The opportunities we face and the problems we tackle

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Fatherhood is emerging as a key issue in a wide range of areas of public concern – criminal justice, education, poverty, family separation.

The National Service Framework for Children, the core standard for all statutory children’s services, has highlighted the importance of fathers in the lives of children.

  • “The role of fathers in parenting their children is frequently overlooked. Their contribution to their child’s development and well-being is important. Good parenting by fathers can significantly promote their child’s development….Good parenting by fathers is associated with better mental health in children, higher quality of later relationships, less criminality, better school attendance and behaviour, and better examination results.” (Standard 2, 3.6, p.69)
  • “Involvement of prospective and new fathers in a child’s life is extremely important for maximising the life-long well-being and outcomes of the child (regardless of whether the father is resident or not). Pregnancy and birth are the first major opportunities to engage fathers in appropriate care and upbringing of their children.” (Standard 11, 5.6, p.11)

The ‘Core Offer’ of the Children’s Centre Guidelines has highlighted the importance of engaging and consulting with fathers.

Thirty years of research into child development has uncovered unequivocal evidence that the active and positive involvement of fathers is good for children in terms of their future educational and emotional development. (The best review of the literature, now in its 4th edition, is Lamb, ME (2004) The Role of the Father in Child Development (Wiley, NY). You can download an earlier summary of the literature from this website, What good are dads.

Fathers’ aspirations are changing rapidly: in every social group, men want to be more involved in their children’s lives to an unprecedented degree.

Parents are sharing caring and earning roles as never before: more than 50% of mothers of under-fives in two-parent families are employed; fathers’ care of infants and young children has risen 8 times over 30 years; fathers of school-age children in dual-earner families undertake more childcare than any other carer (professional or extended family).

Profound and continuing social changes (including low fertility; changes in women’s education and expectations; earlier and more frequent separation and divorce; and the restructuring of the labour market) guarantee ongoing change.

A high profile public debate about fatherhood, though distorted, is being driven by separated fathers’ organisations.

The 2005 Labour Party Manifesto identifies the importance of providing more ‘opportunities’ for fathers to play a greater part in the raising of children ‘including’ through ‘leave arrangements.

A high level of political interest has emerged as the issue has been taken up by the Opposition.

There is now substantial consensus that unless and until fathers share much more equally in family care, gender inequalities will remain.

Problems to be addressed

Numerous system failures are becoming visible.

Schools: There is no preparation for boys for future caring roles; only girls are offered childcare opportunities by careers advisors (found in an investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission). The proportion of men in teaching of younger children is at an all-time low. Involvement by fathers in their children’s schools is minimal (research funded by Department for Education and Skills and carried out by the National Family and Parenting Institute).

Prisons: Parenting education for fathers is more available in prisons than anywhere else in society and sophisticated approaches have been developed – having children has been found to be a powerful motivator for change. But facilities for the 125,000 children with fathers in prison to visit their fathers are generally appalling and there is no statutory requirement on prisons to support the ongoing child-father relationship where this is appropriate for the children. When men are released there are no programmes to support their re-integration into their role as father. The parental status of young men registering in community-based Youth Offending Teams is not even recorded – the section on the form is reserved for young women offenders only.

Maternity services: Maternity services widely fail to provide adequate support and information to fathers in the transition to parenthood and in enabling men to be supportive of mother and baby. Research at Bristol University shows that young men in particular feel excluded by maternity services, which in turn interpret the young men’s distance as an abandonment of the mother and baby.

Benefits and allowances: Financial support for separated families envisages the resident parent as responsible for care and the non-resident parent as involved only in a financial capacity. Low income non-resident parents who do participate in caring for their children have no access to appropriate housing or any kind of allowance to support the cost of their caring – they are invisible to the state as parents and are defined as ‘non-parents’. The system was found to be sex discriminatory by the High Court in late 2004.

Preschool family services: These services are targeted at supporting mothers and the vast majority of these institutions are unable to engage with and support the needs of the fathers who do one third of the parental care of this age-group, when mothers work; nor do these services recognise the considerable caring work undertaken by many fathers in disadvantaged communities where there is high unemployment

Workplace and leave entitlements: Workplace culture still considers caring to be the responsibility of women, which in large measure accounts for the discrimination and disadvantage that women often experience in the workplace when they become mothers. The inequitable system of leave entitlements in the UK reinforces this segregation. Successful statutory leave policies in other countries to support sharing of caring roles are resisted by senior ministers in this country.

Support to separated families: The problems faced by non-resident fathers in relation to schools, prisons, maternity services, pre-school services and the workplace are all magnified compared to fathers in intact families. Services to support non-resident parents are critically under-resourced across the board, built on the false assumption that non-resident parents are not involved in the lives of their children.

Domestic violence: Whilst awareness about domestic violence and action to tackle it are rising rapidly, with huge benefits for victims and for society as a whole, there remains an almost complete dearth of programmes to enable violent parents to address their own behaviour and take steps to stop their violence for the sake of their children and partners.

Family courts: In the context of all the limitations in support for fatherhood listed above, when relationships break down and the care of children is in dispute, huge differences between parents emerge in relation to children. Normally mothers find themselves “in possession of” the children and fathers who want to be involved have to earn and justify their position from a position of powerlessness and extreme fear and pain at the loss of relationship with those they love. This accounts for the demands of fathers rights groups to be considered equally with women when shared care arrangements are being negotiated.

Families with high salaries, relatively little need of services, and power to organise their own work patterns are relatively easily able to adjust their patterns of work and care – for them, social change may bring about multiple new opportunities. Families with low incomes, low educational qualification and low-status jobs, and in high need of services, find themselves put at disadvantage by systems that do not see them as they are.

If fathers did not want to be with their children and were happy with a purely financial relationship with their families, and if women were happy to shoulder the entire responsibility of caring for children without the help of men, then the problems would disappear. In intact families, men would be happy to work very long hours and sub-contract caring entirely to their partners. In separated families, men would be happy not to see their children and to contribute only financially. But this model is breaking down, as women increasingly want a career and report lack of opportunities to share care with their partners as a key frustration, and as men increasingly want to give expression to their passionate attachment to their children by spending more time and developing close relationshipswith them.