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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

5 Challenges Faced by Fathers in Responsible Fatherhood Programs

What are the primary challenges of fathers who participate in responsible fatherhood programs? The Fatherhood Research and Practice Network (FRPN) recently released a brief that attempts to answer that question. (I sit on the FRPN's advisory committee.) Answering that question is critical because these challenges may be, as the brief notes, strongly associated with lower levels of father involvement in children's lives and lower quality coparenting relationships.

5 Challenges Faced by Fathers in Responsible Fatherhood Programs

FRPN's Dr. Jay Fagan and Rebecca Kaufman interviewed fathers--from 9 responsible fatherhood programs in 5 cities in the northeast that serve primarily low-income, unmarried, non-residential fathers--about the challenges they face.

The top 5 challenges they mentioned in descending order of frequency were:

  1. Unemployment
  2. Lack of money to buy things for their children
  3. Inability to pay child support
  4. Difficulty keeping a job
  5. Inability to pay bills

The other challenges they mentioned were wide-ranging, from physical health problems to their living situation preventing their children from coming to see them to drug/alcohol use to being accused of abusing/neglecting their children. (The brief includes all of the challenges the fathers mentioned, the frequency with which fathers mentioned them, and the severity of those challenges.)

These challenges underscore one of the most vital pieces of guidance National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) has provided to organizations through the years: the importance of helping fathers meet their most immediate, pressing needs as part of or even before enrolling them in a responsible fatherhood program. Meeting these needs is often the hook that encourages fathers to enroll in a responsible fatherhood program and to maintain their participation rather than learning how to be a better father and parent (e.g. through increased knowledge of child development, child discipline, etc.). Indeed, helping fathers overcome these challenges should be a component of a responsible fatherhood program either through the provision of services (often called "wrap-around services") by the organization running the program or the organization's partners.  

The FRPN's findings are similar to the results of research that I conducted with Dr. Keith Cherry, a long-time colleague and friend, when NFI was part of the National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System (QIC-NRF), a 5-year project (2006-2011) funded by the Children's Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through a contract with the American Humane Association. That research involved interviews with low-income, non-resident fathers involved in the child welfare system in four communities supplemented by interviews with fatherhood program practitioners who worked with these and other child-welfare involved fathers.

Like the fathers interviewed by the FRPN researchers, the fathers Keith and I interviewed also mentioned financial challenges as their most pressing needs. Our research (published in the journal Protecting Children) also involved delving deeper into the impact of these fathers' challenges on the fathers and their perceptions so that child welfare workers and fatherhood practitioners within and who work with the child welfare system could better understand these fathers and, as a result, work more effectively with them and develop better strategies to encourage enrollment in fatherhood programs offered by child welfare agencies.  

We recorded, transcribed, and conducted an in-depth content analysis of the interviews. We identified the following themes in the lives of these fathers:

  • The financial and emotional devastation caused by their own absence from their children's lives.
  • The belief that they are constantly extorted by the mother of their children with their children being bargaining chips in a constant tug-of-war between them and the mother in which the mother has the upper hand.
  • The loss of control over their lives and hopelessness about the future.
  • The belief that the judicial/court system fosters poor fatherhood.

This deep understanding of these fathers' lives is so critical to effective program delivery. Staff of responsible fatherhood programs must look not only at fathers' needs but how those needs affect fathers. It is those affects that drive fathers' behavior. Indeed, the most successful of the programs we studied during our participation in the QIC-NRF were those seen by fathers to meet fathers' needs and care about fathers' welfare. 

What are you doing to understand and solve the most pressing problems of fathers?

What are you doing to better understand the impact of father absence on the fathers you serve?

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Two Stories that Will Warm Your Heart

We receive a lot of phone calls and emails from dads and moms who seek guidance on father involvement and related issues. The vast majority of these calls and emails are associated with the negative effects of father absence. But every once in a while, a dad or mom, and sometimes a child, shares an uplifting story about how a dad stepped up to the plate to be a great dad and the positive impact of that action. Those stories drive our staff to never stop ensuring that as many children as possible experience the love of an involved, responsible, committed father.

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We also stay on the lookout for such uplifting stories that aren't directly shared with us because we know they can motivate individuals and organizations in their work to connect fathers and children. These stories are often shared by the organizations that use our resources, donors, and dads and moms across the country. (Click here for Stories of Impact shared by our organization partners.) Sometimes we find stories during the course of our work to provide the most useful information and resources. 

While conducting some research recently, I learned about StoryCorps, a nonprofit with the following mission:

StoryCorps' mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations. 

In its more than 10 years of existence, StoryCorps has captured and archived more that 50,000 recordings on an incredible range of topics. Curious, I plugged "fathers" into their search function to see whether I could find stories to use in our work. The result produced a number of recordings that turned up a few gems, two in particular that I hope will uplift you as much as they did me.

