Children's Voice July/Aug 2006

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The Down to Earth Dad

A Hole in the Heart...and How Programs Can Help Mend It

By Patrick Mitchell

Some child- and family-serving programs go all out to get men involved for the sake of the children they educate and care for. Others could do more, says Irene Luckey, Research Associate Professor at the Institute for Families in Society, University of South Carolina. She's the principal investigator for the Center for Fathers and Families' Fatherhood Initiative, and she works closely with fatherhood programs throughout South Carolina.

I asked her what programs can do to get men more involved. For starters, she said, program staff must carefully examine the messages they send to men, and the messages they receive from other programs and their communities. Only then can they tap into the truth of the matter and change things for the better.

Programs serving children are inconsistent when it comes to what they say they want in terms of male involvement and what they actually do, Luckey says. "As a society, and in many of our programs, we're confused. We say we want men to be involved in our programs serving children, but most of the mechanisms there are not supportive of that. If we say we want men to be involved in the nurturing and early education of their children, then the environments [at the programs] really need to display that. Society is sort of sending mixed messages, and I think programs serving children really need to figure that out."

One negative thing program staffs sometimes do, and which impedes the programs' male involvement outreach, is to tell men--implicitly or explicitly (and almost always unwittingly) that if they can't provide for their child financially, then they have nothing significant to offer.

"One thing we need to do is to change some of the messages we give out; for example, the message to dads that, 'If you don't have money to offer, you're useless.' This makes men tend not to come around and seek a connection with the child. They do have something to offer, but they just don't know it," she said.

"The other thing would be to help mothers understand that, regardless of how you feel about this man, he is this child's father, so do not demonize this man."

Luckey has seen plenty of adult men cry as they recall growing up without their fathers around. They feel something is missing from their lives. "One of the major problems I see is that hole in the child's heart about their dad. There's a void when children don't see their fathers."

Programs serving children, she says, will serve them better if they strive to get good men involved. Researchers see a host of negative outcomes for children who experience years of father absence; Luckey warns that children who grow up without involved dads are at an increased risk for growing up poor, getting into trouble with the law, abusing drugs and alcohol, dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, and even suicide.

On the flip side, research shows that kids whose dads are involved in their education, for example, tend to get better grades in school and enjoy school more.

Most fathers genuinely want to reach out and be involved, Luckey observes, but they need a push from the programs serving their children. They need positive, thoughtful program staff to make them feel truly welcome.

Men are increasingly ready to step in and get involved at home and in the programs serving their children. "I see men being more involved hands-on with their children," Luckey says. "They're not just going to work and bringing home the money so their children can be provided for, but they're actually doing things like changing diapers, babysitting, taking care of them.

"The other thing I see is men allowing their children to be a part of their lives--not just [being] with the child inside the house, but they're taking their children with them and letting them see their world."

Dr. Luckey and I, and many dedicated professionals, share an exciting truth regarding male involvement in child- and family-serving programs: Great things happen when dads get involved.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.


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