Creating father friendly parenting classes

5 June 2006

By Noël Janis-Norton, Director of The New Learning Centre

As is typical with most parenting events put on by other organisations, more mothers than fathers attend The New Learning Centre’s parenting courses. The fathers who do attend often report that initially they were reluctant, even though (and sometimes because) their partners were very enthusiastic.

In order to help fathers feel more comfortable more quickly, over the years we have compiled a list of the worries fathers had when they first came to us. We begin to address all these concerns during the initial consultation that always precedes joining a ten-week course. Interestingly, many of these obstacles to attendance seem to be quite universal, largely unrelated to cultural or religious background, level of education, socio-economic group or even whether the man is the biological father or the step-father.

Fathers are often worried that they will feel outnumbered by women, and in particular that they will feel embarrassed and at a loss for words if they are expected to talk about their feelings ‘in front of a bunch of women’, as one father put it.

Calmer, easier, happier

Before the initial consultation is even booked, we require parents to learn something about our ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ parenting methods, either by listening to one of our CDs, attending one of our evening introductory talks or half-day seminars or reading one of the books about our methods. From this first exposure, fathers soon see that ours is a solution-focused approach, not one that discusses feelings at great length. The term we use, ‘parenting skills classes’, rather than ‘parenting groups’, reinforces this.

We know that feelings are important, and we do not ignore them, but our emphasis is on teaching and training parents to do things differently in order to get a different result. Whenever we feel that a talking therapy would be useful, we recommend it and we make referrals.

Before fathers begin our classes, we reassure them, as many times as may be necessary, that the facilitator will not call on anyone. Instead, we do lots of pair work and small group work, and these help develop social confidence. At first we arrange for men to pair up together, but within a few weeks this is no longer necessary because the group has bonded, based on their similar issues, and they all feel like friends, regardless of gender.

Before starting the course with us, the fathers often feel criticised by the mothers (in particular for not spending enough time at home and for not ‘backing up’ the mother when she was attempting to discipline the children). Because the mothers are generally very keen to do the classes, the fathers expect that the facilitator will take the mother’s ‘side’. The fathers are hugely relieved to find that the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ approach always requires both parents to change.

A number of men resent the idea that they might be told what to do, particularly by a stranger who does not know their families. Sometimes the fact that our team of facilitators are all women is also an issue. These concerns evaporate rapidly when the fathers see that our advice is effective.

Positive, firm and consistent

In families where the children’s behaviour is very problematic, often the father’s and mother’s roles and emotional responses have become polarised. Often (but not always) the mother has become increasingly stressed and anxious, leading to much nagging and then giving in, while the father has become increasingly stressed and angry, alternating between exploding and indulging. This is a vicious cycle in which each parent’s response to the other further intensifies the polarities. In this situation, many fathers assume that in a parenting class they will be told that they must be softer and more permissive.

Fathers very soon realise that this is not the case. We make it clear from the outset that there are aspects of each parenting extreme that are useful and aspects that are not useful. The ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ programme teaches a middle path, which we call ‘positive, firm and consistent’. The mothers are pleased that the fathers will learn to be more positive, and the fathers are pleased that the mothers will learn to be firmer. Mothers and fathers both readily acknowledge that consistency is the most difficult of the three qualities to master. Both ends of the continuum can easily see that this middle path feels good to all concerned and helps everyone in the family to behave better.

Old-fashioned dads

Occasionally we work with men who are still trying to live by the old-fashioned code that states that the well-being and disciplining of the children is the responsibility of the mother. These are often men who work long hours away from home (and often out of the country) and are very successful in their careers. These men typically look to their work to validate their worth and to give them a sense of identity. They feel that they are fulfilling their role by providing very well for the material wants of their family. They are often very irritated by and impatient with what they perceive as their wife’s incompetence at her job of managing the children. They resent the wife’s lack of appreciation for how hard the father must work to provide for the family’s lifestyle.

