikely marriage advocate. She's a Democrat, works at the non-partisan, centrist Brookings Institution, and based her support of marriage not on traditional values but on the data that shows children raised by married parents fare better, on average, than children raised in other family forms.

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Sawhill's staunch evidence-informed support of marriage earned her broad-based praise among proponents of marriage. So many marriage advocates, including me, were shocked when she said, as Shulte points out, that it's time to give up. It's time to stop trying to save an institution that's been in decline for so long it's irretrievable. Better to identify what can replace it as a better alternative to stopping and reversing the rise in single parenting which, almost everyone agrees, is bad for children and leads to spending billions of dollars on social programs that address its consequences.

Where to Hang Your Hat

Does she have a point? That depends on where you hang your hat in terms of the argument for or against giving up on promoting marriage. If you hang your hat on trends in marriage rates, you'd be hard pressed not to agree with Sawhill. Consider that:

  • The number of adults who are married has been on a steady decline from 72.2 percent in 1960 (it's peak in the past 100 years or so) to 50.5 percent in 2012.
  • There's a widening "marriage gap" between college-educated adults and those without a college education. Among 35- to 39-year old college-educated adults, for example, 81 percent had ever married compared to 76 in 1950. In contrast, 73 percent of 35- to 39-year-olds without a bachelor's degree had ever married compared to 92 percent in 1950.

So, we're a less-married nation, but some of us are getting married at higher rates than ever before while others of us are less likely to get married. And this decline continues even though the federal government and some state governments have been doing everything they can since the mid 2000s to promote marriage by funding marriage-promotion programs.

If, however, you hang your hat on the impact of the state of marriage -- and depending on the kind of impact that's your focus -- your answer might or might not support Sawhill's new position.

The decline in marriage and the marriage gap has received quite a bit of recent attention and generated some debate about their impacts. Most of the debates focus on the impacts on adults, children, or both. Those that focus on the impact on adults are mixed. (See this piece by the Brookings Institution as an example.) Those that focus on children, however, overwhelmingly conclude that the impacts are not good, especially for the poorest children.

The impact on children is where I have always hung my hat, and is where, not surprisingly, National Fatherhood Initiative hangs its hat when it comes to the negative effects of father absence. What hasn't changed since we started collecting data on marriage rates is the ream of data on the impact on children when they grow up without their married parents that shows these children, regardless of socio-economic status, don't fare as well, on average, as children who grow up with their married parents. Moreover, it's not just children who suffer. Communities also suffer. As I've written elsewhere in this blog, family structure is the most important factor in the upward economic mobility of families. Economic mobility is not only more difficult for children living in single-parent homes. Communities with large percentages of single-parent homes make economic mobility more difficult for everyone in the community.

Can We Afford to Give Up?

These facts, based on boatloads of evidence, should cause everyone to stop and ask whether we can afford to stop attempts that seek to reverse the decline of marriage. While renewing marriage is not a magic bullet that will cure all of the ills related to child poverty and other issues of child well-being, it's the most vital part of the prescription.

So how can we, as Sawhill has concluded, just give up on marriage? She suggests that there is another answer that makes it okay to give up -- that there is a better alternative to stopping and reducing the rise in single parenting, and that it's just a matter of figuring out which one it is.

She offers some ideas, such as marriages with "time limits." They'd end, say, after 5, 10, 15 years. Like moving from one job to another. (Unfortunately, too many people already treat marriage in this way.) Would these contracts create an institutionalized form of a new kind of friends with benefits? Would we call these marriages "contracts without consequences?" Could they be "terminated by either party for any reason with 30 days advanced written notice?" If we go this far, marriage would certainly be dead as it would be reduced to nothing more than a contract stripped of the characteristics that make marriage work, such as love and commitment in the best and worst of times.

She also mentions Scandanavian-style long-term cohabiting. While that might work in Scandanavian countries, that rent-to-own experiment has been underway in the U.S. for some time, so long, in fact, that cohabitation is now the most common pathway to marriage. But it has done nothing to stem the tide in single parenting. The rapid rise in single parenting has kept rolling along despite the just-as-precipitous rise in cohabiting -- no inverse correlation there.

Shulte notes that Sawhill hasn't given up, fortunately, on the need to reduce the impact of single-parent homes on child well-being. So perhaps, to use language borrowed from the Lean Startup movement, she's only "pivoting" on her position, instead of reversing it, when it comes to addressing the problem of child poverty. Just as many technology and consumer product companies have adopted rigorous and rapid testing of products that often result in pivots (i.e. changes) on their features and functions to achieve their ultimate goal of meeting consumers' needs, Sawhill might be suggesting the answer lies in experimenting with and tweaking approaches to solve our nation's need to reduce child poverty.

Where to Start

To identify approaches to solving any problem, it's vital to start with a desired outcome or goal. Her suggested goal is to establish an "ethic of responsible parenthood," which is ironic given that the creation of that ethic is a primary function of marriage. She recommends establishing this ethic through, in part, the use of long-acting, reversible contraceptives (e.g. IUDs) that couples would use until they are ready to have children. Much more effective than the pill or condoms, their use could reduce the likelihood of poorly timed and unwanted pregnancies.

While there are many ideological and practical hurdles to overcome implementing such an experiment and taking it to scale, I seriously doubt it would ever gain enough traction -- short of a mandate that smacks of mass sterilization -- to have a measurable effect on reducing single parenting. Despite the success of efforts to reduce teen pregnancy (the focus of most calls for long-acting contraceptive use), the rise in out-of-wedlock births has continued unabated largely because of the rise in out-of-wedlock births to twentysomethings that is now at an all-time high. It would also require massive amounts of government and private funding to make these contraceptives affordable to the poorest Americans.

