Ask not what the country can do for fathers

By Jack O’Sullivan, Fathers Direct, Summer 2004

If fathers and fatherhood in Britain are to achieve anything near their potential for good, we should admit that the public debate has gone hopelessly wrong. The reason is simple. We keep asking the wrong question. We must stop wondering what we should give dads (answer: not much) and instead focus on what they can achieve for their children. (answer: a lot).

The consequences of constantly asking the wrong question – of arguing about perceived male deprivation – are huge. First, it seems to set fathers in competition with mothers – and perhaps even children – for resources. This perception damages fatherhood, placing it at the margins of the family. Second, the notion of fathers as a group of needy victims neither fits the way the public sees us nor how we dads regard ourselves. According to conventional wisdom, men in their prime (the typical father) should be last into the lifeboats. Few men challenge this view, thus rendering still-born a rights-led debate on fathers.

Change the question, however, to how dads can offer more to their children and suddenly discussion is enlivened and full of potential. We know that men typically come with many privileges and advantages – that’s why we don’t think they deserve any more. So the question chimes with public perceptions.  It also fits with how many men think about themselves. Finally, and perhaps most important, this approach makes fatherhood not a lonesome, narcissistic cri de coeur but, instead, a central policy issue that could fulfil vital objectives for our society. We know that better, more involved fatherhood will mean higher educational achievement for children, lower crime, less child poverty, greater gender equality, better communities. Can we afford not to make proper use of the assets dads possess?

The ramifications of changing the question in this way – from what to give fathers, to how we can get more out of them – are massive. It means that we shift the focus away from fathers’ rights to the role that men can fulfil in meeting children’s needs. It means looking at fatherhood as a national resource – like North Sea oil, the air we breathe, the countryside we savour. Fatherhood is there for children’s benefit, and for women’s too – if only we can make it accessible. The debate becomes more about releasing and harnessing social capital rather than about meeting individual male needs and “rights”. The consequences could be enormous since: failure to mobilise fatherhood efficiently on behalf of children amounts to appalling waste, given the poverty of resources available to families.

The issue sounds simple enough, yet virtually everyone is hooked on asking the first, wrong, arid question. Because feminism focussed on women’s rights, we are primed erroneously to expect that a fatherhood movement must necessarily be about men’s rights. The media, which thrives on overdrawn, simplistic polarities, is also fated to perceive fatherhood through the lens of gender conflict. These predispositions are inevitably exacerbated by failure to reform the family courts and by the style of public protest pursued by Fathers4Justice. Finally, our adversarial politics is based on notions of victims and perpetrators, tempting some men into presenting all fathers –albeit unconvincingly – as victims. The state itself is also complicit: it is alert to demands from the needy for funding, much less able to spot an existing resource – such as fatherhood – that through clever leverage could help us achieve mor goals as relatively low cost.

Take the childcare debate for example. The Treasury is committed to providing tax-funded nursery places. This is laudable, but the Treasury has clearly never asked the bigger question: how do we get the most out of families for the benefit of the under-fives? If it had, it would have come up with imaginative – and relatively cheap – proposals leveraging child-caring opportunities for working, and non-working, fathers. But the Treasury is stuck on the old question: what should we give dads? Perceiving them as would-be claimants on state resources, it casts them a few crumbs, consistent with their lack of merit. But in this process it fails to use state resources wisely, fails to harness the social capital that fathers can offer, and, as a result, fails children and their families.

Unfortunately, Labour has yet to get over fully its lingering suspicion of harnessing non-governmental resources (such as fatherhood) for the public good. The party is instinctively more comfortable doling out publicly-funded resources, because then it can keep tabs on how the change impacts on equality.

One observation might, however, swing Labour doubters: despite what the tabloids say about celebrity dads, the real revolution in active fatherhood is taking place among blue-collar workers. Their children, rather than those of highly-paid white collar workers, are currently most likely to be experiencing the benefits of greater father involvement. 

Additionally, it is worth noting that it is children from the most fragile families who potentially have most to gain most from seeing more of their dads, according to major research by Professor Judy Dunn at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London. It is, for example, the children of “teen mums” who gain particularly from work to engage fathers. In short, a policy that focussed on supporting fatherhood in the most disadvantaged communities promises children a big return on the state’s investment.

Sections of the Government have recognised the importance of such initiatives. At the Department for Education and Skills, a special unit has been established to promote parental involvement. A trawl through the research has been enough to convince the experts that they have to get fathers more involved if standards are to be improved. In the autumn, schools will receive a special booklet, Engaging with Fathers, setting out just how to achieve this goal. Yet the NHS, which produces 630,000 new dads every year, still fails to accept a major responsibility to children and mothers, namely to ensure that those fathers are skilled and well-informed.

The other main parties also run the risk of pursuing the wrong question, albeit for different reasons. The Conservatives, because of their commitment to individualism, are in danger of hitching their wagons to campaigns for fathers’ rights. For opposition parties, it may be tempting to hound the Government in the wake of the Fathers4Justice protests. But it’s a false trail. The family courts should indeed be reformed – not, however, primarily because they fail fathers, but because, like so many public institutions, they fail children.

This new way of thinking about fatherhood is not an attempt to hide realities of men’s lives. We do not want to reinforce tired stereotypes, which say men are self-sufficient beings with no need of help. Some, such as teenage fathers or dads separated from their children by relationship breakdown or imprisonment, desperately require support. But if children’s needs are the focus, then a programme for fatherhood will emerge with greater clarity and sympathy than if the focus is on “fathers’ rights”. We are also more likely to see development of a fatherhood movement that will be worth having, and around which men in general will mobilise.

We must focus on the big picture, on maximising social capital for children everywhere – for their current well-being, and for all our futures.  Fatherhood is a means, not an end in itself. Forget this vital truth and we will continue to be stuck, fruitlessly belabouring the wrong question. The new, exciting question should adapt John F Kennedy’s famous call to citizenship: ask not what the country can do for fathers, but what fathers can do for our children