During the initial consultation it usually becomes evident that these fathers feel guilty that they prefer dealing with work problems to dealing with family problems. And at the root of their reluctance and resentment and guilt is often a feeling of inadequacy.

In a situation like this, we are always careful never to take sides or to even seem to be taking sides. We help the father to see that participation in family life is even more important than paying for holidays and school fees. We help the mother to see that her complaining is not an effective way to motivate the father to participate more.

Because our parenting skills classes are all about identifying and building on small successes, this father soon realises that he can enjoy being with his children without spending money on them and that he can discipline them without losing their affection.

Private lessons

When fathers are very busy, they may begrudge the one evening a week for ten weeks that the parenting skills class takes up. And for fathers who often travel on business, the classes are not practical. In these situations we offer private parent sessions, either in person or by telephone.

Sometimes the relationship between the parents has broken down to such a degree that the father does not want it to look like he is ‘giving in’ to his wife’s urgings to attend a parenting course. These couples typically argue and insult each other during the initial consultation.

To benefit from a group approach to learning new skills, the parents need to at least be willing to learn to work together as a team. So when parents are very angry with each other, we usually work with them in a number of private parent sessions first, rather than have them go straight into a group. The purpose of these private sessions is to help the parents to understand themselves and each other better, so that they can become more united in relation to the children. At that point, they can join the class and focus on learning new strategies.

In our experience, fathers seem to suffer from denial more than mothers do. A father may deny that a problem even exists. Or he may accept that there is a problem but deny that it is as severe as it appears to a more objective observer (eg to a head teacher, social worker, counsellor). He may accept the seriousness of the problem but deny that his own behaviour and attitudes are a contributing factor. Once again, several private sessions will usually help to loosen this knot. At that point, the parents can derive a great deal of benefit from the parenting skills classes.

The power of the group

Fathers sometimes request private parent sessions instead of a class, either because they assume that the private sessions, being more expensive, must be more effective, or because they do not want to ‘waste time’ listening to other people’s problems.

However, we know that the classes are very powerful for parents for several important reasons. Parents see they are not alone; the other families in the group are dealing with very similar problems. This realisation greatly reduces guilt and anxiety. Parents learn from and encourage each other. And as they explain the skills to other group members, this reinforces the learning of all. Therefore we ask these fathers to be open-minded and to be willing to try the classes.

Four of the skills we teach parents are:

  • Descriptive praise
  • Reflective listening
  • Preparing for success
  • Make the time and take the time

We don’t just teach these skills to parents; we also use them in every interaction with parents. The result is that, with very few exceptions, both fathers and mothers feel heard, understood and appreciated.

We do not run fathers-only groups for the same reason that we include in each group as rich a mixture as possible, including single parents, parents on court orders, adoptive parents, parents of children with special needs, same-gender couples, etc. The diversity benefits all.

Our only exceptions to this policy of inclusion are for parents who have a child with severe autism or parents of a teenager involved in serious acting-out behaviour, such as violence or intimidation, addiction, stealing, self-harm, suicide attempts, etc. We have found that these parents feel very discouraged if they are in a group where everyone’s issues are improving rapidly week by week. These parents need a programme that is targeted to their family’s unique needs. Their programme will include not only private parent sessions but also family learning sessions during which we work with the family as a whole, and work with the school and with any other professionals who are involved with the child or young person. 

What dads bring to groups

There are huge pluses to having fathers in groups. By and large they are keen to implement strategies. Their focus is generally on finding solutions, rather than on complaining about problems. They are often calmer with their children than the mothers are, for several reasons. They spend less time with their children so they want to make each moment count. They usually do not judge their worth by how their children behave, as many mothers do. They often find it easier to learn to be consistent; they tend to be less anxious and less often side-tracked by what mothers may see as unusual circumstances that seem to call for an exception to the rule. And fathers often bring a light-hearted, humorous approach to the classes.

Noël Janis-Norton is a learning and behaviour specialist, the creator of the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ parenting programme and the founder and Director of The New Learning Centre. For more information go to the New Learning Centre website.