Parenting programmes around the world are excluding fathers and the UK is no exception according to international research published this month.
The Fatherhood Institute and leading experts from US and UK universities say a ‘game change’ is needed in the commissioning, design and evaluation of parenting programmes, to get fathers more involved and thus improve child outcomes, and return on taxpayers’ investment.
Research shows clearly that fathers have substantial impact on child development, well-being, and family functioning. But a global review of evidence by researchers at Yale University and the Fatherhood Institute in London, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, has found that they are largely ignored by parenting programmes in the UK and elsewhere.
The review looked at evidence about thousands of parenting programmes, which are delivered mainly to mothers every year across the world. It found that parenting programmes rarely attempt to engage with fathers or evaluate their impact on key outcomes for both parents. It identified only 199 that included some evidence of father-inclusion or father impact on child or family outcomes. Among the 34 ‘exemplar’ programmes the researchers highlighted, just three were in the UK.
Time to wake up to dads
Fatherhood Institute head of research and joint chief executive Adrienne Burgess, who co-authored the review with a team from Yale University in the US, described it as a ‘wake-up call’ for everyone involved in early years and other family services.
“Those who commission, design and provide support to families are failing children by ignoring dads’ crucial role. Delivering support just to mothers places all the responsibility on their shoulders, and any benefits are likely to be undermined when the other parent (usually the dad) doesn’t understand what’s going on and isn’t brought ‘on board’,” she said.
It’s worth noting that, perhaps unsurprisingly, many dads are wary of parenting interventions. They often prefer to trust to instinct in such matters….and feel – again, with justification - uncomfortable about sitting in a room mainly full of women, to be told (usually by a woman) how to do things they either a) feel they’re pretty good at already, b) don’t feel confident about or c) a mixture of the above.
Adrienne Burgess points out that in fact, scientists’ understanding of ‘good parenting’ has progressed considerably in recent years…so it ought to be possible to create parenting interventions that appeal to, and provide useful insights for, a wide cross-section of dads and mums.
Involving dad benefits everyone
“I cannot think of one parent (mother or father), including myself, who would not benefit from a high quality intervention in parenting,” she says. “The science of good parenting has advanced hugely over the last couple of decades. As an example, we now know that when a baby keeps throwing an item out of its high chair, this is the equivalent of the baby 'going to the gym' - they are repeatedly practising the physical challenge as well as developing the synaptic pathways in their brain. Mothers or fathers who understand this will generally be far more tolerant, and actively encourage, this kind of activity, rather than being annoyed by it or ignoring it.
“Fathers and mothers can be delighted by the information and strategies they learn on parenting courses. The point of our research was to point out that it's mainly mums who benefit - professionals and course designers do little to attract dads or understand their perspectives. And although children benefit enormously when BOTH parents complete courses, almost no course providers make a real effort to get both parents to attend or include material that supports 'parenting together'. And evaluations rarely look at the impact of the courses on fathers or couples, so that they could develop areas that aren't meeting their needs.”
The review didn’t attempt to address the bigger question of whether or not parenting programmes actually work, what it is about them that works, and for whom – but the researchers did point out that cost-effectiveness analysis of such programmes is rare and previous analysis by the Fatherhood Institute has suggested that programmes work best where both parents are engaged.
The UK Government, which has experimented with the idea of subsidising parenting support through its CAN Parent programme, recently announced an extension of its ‘troubled families’ programme to 500,000 families, as well as doubling funds for relationship counselling to £19.5 million. Whether it will take the evidence on board and act to ensure these programmes address dads’ needs as well as mums’, remains to be seen.
---Photo Credit: National Childcare Trust
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