Children's Voice Nov/Dec 2006

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The Down to Earth Dad

The Future of Fatherhood

By Patrick Mitchell

An old timer told me in 1976, "Anyone who tries to predict the weather in Idaho is either a newcomer or foolish." He was responding to my question, 'Do you think it will rain today?' That valuable advice 30 years ago helps me put the Weather Channel in perspective today.

I have a prediction to share about father involvement, but that's okay because I'm not a newcomer to the topic, and although I am from Idaho, I'm not foolish (my wife's occasional opinion of me notwithstanding).

I predict more fathers will aspire to be more meaningfully involved in their children's daily lives in the future if child- and family-serving programs continue to come on board demonstrably valuing father involvement at the current pace.

Father-friendly programs got a welcome boost this fall when the Administration for Children and Families began doling out the first of three installments of $50 million annually over five years to programs and initiatives implementing creative father involvement activities. These funds, made available for innovative projects promoting responsible fatherhood, are a demonstration of the commitment we need to sustain in years to come for the sake of our children.

I talk with numerous parents and program staff monthly, and what I see and hear is that fathers are increasingly eager to get more involved with their kids at home, at school, and in the activities of the programs to which their children are attached. They're looking for ways to make more time for their kids out of the small amount of time they feel they have, and they're stepping out of traditional paternal roles to do so. Many dads did a great job as parents in past generations, but the world has changed, and it's no longer feasible for men to come home from work, eat, interact briefly with their kids, entertain themselves with various interests, and then hit the hay.

The legacy of dads is enormous, and relatively uninvolved fatherhood has a downside. Fathers can cause their children to become unmotivated, anxious, underachieving, or angry as adults. On the other hand, they can give their kids the opportunity to grow up socially, emotionally, and cognitively strong. So says clinical psychologist Stephen Poulter, author of The Father Factor: How Your Father's Legacy Impacts Your Career. Many dads of yesteryear, Poulter says, brought home the bacon and provided for their families but offered little in the way of demonstrable physical or emotional presence in their children's lives. Still, the bacon they brought home was good and necessary, and those fathers worked hard and were, in many families, great providers and good guys. Many of us had such a father, Poulter says, referring to such men as "passive dads."

"This [father style] is kind of the old joke, 'Is he asleep on the couch or is he dead?'" Poulter says with a chuckle. "Most of us--probably 40 to 50% of us--had a passive dad. This is the guy who worked at Westinghouse for 45 years and then retired. He showed his love through his actions. Not much was said. He went to work, came home, was diligent, and had an excellent work ethic. He's a good dad. He didn't know much about his kids, because he was kind of on the periphery of the family. You know, dad was sitting in the living room reading the paper half asleep. Meanwhile, mom was in the kitchen fighting with all the kids, or the kids were all fighting with each other.

"Today, this is the kind of dad that comes home, feeds the kids, then spends his extra hours sitting in front of the computer reading his emails, or surfing the Internet…He doesn't know the kids' school teachers' names, or the name of the pediatrician. This is a passive dad."

Fathers I talk to largely reject the passive model of fatherhood, regardless of their education or income level. They aspire for more visible, active involvement in their children's lives.

Give anything 30 years, and it will change completely. Fatherhood today is a lot different than it was 30 years ago, and 30 years from now, fatherhood will be different from what it is today. The nature of men is to rise to meet whatever bar is placed above them, and the nature of dads is to do their best to be involved at the level they believe they ought to be involved. I predict that if you help them, fathers will succeed, and the real winners will be our children.

Anyone who tries to predict the weather may be foolish, but anyone who underestimates the power of involved fatherhood, or overlooks their own capacity to help dads achieve that to which they aspire--to become more meaningfully involved in their children's lives for the sake of their children--is just shortsighted. Let's look to the future of father involvement with optimism.

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! Project™ 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 Website:

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