The answer to addressing the rise in single parent homes and all of its consequences, not just child poverty, is not to give up on marriage. The answer starts with acknowledging where the problem lies.

The problem is with changing beliefs in America about family: specifically, about the function of marriage and its impact on child bearing. Most Americans now believe the function of marriage is to satisfy their desire for meaningful, life-long connection instead of as an institution for raising children and what children need to thrive. So it shouldn't be surprising that a majority of Americans today don't see anything wrong with unmarried childbearing.

To be clear, my problem with this belief is not that marriage should not satisfy someone's desire for meaningful, life-long connection -- I can't think of a better way to create such a connection. But focusing on that aspect of marriage to the detriment of marriage's primary function of raising healthy children has become a recipe for disaster.

I not only believe the problem lies in Americans' beliefs. I also believe the answer lies in Americans' beliefs: specifically, the belief that children deserve the best chance to succeed. It is that widely held belief that connects to Sawhill's spot-on contention that the institution of marriage is evolving and must evolve. It must evolve by expanding to include two functions, the new and the old. Marriage's function isn't a zero-sum game. It can and should be a "both-and" game. Marriage can serve its new function of providing individuals with deep, life-long connection and be renewed as the primary institution in which to raise healthy children.

If we can agree to focus on the goal of ensuring that children deserve to be raised in an environment that the research shows gives them the best chance to succeed and in which their parents can also thrive, then perhaps we can also agree that the answer to improving child well-being lies somewhere in this expanded function of marriage. To do so, we must challenge our tendency to look at controversial issues as a zero-sum game and collaborate to identify, test, and iterate approaches that respect the evolving function of marriage and redirect its gaze back toward children's well-being.

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This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

5 Easy Ways Dads Can Get Involved in Their Child’s Education

This post originally appeared at NBC News Education Nation.

Parents hear a lot these days about the importance of being involved in their children’s education. Unfortunately, dads often view “parent” as a code word for “mom.” Education, they say, is mom’s domain. So when mom steps up to the plate, dad often stays in the dugout. However, research indicates that a father’s involvement is crucial, and that it plays a key role in a child’s success in school and beyond.

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Most of the discussion on parent involvement focuses on school-related activities, like attending school events and parent-teacher conferences. Does it make a difference when dads are involved in this way? The evidence suggests that it does. A landmark study by the U.S. Department of Education found that children in two-parent families and of non-resident fathers who were highly involved in their children’s education were more likely to get mostly A’s and enjoy school. They were also less likely to repeat a grade than children with fathers who had low or no involvement. Even when dads don’t live with their children, it’s clear that their involvement matters to academic achievement.

NBC's Parent ToolKit has more about how you can provide support as your child progresses through school.

When it comes to a dad’s involvement in education-related activities at home, like reading to a child, we know a lot less. That’s unfortunate because a recent study--covering 30 years of longitudinal studies-- revealed how little parents’ involvement in their children’s schools matters to their academic success. That’s right. Despite the hyper-focus on parents’ participation in children’s schools, the evidence suggests that the focus should be on education-related activities at home. We must know more about a dad’s level of involvement in these kinds of activities.

Nevertheless, the great news is that, regardless of dads’ level of involvement, the study suggests that there are five easy ways dads can get involved that really matter. (Take note, too, moms.)

1. Read daily to a young child. Children who learn to read well at an early age are more likely to succeed in school. Try to read out loud with your young child regularly, and to have books around the house that will inspire the entire family to enjoy the written word. You may also want to connect your reading materials to what your child is learning in school, and check out books at the library that cover those particular subjects. If you need more tips for raising great readers, see our helpful post, 6 Tips on How to Show Your Child Reading is Awesome.

2. As your child ages, encourage him to ask critical questions. As long as they're respectful, allow your child to challenge you at home. As your child becomes more comfortable challenging you, they'll become more comfortable challenging others. Asking lots of questions and challenging the status quo becomes more valuable to children as they move into higher levels of education.

3. Set clear expectations and then take a back seat. Successful college students have parents who are clear about what they expect of their children. Rather than micro-managing your child’s education, talk to her regularly about your expectations, and guide and support her as she finds her own path to success.

4. Help your child get into classes with good teachers. More than choosing the right courses, what matters most is who teaches those courses. If your child’s school has some flexibility in teacher selection, do your homework. Ask parents you know whose children have had certain teachers about the quality of those teachers. By the time children get in middle and high school, they often know who the good and bad teachers are.

Another tip that is hinted at, but not explicitly mentioned in the study, is one that I've found works extremely well.

5. Encourage your child to do homework in groups and with friends who succeed in subjects your child struggles in (or in which your child just needs a little help every now and then). One of the reasons helping your child with homework can backfire is parents are too far removed from their own schooling to help. Many parents often forget how to do certain forms of math, for example, and develop bad grammar and writing habits. Moreover, the ways in which subjects are taught today can differ dramatically from the ways in which they were taught 15, 20, or 30 years ago. A better tactic is for your child to study in a group of peers who are exposed to the same teaching approaches/techniques or with a friend who really understands the subject in which your child needs help.

As you implement these easy steps, get involved in your child’s school anyway. It's still a good idea. It shows your child that you value her or his education because it communicates a high expectation for the importance of school and academic achievement.