The first recording is of a 9-year-old boy, Aidan Sykes, who interviewed his father, Albert, about being a dad. (Albert runs a nonprofit focused on mentoring children. He is not only in a great dad, he has stepped up to help children less fortunate than his own.) Click here to listen.

albert-sykes

The second recording is of Wil Smith telling his now adult daughter, Olivia, what it was like to raise her as a single dad while in college. He recorded the conversation shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, he died just a few months ago. Click here to listen.

wil-smith

We want to share more stories like these. Please let us know if you have one.

Do you have an uplifting story to share? 

Do you have a Story of Impact that resulted from the use of an NFI resource? If so, click here to learn more about how to share it with us.

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3 Ways to Leverage the Good News about Teen Dads

So much has been written and said about the problems created by teen pregnancy, particularly the problems it creates for teen moms and their children. Teen moms are, for example, much less likely to graduate from high school, or get a high school diploma by age 22, than are teen girls who don't have children. This disparity leads to other long-term disparities between these two groups including fewer employment opportunities and lower earnings for teen moms. And most of them receive little or no child support. These disparities place a burden on society as 63 percent of these moms rely on some kind of public assistance. Teen pregnancy places the children of teen parents at increased risk for a host of poor outcomes too numerous to mention here.

But what about teen dads? What do we know about their interactions with the mothers of their children? Do their interactions make things better or worse for the moms and children? Here's what we know.

Pregnancy_IconWe know they're much less likely to be involved in the lives of their children than are adult fathers. One primary reason is, quite simply, that a teen dad is rarely married to the mother. A whopping 88 percent of these parents are not married. Nevertheless, 20 percent of teen moms live with their "romantic partner" (most likely the father, but not necessarily a teen) within a year of giving birth. Even if all of these romantic partners are the fathers and are also teens, that's still a very low number of them living with their children. And that's unfortunate, because teen fathers who live with their children at the birth of their children are more likely to still live with them when these fathers become adults. 

Fortunately, there is good news about the involvement of teen dads not living with their children and the impact of their involvement.

  • Half of these dads visit with their children at least monthly with most of them spending time with their children frequently. Interestingly, this is about the same rate of visitation among older nonresident fathers. 
  • Some research has shown the quality of the father-child relationship does not differ when comparing teen and adult fathers, contrary to popular belief. Surprisingly, teen dads are more likely than adult dads to feel attached to their children.
  • Additional research finds a positive impact of teen fathers on teen mothers and their children when teen fathers are involved before and immediately after the birth of their children. These teen fathers have a protective effect by reducing the risk of depression of teen mothers and distress of infants.  

So when we take all of these facts into consideration, the picture of teen fathers' involvement in their children's lives is mixed. While the ability of teen dads to be involved in their children's lives is more challenging because of their lack of physical proximity, most of them are involved at some level and, when they are, have a positive impact on their children and the mothers. 

The question, then, for organizations and practitioners is: How can I increase teen fathers' involvement? There are several ways, and NFI's resources can help:

  1. Provide fathering education to teen fathers. NFI's 24/7 Dad® program is an excellent choice as organizations around the country have used it successfully with teen dads.
  2. Provide relationship education to teen fathers. NFI has partnered with The Dibble Institute to provide Love Notes, a program for teen dads (and couples).
  3. Provide education to teen moms on the importance of father involvement and how they can facilitate that involvement. NFI's Mom as Gateway™ workshop and Understanding Dad™ program are excellent choices.

Do you work with teen dads? Do you use a comprehensive approach that involves working with teen dads and teen moms?

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What Makes a Parent a Smart Parent

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

"I think one of the true ways I've gotten smarter is that I've realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I'm pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die." —David Foster Wallace

That quote from the American writer David Foster Wallace underscores one of the great lessons of life: There are plenty of people smarter than you, and you need to learn from them. This lesson applies to parenting.

WhatMakesaParentaSmartParent

When I joined National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) 15 years ago, my daughters were 5 and 2. I had only begun my parenting journey. I knew that I had things to learn about being a good father and parent. What I didn't realize was how much I had to learn. As the old saying goes, "You don't know what you don't know."

Fortunately, my boss was Wade Horn, the first president of NFI and a child psychologist. Wade is one of the smartest people I know. He's a smart father and parent who, as a child psychologist, knows a bit about how children are wired. The most important lesson I learned from Wade? Never project your consequences on your children. Just because I didn't have a negative outcome as a consequence of a decision to engage in a risky behavior doesn't mean that my children won't have a negative outcome if they engage in the same behavior. I've applied that lesson so many times I've lost count.

Wade helped me through several difficult parenting situations. One of those occurred about three years into my tenure at NFI. My oldest daughter had become an extremely picky eater. It drove me nuts because, since my mid-20s, I've focused on eating healthy and staying fit. The fact that I had a child who wasn't eating healthily signaled my failure as a parent. I had tried many of the tactics recommended by nutrition experts to get children to eat healthy. Not one of them worked!

I was at my wit's end when I asked Wade for guidance. He smiled and chuckled when I shared my frustration and concern for my child, which initially made the situation worse as he must have thought my concern to be ridiculous. But then he explained that a lot of young children are picky eaters because it's one of the few ways they can exert control over their lives. It's not necessarily the parents' fault.

