Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2007

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Parenting Pages

The Down to Earth Dad

Dads Yesterday and Today

By Patrick Mitchell

In my keynotes and workshops for programs, practitioners, and parents, I sometimes tease and entertain with a brief "History of Dads" segment, during which I play music depicting extreme stereotypical views of men. Then we move on to a more serious discussion of the important role of fathers in kids' lives.

Sometimes the topic of men on television comes up, and a few specific men come to mind. There's John Wayne (man as rugged individualist), Alan Alda (sensitive man), Hugh Beaumont (Ward Cleaver, the even-tempered, responsible businessman and even more responsible father), Bill Cosby (Cliff Huxtable, the good-natured upper-class father with all the right answers), and of course, Homer Simpson (the epitome of the father-as-gluttonous-and-lazy-and-simple-minded manOeand caring dad).

I spoke recently with Charles Flatter, an educational consultant to Sesame Street for 25 years, and he told me we'll look back on 2006 as a time of relatively high father involvement--not on TV per se, but in general. Flatter is a father and grandfather who serves as Chair of the Department of Human Development and Director of the Institute for Child Study at the University of Maryland.

"Today you have more father involvement; 40 years ago, you didn't have the same kind of involvement," he says. "The exciting thing about fatherhood today is that we're seeing an increased interest among fathers in doing their part, fulfilling their role, and celebrating the contributions they can make. Men are saying, 'I really want to be a dad.' That, to me, is a change."

A nationally recognized parenting expert, and the author of several child development textbooks, Flatter is keenly interested in young children's educational, social, and emotional development. And he's uniquely poised, with a child in his 40s, to take a wide view of father involvement in history going back as far as the 1960s. Historically, he says, dads were far less overtly involved in their children's upbringing (the Ward Cleavers of the time notwithstanding).

"Back in the 1960s, it was relatively rare to see fathers reading books to young children, changing babies' diapers, or talking with employers about getting more time off to be with their kids," he says. "I think we're seeing [today] more of an interest in the question, 'What is the father's contribution, and how does it differ from the mother's contribution?' Many men in the past talked about their children in terms of, 'I have them,' or 'I am proud to have them,' but not as affectively associated with, 'My children really enrich my personal life,' as much as I see with some fathers today. These are positive changes that we can visibly see."

I travel occasionally for my work, and I remarked to Dr. Flatter that I see family bathrooms in airports, malls, and other public places everywhere I go. "This was something that just didn't exist in any form in the '60s or '70s," he says, explaining that, in the '60s and '70s, many men just didn't 'go there'--to the place of overtly doing things that were traditionally, or at least stereotypically, the woman's domain.

"To some degree," Flatter says, "men refused to do [early childhood things] in the past because they thought it feminized them and demeaned the thing they valued most, which was their masculinity. The thinking was, 'Masculine people cut down trees, but they don't change diapers.'

"That's the difference between then and now. You can [watch] many early television shows, which really depicted dad as always having the right answers, and mom as always doing the right thing. I think we're getting around to where mothers and dads share the right answers, and mothers and dads share doing the right things."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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 patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.


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