Question: Have you tried any of these five ideas? If so, how have you seen it help your child?

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This post originally appeared at NBC News Education Nation.

What Parents Should Really Fear

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

In my last post in this blog, I asked parents to identify the top three things they most fear and to rate their level of fear for each one. I then described a study of parents that identified the top 10 fears that most parents have for their children and asked parents how their fears mapped to those top fears.

what_parents_really_should_fear_12092014I made the point that many fears of parents are unfounded. I then laid out six steps that help parents determine whether the fears they identified are ones they should be worried about. Central to these steps is taking the time to examine the evidence for the prevalence of poor outcomes for children related to parents' fears. If a parent fears, for example, that his or her child will drown, the parent should locate data on the prevalence of drowning for children of his or her child's age. I pointed parents to several excellent sources for data on children's health that they could use to examine the evidence.

One of these sources for evidence is the non-profit Child Trends. As luck would have it, Natalia Pane, a Child Trends research scientist and statistician, read my post and sent me an email to draw my attention to a book she's written called The Worry Clock: A Parent's Guide to Worrying Smarter about The Real Dangers to Your Child. I checked it out and realized what a great resource it is for parents. So I asked Natalia whether I could write a follow-up post to draw wider attention to the book, and she gave me her blessing.

I really appreciate when really smart scientists make their research easy to understand using stories, concepts, and analogies. Natalia uses the concept of the Worry Clock to illustrate how much parents should worry about dangers to their children. Specifically, she focuses on the ultimate fear for a parent -- his or her child's death. She uses the Worry Clock to present the data on the leading causes of death for children in different age groups. As a result, there is a Worry Clock for each age group. As Natalia describes it, the Worry Clocks are:

Sixty-minute clocks that present the most common causes of death and their relative importance, based on frequency of death. The idea is that if you are going to worry for one hour, the clock presents the amount of time you might spend on each cause of death, if you were to follow the actual data. For example, if car accidents account for half of all possible ways children die, then the Worry Clock would suggest spending half of the hour -- thirty minutes -- worrying about car accidents.

If you have an infant, for example, you should worry most about suffocation and strangulation (27 minutes). Your next most significant worry should be about homicide (14 minutes). Other causes of death shouldn't worry you much as no other cause represents more than six minutes in the Worry Clock for Infants.

I highly encourage you to read the book. It provides great insights, including:

  • Parents should think twice about where an infant sleeps.
  • A baby's inconsolable crying is common, but it is also a frequent cause of homicide, the second-leading killer of infants.
  • Drowning in a home pool is particularly dangerous for toddler boys.
  • Electrical outlets are less deadly than most parents probably believe.
  • One out of every six preventable deaths throughout childhood is gun-related.
  • Teenage driving is the most significant worry across a child's life.

Perhaps most importantly, Natalia provides practical advice, based on evidence and common sense, for how parents can protect their children from the leading causes of death in each age group. That's another thing I really appreciate -- when scientists help people apply research in practical ways. Bravo, Natalia!

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This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Office of Child Support Wants Your Input

When it comes to father involvement, one of the most significant pieces of child support legislation ever could soon be implemented by the federal government. Does your organization work closely with dads and parents who owe child support? If so, you have a chance to positively affect those dads, parents, and their children. 

office-of-child-support-wants-your-helpThe latest issue of the Office of Child Support Enforcement's Child Support Report describes 6 areas of the legislation that are part of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (Public Law 113-183) and that will  affect the federal child support program. The most significant of the the areas in terms of father involvement is Section 303: Sense of the Congress Regarding Offering of Voluntary Parenting Time Arrangements. It reads:

Congress finds that:

  1. establishing parenting time arrangements when obtaining child support orders is an important goal that should be accompanied by strong family violence safeguards; and
  2. states should use existing funding sources to support the establishment of parenting time arrangements, including child support incentives, Access and Visitation grants, and Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood grants.

As such, this legislation could pave the way for additional funding for healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood grants at the state level and for father involvement work within programs focused on access and visitation.  

The federal government wants to hear from you on this legislation that they'll consider in issuing a report on the legislation to Congress. I encourage you to support this legislation and to provide additional feedback, such as more funding to expand states' efforts to not only establish parenting time arrangements but also to help parents be better parents through parenting education. You can review the process for providing feedback here.

What, exactly, is a parenting time arrangement? It's an agreement (sometimes called a parenting time order) that clearly defines how and when a child will spend time with his or her never married, separated, or divorced parents. These agreements are often included in a broader parenting or access and visitation plan that describes custody arrangements and other agreements between parents. These agreements have been around for some time. Many state governments and court systems have procedures, guidelines, and laws in place for establishing and enforcing such arrangements. (For examples, see the guidelines and laws in Michigan, New Jersey, and Texas.) Most guidelines and laws include consider the impact of domestic violence on such arrangements. In cases where parents can't agree on an arrangement, some state courts have enforceable minimum standards that ensure both parents spend some time with their children. (For an example, see the minimum parenting time standards in Utah.)

This federal legislation could give state governments and court systems that are behind the curve on this issue the push they need to be more progressive. But when it comes to states that already have strong procedures, guidelines, or laws in place--and that are already using funds to support such arrangements through, for example, access and visitation programs--the impact of this legislation could be more symbolic than practical. Before you provide feedback, I encourage you to become familiar with parenting time guidelines in laws in your state or county--and the impact of domestic violence on them--so that you will understand the potential impact this legislation could have on the dads and families you serve. You should also think about what would help your organization reach and help more fathers to be invovled in their children's lives. 

