Children's Voice July/August 2008

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The Down to Earth Dad

Leveraging "Dad Wishes" to Reel in "Dad Fishes"

By Patrick Mitchell

I routinely interview dads connected to child- and family-serving programs-- mostly fathers of preschool children--and they routinely tell me their child is bound for college one day to earn a bachelor's degree and then immediately pursue an advanced degree or land a meaningful, high-paying job. These things are to happen, the dads explain, immediately following four successful years of high school.

I have come to believe that such fatherly proclamations, born of pride and hope, are in part a reaction to memories these dads have of mistakes they feel they made when they were younger. Most dads tell me fatherhood changed them--pretty much completely--from the person they used to be. The dads tell me they want something better for their kids: namely, academic success.

Like me, the dads I interview think their children are incredibly bright learning machines, capable of soaking up vast amounts of knowledge--the alphabet, numbers, shapes, music, and rhythm--and possess fantastic problem-solving skills and vivid imaginations. The dads' collective reasoning seems to be, "My child is bright, as evidenced by all the things she knows, and all the learning she appears capable of; therefore, she's going to succeed in the school years, graduate with honors from high school, then go off to college and have a successful experience there, and then pursue life with vigor (and high income) and be a successful person in the world."

Greg Panther, father of 4-year-old Shoshini, would concur. Shoshini attends Cherokee Tribal Child Care Services Head Start and Early Head Start in Cherokee, North Carolina. She's definitely college material, says her dad, as is her brother, 7-year-old Corbin. "I think it's important that Corbin and Shoshini finish school and then do well enough in school in order to go off to college. You stand a better chance of getting a good paying job if you have a college degree," Panther says. "There are days when I wish I had gone to college. I think life would have been a little easier had I done so. I firmly believe that the more my kids know, the better they'll be equipped to compete against other people in society going for the same job as them."

Mr. Panther's children have a lot going for them. For starters, they have an involved dad in their lives, meaning, right off the bat, they're less likely to experience the negative outcomes associated with father absence, such as growing up poor, breaking the law, abusing drugs and alcohol, doing poorly in school, becoming a teen parent, dropping out of school, or committing suicide. Rather, Panther's kids have a statistically better chance of doing relatively well in many ways, including academically, just the way their dad would wish.

Programs Can Leverage "Dad Dreams"

Progressive child- and family-serving programs may find success in motivating dads to get involved when they leverage fathers' pre-existing enthusiasm for getting their child to college. They can do this by hosting events that teach practical steps dads can take to meet their goals. I do this in my Father Involvement and Literacy Enhancement trainings and in Family Storytelling NightTM events. The idea is to emphasize that children's potential for academic success begins long before school age.

According to Early Literacy Researcher Elizabeth Sulzby, children need 1,000 hours of early literacy enhancement prior to kindergarten to be good readers in school--things like lap reading, singing, dancing, rhyming, and storytelling. Early childhood educators are aware of a correlation between how well a child tackles literacy in kindergarten and that child's 10th grade reading ability. How well a child reads in the 10th grade can determine how well a student does academically overall.

Dads can help whittle away those 1,000 hours. Programs giving dads tools to promote literacy are also empowering fathers to take tangible steps toward reaching their goal of seeing their child succeed academically and go off to college.

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!™ Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at Website:

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