Why it’s time to Bring Fathers In

18 November 2014

Come in we're open

Jeremy Davies writes:

Two years ago the Fatherhood Institute published a global research review which identified and explored the evidence on parenting and other programmes’ promotion of father-involvement in the first eight years of children’s lives.

Depressingly, what we discovered was that very few such policies and programmes have a father-focus. Most programmes that aim to improve maternal and child health (including mother-to-child HIV transmission), for example, ignore fathers altogether.

Now it’s true that dads may not appear to be queuing up for support. This is not because they lack interest in their children’s progress. More often than not, fathers won’t even think of themselves as needing support; even where programmes do exist, they are rarely, if ever, invited to participate. They may feel – justifiably in most cases – that support is not really aimed at them, and/or that to access support would be in some way emasculating.

It’s not hard to see why. Despite decades of progress towards gender equality in many parts of the world, it remains the case that most of us are culturally programmed to see women as more naturally suited to looking after children, and as a corollary, that men’s role in caregiving is less significant. It is in this context that family-based services and change programmes are designed and delivered, and dads and mums define their respective contributions to their children’s upbringing.

Scientific evidence to support such fundamental differences between mothers’ and fathers’ caregiving is conspicuous by its absence. Researchers have so far found no biologically-based differences between the sexes in sensitivity to infants or in capacity to provide intimate care. We also know that within 15 minutes of holding a baby, men experience raised levels of hormones associated with tolerance/trust (oxytocin), sensitivity to infants (cortisol) and brooding/lactation/bonding (prolactin); and that the more experienced a man is as a caregiver, the quicker and more pronounced are the hormonal changes.

There’s huge potential for services and change programmes to reach out and help dads thrive as caregivers – and there’s plenty of evidence that by doing so, outcomes for children (not to mention mothers and fathers) can be improved. There are examples of programmes, like the UN Population Fund’s Ecoles des Maris (Schools for Husbands) project in Niger, that have worked carefully to get dads engaged, and have reaped huge benefits.

To build on such leading-edge practice, we today publish Bringing Fathers In, a set of resources developed to help policymakers, family, health and education services, NGOs and international development programmes around the world, inject some ‘dad power’ into the work they do.

Bringing Fathers In includes factsheets about making the most of dads to support their children’s learning, maternal and infant health, and reduce violence in children’s lives; top tips on how to engage dads and the biggest mistakes to avoid; great ideas on ‘messaging’ for anyone advocating for more father-inclusive services; and advice on how to design and evaluate services to maximise father-involvement. The resources are backed by ten research summaries, on everything from dads and hormones, to fathers’ impact on learning and literacy, and the impact of fathers’ parenting styles.

These resources are available as free downloads here. They were produced with support from the Bernard Van Leer Foundation and MenCare.

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