Regardless of whether this legislation is more symbolic or practical when it comes to your work and that of your organization, I hope you'll agree that even a symbolic gesture on the part of the federal government is better than nothing at all.

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6 Steps to Deal with Fears for Your Children

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

What frightens you the most as a parent when it comes to your children's health? Before you read any further, take a few minutes to write down your top three fears using a broad definition of health that includes physical, social and emotional health. Then, rate your level of fear for each one on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being "not fearful at all" and 10 being "very fearful."

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What I fear most is that my children will get in a horrible accident that will change their life for the worse or even end it. When my younger daughter Jillian was 2 years old, we were playing on the living room floor with Daizy, a Labrador-Greyhound mix we had rescued from the pound only days before. This get-to-know-you play session suddenly turned into one of my scariest parenting moments. As Daizy laid down to rest in front of me, Jillian scurried around my back and, in coming around to the front of me, startled Daizy. Daizy lept up and accidentally swiped Jillian's face with her paw. For a moment, it seemed nothing was wrong because Jillian's only reaction was to close her eyes and look stunned. But then, the blood started flowing down her face -- appearing to originate from one of her eyes -- and she began to cry and scream.

After a moment of indecision, I quickly removed my shirt and placed it over her face. Fortunately, a couple of EMTs lived two houses down from us. I grabbed Jillian and ran over to their home and, as I ran, prayed they were home. I knocked on the door and, thank God, both of them were home. I explained what happened and partially removed my shirt from Jillian's face so they could assess the injury. The blood started to flow once more. I reapplied my shirt until one of the EMTs wrapped Jillian's head in so much gauze it looked as though she was wearing a turban that had slid down her face.

By this time, I feared the worst -- Daizy has slashed Jillian's eye and she'd have permanent damage. Being EMTs, my neighbors assured me that they had seen much worse and not to jump to conclusions. One of them rushed us to the nearest hospital for treatment. Fortunately, Daizy had only caused a gash above Jillian's eye and slightly scratched the inside of her eyelid. The eye itself was unharmed.

I'm generally not a fearful parent. Even though I fear accidents the most, I rarely think about whether they might happen. But every once in a while, the scar that Jillian still has from that awful day reminds me how much I love my children and don't want any harm to come to them.

Every year, the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan conducts a national poll on parents' top health concerns. The 2014 poll asked parents to rate how big of a problem 26 health concerns are for children and teens in their community and, separately, for children and teens across the country. They rated each concern as a "big problem," "somewhat of a problem," or "not a problem." The survey is a kind of proxy for what parents fear when it comes to children's health.

According to the 2014 poll, the following eight concerns appeared in the top 10 concerns on both lists:

  • Childhood obesity
  • Bullying
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug/substance abuse
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Internet safety
  • Teen pregnancy

Childhood obesity topped both lists, with the others in each list ranking differently in terms of level of concern.

Now, look at the list of your top three fears. Are they included in the list of eight above?

A much more important question is whether your level of fear for each fear is founded. (That's why I asked you to rate your level of fear.) Fears have a nasty way of working behind the scenes to cause stress and guide our behavior in unproductive and sometimes destructive ways. Parents' fears can cause a ton of stress and lead to behavior that damages their relationships with their children. As I wrote in my last post, parents these days are particularly vulnerable to over-protecting and controlling their children's lives. This behavior results from fears (and concerns) they have that, in many cases, are unfounded.

Follow these steps to determine whether any or all of your fears are founded.

  1. Prepare to be wrong. Recognize that you might not need to be as fearful and maybe don't need to be fearful at all. Most people are overconfident in their views. If you won't entertain the possibility that you might be wrong, there's no reason to take another step.
  2. Step back and separate from the fears. Get some distance from your emotions so that you can objectively assess your fears.
  3. Examine the evidence from a broad perspective. Conduct some research on the prevalence in the broader population of the issues underlying your fears. Use reputable, objective sources and not ones that will simply confirm your fears. (To get you started, I provide a list of relevant sources at the end of this post.) Based on what you learn, how do the issues underlying your fears stack up against the data on prevalence of those issues?
  4. Examine the evidence from a narrow perspective. How prevalent are the issues in your community? Your community might differ markedly from the general population. The sources you used in Step 3 might have data on your community, but you might have to find similar sources at the state or county level (e.g. your state or city health department). How do the issues stack up against the data in your community? Even if you've lived in your community for a long time -- maybe your entire life -- you might be surprised how little you know about the prevalence of issues in your own backyard.
  5. Examine recent exposure to events and information that could create biases that support your fears. Has anything happened in your family, friends' families, or community related to your fears? Have you heard a lot recently in the news about incidents related to the issues underlying your fears? Have you been watching movies or television focused on your fears? If you answered yes to any of those questions, consider whether that exposure reflects reality in terms of prevalence of the issues underlying your fears. Realize that you could suffer from the availability bias in which people rely on recent exposure to specific events and information to form their opinions even when those events and information are out of the norm.
  6. Step back once again and consider all the evidence. If you have a friend who is a particularly objective person, share what you learned and ask him or her for input.

As you read through those steps, you might have thought "Ugh! It's going to take a lot of time to complete them, and I just don't have the time." It will take some time, but not as much as you think. Regardless, when it comes to your children, taking time to examine whether your fears are founded is vital to understanding whether the stress they cause and the behavior that results from them is worth it to you and the relationships you have with your children.