He identified, however, one way that I might have indirectly contributed to my daughter's choice -- my own picky eating habits. He pointed out that my diligence in eating healthy is type of picky eating that my daughter had undoubtedly noticed at the dinner table and during conversations about eating healthy I'd had with her and my wife, and seen in several other ways I'd reinforced that form of picky eating. He encouraged me to keep trying to expand her tastes, but to also let the situation play out as many children's tastes expand, as they get older. (I'm happy to report that hers expanded.)

In my time at NFI, I've had the benefit of learning from many parents, especially fathers, who are smarter than me. These parents include NFI's second president, Roland Warren. Roland gave me more practical advice than I can share here. What was the most important thing I learned from him? Good fathers do three things well: provide, nurture and guide.

Other parents I've learned from include Stephen Bavolek, author of the internationally-acclaimed Nurturing Parenting Programs, who assisted me in developing the first editions of our 24/7 Dad® and InsideOut Dad® programs. I've applied much of the knowledge and many of the skills we teach fathers in those programs to parenting my own children. I've also learned from the countless fathers and mothers who have contributed their wisdom on parenting in this blog The Father Factor, and the many experts in parenting whose research on parenting effectiveness has informed the programs and other resources I've developed at NFI.

Don't wait until you're at your wit's end before seeking advice on how to be a better parent generally and in specific situations. Part of being a smart parent is realizing you're not as smart as you think.

Question > What's one thing you could use parenting advice on now? Share your answer in the comment section or on , or .

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*The opening quote by David Foster Wallace is from Conversations with David Foster Wallace (Literary Conversations Series)

This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

4 Steps for Making Tough Parenting Decisions

How many times have you faced a tough parenting decision and wished you had a tool or process for helping you make that decision? In Engage the Fox, authors Jen Lawrence and Larry Chester describe a four-stage process that, while taught to students of business to help them make better team-based decisions, can help anyone, including parents, make better decisions regardless of setting or situation.  

  1. Gather
  2. Generate
  3. Evaluate
  4. Agree
tools


Let's say your child is having a difficult time with a teacher. Your child believes the teacher is unfairly treating your child, but your child won't confront the teacher out of fear of retaliation. What advice do you give your child? Several other questions might quickly pop into your mind, the answers to which will help you answer that ultimate question. These questions might include:

  • What evidence does my child have for the unfair treatment?
  • What about the treatment is, exactly, unfair?
  • Is that treatment really unfair?
  • If it is unfair treatment, is the teacher singling out my child or is this how the teacher typically treats students?
  • Will I have to confront the teacher?
  • Might I eventually have to go to a school administrator to resolve the issue?

The list of questions could go on and on. Clearly, this decision is a tough one.

Lawrence and Chester's process can help you critically think about this kind of decision and avoid a knee-jerk reaction that doesn't do you or your child any favors. If possible, bring your child's mom into this process from the very beginning. Because this is a process that improves team-based decision making, it's ideal for decisions made by families.

First, gather as much information about the situation as possible. Ask your child some of the questions that you can reasonably expect her or him to answer with accuracy. Your child can probably provide evidence for the unfair treatment and whether the teacher treats other students in the same way. If you know the families of some of the other students in the class, you could contact them to determine whether the teacher has unfairly treated their children. You might also have to talk with the teacher to get the full picture, even though your child might be adamantly opposed to that action. If you (and mom) decide the teacher is unfairly treating your child, move on to the remaining steps.

Second, identify possible solutions. Assuming that the teacher is unfairly treating your child, sit down with your child (and mom) and think through the possible solutions. These might include everything from letting the situation play out before taking more decisive action to confronting the teacher. Generate as many solutions as possible without initially judging them. Write down the solutions as you and your child (and mom) generate them.

Third, evaluate the options and select the best solution. Use a critical thinking tool, such as a list of pros and cons, to evaluate the options. Using such a tool will help you and your child (and mom) arrive at a decision that is as objective as possible. If your child's mom is the more analytical of you two, ask her to lead this step. 

Before you move on to the final step, it would be a good idea to step back and gain some distance from the situation before making the final decision. In their book Decisive (another great book on critical decision making), authors Chip and Dan Heath recommend that people "attain distance" before making a final decision because short-term emotion can lead to poor decisions (e.g. by clouding judgment). Attaining distance can involve taking a few days or more to let the options sink in before making a final decision. It can also involve asking questions that shift your perspective, such as, "If I had a friend in the same situation, what would I tell my friend to do?"

Finally, you and your child (and mom) should agree on the final solution. It's possible that your child won't agree and you (and mom) will have to make a unilateral decision in the best interest of your child. But hopefully, by following this process, your child will see that the decision you see is the right one.

Parenting is full of tough decisions. Having a process in your parenting toolbox that can help you critically identify and evaluate options and decisions will make you a better parent and enhance the relationship you have with your child (and mom).

What's the toughest parenting decision you face today?

How do you make the tough parenting decisions?

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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.

the_opportunity_costs_of_father_absence
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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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