Here are some websites on children's health for further reading:

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This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Research to Application: Framing and the "No Choice Option"

As the nation’s #1 provider of fatherhood skill-building programs and resources, NFI provides guidance for practitioners and organizations on how they might be able to use to use the latest research on human behavior to enhance the effectiveness of their work with fathers. NFI provides this guidance in a series of blog posts called Research to Application: Guidance for Practitioners and Programs. The series is also available in the form of quick reference guides that you can download by clicking on the button at the end of the posts.

research_to_application_post_3The series offers a platform for generating dialogue among NFI, organizations, and practitioners on ways that research can be applied to addressing pain points in serving fathers. This post is the second one in the series. (To access the first post, click here. To access the second post, click here.) It provides ideas on how you might integrate research on no choice options (a form of framing) into your work with fathers. Integrating this research could help you help fathers to be more persistent in sticking with the behaviors of an involved, responsible, committed father.

If you implement any of the ideas in this post, or develop and implement your own ideas, please share them with us at info@fatherhood.org. We’ll use your experiences to update this guide so it is even more useful.

The Research
Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow [1] captures the research on the biases humans suffer from in making decisions, regardless of the decisions they make. He describes how we rely on two cognitive systems when making decisions. System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” We often call it our “gut instinct.” System 2 “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations” and involves deliberate choice. We often call it our “rational side.”

We primarily rely on System 1 to make most of our decisions. The good news is that our gut reactions are right most of the time. But it is inadequate for making decisions that require a lot of thought and energy, which is where System 2 comes in. In addition to being inadequate for making complex decisions, the problem with System 1 is that it often leads us astray—and wildly so—which can get us into all sorts of trouble. 

The reason it leads us astray is that it relies on heuristics, what we often call “rules of thumb.” These rules of thumb give us a starting point from which to base our decisions. The problem is that these rules of thumb are often wholly inadequate for helping us make sound decisions because, while they help us arrive at good decisions much of the time, they can bias our thinking in ways that lead to poor decisions in many instances.

One of the heuristics System 1 employs that biases our decision-making is called the framing effect. Our decisions are influenced by the way in which decisions are presented. Here’s a great example from Kahneman’s book: 

  • Researchers presented doctors with statistics about outcomes for cancer treatment in two different ways—survival rates and mortality rates—and asked them whether they would recommend surgery or radiation as the course of treatment. Specifically: the 1-month survival rate of surgery is 90 percent vs. there is a 10 percent mortality rate in the first month after surgery. Despite the fact that the data are exactly the same, just presented or framed differently, a much higher percentage of doctors selected surgery when framed from a survival than mortality perspective. Why? Because even among people trained to treat cancer, mortality is viewed as bad and survival as good. Survival sounds encouraging while mortality is defeating.

Think about your own life for a moment. If you were given a diagnosis of cancer and presented with treatment options, would you rather the doctor talk about your chances of survival or death?

The point is we’re all subject to biases. The fact that I picked this research to write about is in part influenced by another heuristic called the availability bias. In the past year, I’ve read no less than 3 books on biases!

For the purposes of this paper, framing involves how practitioners present fathers with choices related to being an involved, responsible, committed father, regardless of context (e.g. one-on-one case management or in a group-based program) or topic (e.g. discipline, co-parenting, and child support). Before you read another sentence after this one, take a few minutes to reflect on how you present fathers with choices and write them down.

Chances are you present them with several or many choices to choose from. And each of the choices you present are ones that you’d be fine with them choosing. You might, for example, provide them with several choices for how they can do fun things with their children that they might not have thought about before and ask them to commit to doing one or more of them within a specific time frame. Fair enough. But did you also provide them with the choice to do none of them and maintain the status quo? I doubt it. After all, why in the heck would you want to give fathers an option to do nothing? Wouldn’t that make you a bad practitioner?

To answer those questions, let’s turn to research conducted by Dr. Rom Schrift and Dr. Jeffrey Parker on whether presenting people with a no choice option along with other choices makes any difference in how committed or persistent people are in sticking with their choices (not the no choice option). The results are especially important in working with fathers because one of your primary objectives for fathers should be that they are persistent (committed) in sticking with being an involved, committed, responsible father, generally, and implementing certain behaviors, specifically. Persistence is vital to fathers, particularly those who face challenging barriers to involvement in the lives of their children.

Although these researchers don’t mention framing specifically, their research is all about framing. [2] Using a variety of experiments that addressed different behaviors, they found that offering a no choice option alongside other healthy or pro-social options increased the persistence of participants in sticking to the choices they made compared to participants who were given the same choices but without a no choice option. They found it critical that the no choice option was presented up front with all of the other choices, not before and not after the other choices.

Rules for Application
Use this simple and powerful framing effect to encourage persistence in fathers, particularly in those who face adversity. Here are two simple rules to follow when presenting dads with options on how to be an involved, responsible, committed father in any setting (e.g. one-on-one case management) and on any topic (e.g. discipline, co-parenting, and child support).

  • Rule #1: Ensure that the no choice option is viable, even though it’s not desirable. If a father happens to choose that option, it must not violate a legal agreement, for example, and not result in harm to the father or anyone else.
  • Rule #2: Always present the no choice option alongside other options, not before or after.

Regardless of how you apply the framing effect, approach your effort as an experiment. Keep track of what works with fathers in general and with specific kinds of fathers (e.g. custodial and non-custodial) so that you can apply what works in future work with fathers one-on-one or in groups, and avoid what doesn’t work. And last but not least, share your results with NFI at info@fatherhood.org so that we can improve future versions of this guide. 

Resources 
As you apply the framing effect to increase fathers’ persistence in following through on their choices, consider reading the article on Shrift’s and Parker’s research and the books Thinking, Fast and Slow and Nudge

learn more Get the full PDF version of this study today!



Don’t forget to look for more posts and reference guides with post 1 and post 2 in this series!
 

[1] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[2] Interestingly and ironically, they use the term “choice architecture” when referring to how they presented choices. That term was coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008). I used the research in their book as part of the basis for the first paper in this series.

Why Horseplay is Vital for Your Kids

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

When my daughters were toddlers and preschoolers, I played a game with them called "Attack Baby." I'd lie on the floor and let them run at and jump on me. They'd scream at the top of their lungs as they ran toward me. Right after or right before they landed on me, I'd pick them up and throw them to either side of me. (Don't be appalled. I gently laid them on the ground so they'd roll safely across the floor.) Every once in a while, I'd include a tickle or two before I discarded them to either side of me. As I did so, the attacking screams turned to joyful laughter.

why-horseplay-is-vital-for-your-kidsThe objectives of the game for them were to have fun and do as much damage to their dad as possible. My objectives were to help them learn the joy of physical play and how to play and not hurt someone in the process (i.e. learn emotional self-regulation). They sometimes lost control, particularly when they'd gang up on me. My youngest, in particular, would sometimes launch herself feet first and try to pound on my chest or head. Whenever they got out of control and became too physical, I stopped the game and explained that they needed to regain control or that session of Attack Baby was over. As time went by, they learned how to control themselves more consistently and still have a blast. To this day, some 15 years later, they remember Attack Baby with fondness and tell new friends, when describing their relationship with me, how much they enjoyed it.

In the Art of Roughhousing, Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet and Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen reveal the benefits of horseplay (rough-and-tumble play), such as how it develops close connections between parents and children, helps solve children's behavior problems, and boosts children's confidence.

Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination. Most important, roughhousing is rowdy, but not dangerous. With safety in mind, roughhousing releases the creative life force within each person, pushing us out of our inhibitions and inflexibilities... Play -- especially active physical play, like roughhousing -- makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likeable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful... Roughhousing activates many different parts of the body and the brain, from the amygdalae, which process emotions, and the cerebellum, which handles complex motor skills, to the prefrontal cortex, which makes high-level judgments. The result is that every roughhousing playtime is beneficial for body and brain as well as for the loftiest levels of the human spirit: honor, integrity, morality, kindness, and cooperation.

Unfortunately, this art is becoming a lost one as video games and other technology-based activities play an ever-increasing role in children's lives. Moreover, other changes in children's environments that facilitate horseplay have faded or disappeared, such as schools reducing or eliminating recess and physical education.

But another truly unfortunate factor in this development is the hyper-focus of so many parents today on their children's safety, a focus that negatively impacts their daily interactions with their children.

Sadly, among many of today's families, roughhousing barely limps along on life support. What was once a motto of Safety First has evolved into a fretful new motto of Safety Only. Many parents are more frightened by skinned knees and bruised feelings than life's real dangers: stifled creativity and listless apathy.

This hyper-focus on children's safety is an outgrowth of how parents today over-protect and over-schedule their children's lives. So it's not surprising that children's playtime has, as the authors point out, become "adult-organized, adult-refereed, and adult-structured." Parenting as protection has taken on huge significance despite the fact that the world of today is no more dangerous than in the past. In fact, it's safer for children. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that the death rates for children caused by unintentional injuries (e.g. vehicle-related, drowning, and fires) and murder were lower in 2010 compared to 2002. The reduction in deaths of 32 percent from unintentional injuries is staggering! Also staggering is the reduction in murders over an even longer time period. Among teens 15-19, for example, the reduction was 63 percent between 1993 and 2012 and was, in 2012, at its lowest level since before 1970.

I'm not arguing that parents shouldn't be concerned for their children's safety. Situational safety has its place. Being chronically concerned about children's safety does not. Children will get hurt. Bruises, abrasions and broken bones are a natural part of childhood. Parents shouldn't be so concerned about safety that they don't allow their children to be, well, children. Children are wired for horseplay with their parents and other children. It's one of the ways they learn about their world, how to appropriately interact with others, and to have fun. So by all means, enjoy playing a little roughly with your children on a regular basis, and get off the hyper-safety bandwagon.

When is the last time you spent time on the floor playing with your kids?

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This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Global Review Shows Parenting Interventions Need Gumption

A recent global review concluded that parenting interventions must do a better job of including and engaging fathers. It also concluded that evaluations of interventions' impact should include separate analyses of fathers and mothers rather than parents in general. 

Screen_Shot_2014-10-13_at_1.18.36_PMReally? I don't mean to be crass, but these conclusions are not exactly revelations. The review does, however, lend additional credibility to what National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) has said for 20 years--that it is vital to engage fathers in parenting interventions separately from mothers (we call them "fatherhood" or "fathering" programs) and that more funding needs to be focused on the impact of father-specific or father-inclusive parenting interventions. 

The team of UK and US researchers examined 199 published articles on parenting interventions that included at least some discussion of father engagement and impact. The researchers uncovered three specific problems when it comes to interventions' inclusion of fathers:

  • Despite the evidence of fathers substantial impact on child development, well-being, and family functioning, parenting interventions rarely target men, or make a dedicated effort to include them.
  • Parenting interventions that have included men as parents or co-parents give insufficient attention to reporting on father participation and impact.
  • A fundamental change in the design and delivery of parenting interventions is required to overcome pervasive gender biases and to generate robust evidence on outcomes, differentiated by gender and by couple effects in evaluation.

It is the final problem that is most damning. It has has led to parenting interventions, focused on mothers, that will never reach their full potential to improve child well-being. There is a gender bias in parenting interventions that reflects a broader, global, damaging bias that says fathers aren't as important as mothers when it comes to child well-being. It is the most pervasive barrier we've encountered in our 20 years of existence. 

How does NFI address this barrier? The first part of that answer is evident to most people. We've created evidence-based and evidence-informed programs, workshops, and other resources designed specifically for and that engage fathers. 

The second part of that answer is not as evident. We've created workshops and other resources that build the capacity or organizations to engage fathers, such as our recently-released Father-Readiness Training Kit™, that transform the culture of those organizations to value fathers as much as mothers in improving parenting behavior and, consequently, child-well being. We've said for many years--preached, really--that because the culture, infrastructure, and staff training of most organizations are designed to serve the needs of women and mothers that they are ill-suited for effectively engaging fathers. They create a mindset that focuses programs, services, and staff on mothers. As a result, organizations must examine and, as is the case in almost every instance, change their norms, the attitudes and beliefs of staff, and improve infrastructure to effectively serve all parents. 

Parenting interventions will never truly be parenting interventions until they are implemented within organizational cultures that value fathers as partners in parenting who are critical to child well-being. The sad fact is it isn't that difficult to do. It simply takes what my grandparents called "gumption." Gumption involves courage, initiative, aggressiveness, and good old common sense. 

The good news is that more organizations than ever are rolling up their sleeves to take a hard, long look at their efforts to improve parenting and child well-being. Several examples include state and local government agencies that have worked with us to integrate fatherhood programming among the organizations they fund. In Texas, for example, we recently completed a project that integrates father engagement in home visiting programs. We helped the state design an approach that, in turn, helped the human service organizations it funds to design customized approaches to engaging fathers. These approaches improved the organizations' use of evidence-based programs, such as Nurse-Family Partnership, Parents as Teachers, and Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, while maintaining fidelity to the programs' models which, not surprisingly, are focused on mothers. (For other examples of how organizations are rolling up their sleeves, click here and here.)

What is your organization doing to build a foundation for effectively engaging fathers?

How much do you know about the range of father-specific resources and customized solutions NFI provides?

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How Your Vote in November Could Harm or Help Children

This post was originally published in The Huffington Post.

As we approach the culmination in November of yet another election cycle, I decided to stake stock of what so many people these days are voting against -- marriage.

how_your_vote_in_november_could_harm_or_help_your_children

A recent analysis of census data by the Pew Research Center reveals that a record share of Americans have never married. In delving deeper into this milestone, the researchers found:

  • In 2012, 1 in 5 adults ages 25 and older (about 42 million people) had never been married. In 1960, only about 1 in 10 adults (9 percent) in that age range had never been married.
  • About half of today's 25- to 34-year-olds (49 percent) have never been married, a fourfold increase since 1960 (12 percent).
  • When today's young adults reach their mid-40s to mid-50s, it is likely that a record high share (25 percent) is likely to have never been married. And this is despite young adults' lack of opposition to marriage. Only 4 percent of never-married adults ages 25 to 34 say they don't want to get married.

Unfortunately, the best intentions often go unrealized. Despite this lack of opposition to marriage among young adults, the "baby train" keeps rolling down the track. As I've noted elsewhere, out-of-wedlock births and age at first marriage are at all-time highs. Moreover, the average age of women when they marry has surpassed the average age at which they give birth to their first child. A primary cause of these trends is that Americans have increasingly "decoupled" marriage and child bearing so that marriage is no longer viewed as a necessary or even desirable context in which to bear and raise children.

The decoupling of marriage from raising children is, however, only one cog in the engine that has driven us to this point. A host of other changes in values, economics, and gender patterns have contributed as well. Many of those changes are good, needed. But what a cog this decoupling is because, sadly, it is children who ultimately suffer from and have no control over it. My concern is that the adults who have control over it now believe that the primary function of marriage is to benefit the adults who enter into it and not to raise the next generation of children. Far too many Americans continue to ignore (or not care about) the evidence that growing up in home with a single, never-married parent, with a once-married but now divorced parent, or with cohabiting parents places children at a higher risk of poor physical, social, and emotional outcomes, which primarily result from father absence. As the Pew Research Center report notes, fewer than half of the public believes we're better off when marriage and children are a priority.

The improvement of child well-being is why National Fatherhood Initiative exists and is why we're so adamant in our support of marriage as the ideal context in which to raise children. Whether a father is married to his children's mother is the most important predictor of his involvement in his children's lives.

It's also why we're non-partisan. Does that sound odd or surprise you? It shouldn't because this position is not just a conservative or a progressive one. It's both. Encouraging couples to marry before they have children is a cause everyone who considers themselves to be a conservative or a progressive (or anywhere in between) should rally around. A conservative should support this cause because it will help re-establish an institution that is in steep decline. Re-establishing marriage as a vital social institution will save government the money it spends on dealing with the consequences of the decline of marriage and the increase in father absence. A progressive should support this cause because it involves the social reform of an institution that is vital to advancing and improving our society. It would allow the government to shift the money spent on the consequences of the decline of marriage and high rate of father absence to improving our society in other ways, such as improvements to our nation's infrastructure and the environment.

So regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, I encourage you to "vote yes" for marriage in the broad, societal sense. And as you consider for whom to vote this November, delve into how the candidates stand on the institution of marriage, and vote accordingly.

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This post was originally published in The Huffington Post.

What's Missing in the Adrian Peterson Story?

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

What in the world was Adrian Peterson thinking when he took a switch -- specifically, a tree branch -- to his 4-year-old son? He wasn't thinking, and that's part of his problem. But there's more to this horrible situation than meets the eye.

boy-discipline-600

I decided to wait nearly a week after this story broke to write this piece because I've learned that these stories are like the proverbial layers of the onion. We learn more and more as the layers peel away over the days, weeks and, sometimes, months after such a story becomes public. This story still has some legs, especially as we wait to see how the legal system will judge Peterson's action. But as is typically the case, the court of public opinion is moving at light speed to render judgment on Peterson, no doubt fueled by the Ray Rice and Greg Hardy domestic-violence incidents, and the lack of appropriate NFL policies that address domestic and family violence perpetrated by its players.

Even though this story continues to unfold, I decided to write this piece now because of what's been absent from coverage of this story -- two vital reasons Peterson acted in such a stupid, harmful manner.

First, Peterson was and still is ill prepared for being a father. Let me be clear. I'm not talking about whether he loves or genuinely cares for his son. I'm also not saying he lacks any knowledge or skill in being a father. What he clearly lacks, however, is an adequate base of knowledge and skills required of a nurturing, loving father, particularly in the area of disciplining a child.

Second, Peterson lacks even a basic understanding of the difference between discipline and punishment. I'll unpack this second reason before I return to the first one.

The evidence for this lack of understanding first appeared in a statement issued by Peterson's attorney, Rusty Hardin, who said, "Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son. He used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in east Texas."

The evidence mounted several days later when Peterson spoke for the first time about the abusive act and said:

"I never imagined being in a position where the world is judging my parenting skills or calling me a child abuser because of the discipline I administered to my son... I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. I know that many people disagree with the way I disciplined my child."

(Click here for the full text of Peterson's statement.)

Count me in with the crowd who disagrees as you notice how Peterson and Hardin harp on the notion that Peterson "disciplined" his child.

He did not discipline his child. He used a violent, fear-based, abusive form of punishment that was, tragically, used on him as a child.

That Peterson never questioned how he was punished as a child is also part of his problem.

Discipline, which originates from the Latin word "discipulus," means "to teach or guide." To punish means, no pun intended, to "penalize" someone for an offense through pain, loss, confinement, or even death. Taking a switch to a 4-year-old in today's world, or in the world of the recent or distant past, is simply a form of abusive, fear-based punishment meant to inflict pain. It in no way teaches or guides. Anyone who doesn't realize this kind of punishment can injure a child is not in his or her right mind.

Too many fathers, and parents in general, confuse discipline and punishment. They use the terms interchangeably. (Peterson and Hardin clearly fall into this camp.) They default to punishment because they either lack knowledge of effective ways to discipline their children or, if they know of alternatives; they take the easier, swifter path because, quite simply, discipline requires more work than punishment. Discipline requires skill in applying proven techniques. It also requires parents to be calm, patient, and nurturing before, during and after disciplining children, a quality some parents sorely lack. It also requires comfort with failure as parents learn how to effectively apply the techniques of child discipline and which ones work best with their children.

Moreover, when these parents punish -- and there are times when it is appropriate to punish children -- they use violent forms that are unnecessary and place their children at risk for injury, not to mention the damage these forms have on parent-child relationships. These parents lack the knowledge of effective, non-violent forms of punishment.

This specific lack of knowledge and skill in the discipline of children underscores a larger problem, particularly as it concerns fathers and our culture in general. Too many men become fathers without an inkling of how to be a good father. Our culture does a pitiful job of preparing men to be good fathers, and fathers know this. Several years ago, researchers from the University of Texas and Rutgers University conducted the most significant national study to date on fathers' attitudes on fathering. Only slightly more than half of the fathers surveyed "agreed," and less than a fourth "strongly agreed," that they felt adequately prepared for fatherhood when they first became fathers.

As this story continues to unfold, we must not only examine Peterson's culpability and the appropriateness of the actions taken by the NFL and the Vikings in punishing him. We must also examine the culpability of our society for its inadequate preparation of men to be fathers and lack of training for fathers in the knowledge and skills required to be involved, responsible, committed fathers. (National Fatherhood Initiative tried for years, with no success, to work with the NFL in providing fathering training and resources for its players.) While that latter examination doesn't absolve Peterson of his individual responsibility in abusing his child, it at least acknowledges that his action didn't occur in a vacuum. Fortunately, and encouragingly, the legal authorities and the citizens in east Texas who indicted him recognized his action for what it is. Let's hope Peterson will eventually do the same.

How were you disciplined and/or punished as a child? How does how you were raised help (or harm) your style of discipline as a parent today?

For fatherhood leaders, we're here to help you serve the dads you lead. You can subscribe to our ebook service; where we share "How to Discipline Your Child" along with other helpful topics for dads.

Like this post? Subcribe to the FatherSOURCE  email for tips on helping dads! This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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