Last week, the Government announced that fathers could be offered men-only relationship classes around the time of a baby’s birth to “encourage them to be more involved as they grow up”.
The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said:
“It’s not only the bond between a mother and her child which makes a real difference to a child’s life, it is the bond between a father and a child too. The problem of absent fathers is far too common with households left worse off and more importantly, children left with the positive involvement of two parents in their life. “
The BBC hosted a discussion about the proposal on Radio Five Live, which offered perspectives from fathers, charities and the think tank Centre For Social Justice, which was founded by Duncan Smith and has produced numerous reports on the impact of fatherlessness and family breakdown
Dr Samantha Callan from the Centre For Social Justice, set the scene saying:
“Almost half of all children by the time they reach the age of 15 years when they are sitting their GCSEs, they’re no longer living with both of their parents. When you look at the poorer sections of society, that percentage goes from half to two thirds.
“If you just look at that section of society where family breakdown is most concentrated, by the time young children, five year olds, are starting school, half of them are no longer living in a home with their mum and their natural father.
“Many lone parents do a really spectacular job, my sister’s a lone parent, but it’s very, very hard to make up for the lack of the other parent who brought the child into the world.
“We all know exceptions to all sorts of things, but when we look across the statistics, children who experience family breakdown are more likely to experience all sorts of problems; do less well at school; need more medical treatment; leave school and home earlier and the major cause of youth homelessness is family breakdown.
Even low conflict divorce impacts children
“It’s very hard to still be amicable for children when you’ve had a very difficult relationship. The research from the States shows that low conflict divorce is as confusing and as difficult for children to handle as high conflict marriage, because children have seen it coming, they think well all relationships are doomed to fail, but perhaps the worst thing is they blame themselves.
“When we look at the kinds of things that family breakdown can lead to, obviously there are exceptions, but [these include] more depressive symptoms—in other words mental health problems— and higher levels of smoking, drinking and drug use in adolescence.
“Research on adolescents’ experience of massive father absence, in other words in their communities there are very few fathers, shows that adolescents say ‘not only do I wish having my dad, wish he were there, but the sad fact that most of my friends don’t have a dad means I just feel I’m wimping out by saying it’s any kind of factor’.
“We’ve almost socially invalidated the problems of growing up without a dad and saying ‘can you get on with it?’ to kids.”
Carol Iddon, director of children’s services at the charity Action For Children, which runs parenting classes said:
“There are lots of fathers out there who never have and never will live with the mother of their child and they have as important a role as a parent living with their child. I think this sort of programme is to be welcomed as it does provide an alternative to parenting support for fathers and it will promote the role of fathers in society in bringing up children.
Not all parents had good role models
“Not all people who become parents experience good parenting themselves. They grew up without a father, their father was absent, so how do they know how to be a father if they’ve never experienced that.”
A listener called Carl phoned the programme to share his experiences of both becoming a father and growing up without a dad. He said:
“I grew up without a father at all, I don’t know the whole story, I don’t even know who he is, I never met him. My mother said that my father was married with another child and I somehow came into this world and he made a decision to stay with his wife and other child and therefore I haven’t seen him since.
“I kind of migrated towards other lads at my school who were also from one parent households, there were a few. I was somewhat envious that some of my friends had a mum and a dad and I didn’t, but I really had not experience of having a father, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out when dads were taking their kids out for the day etc, I didn’t feel that I was held back.
Crying out for a father figure
“I was quite a soft boy being brought up by a teenage single mother and I did go through a tearaway phase in my teenage years, in a sense , which I think a psychologist would say was me crying out for a father figure. I don’t think any kind of parenting class intervention when my father a contemplating whether to have a relationship with his illegitimate child or stay with his other child would have really helped him make that decision.”
“I’ve now got a little baby girl and I have no experience—or I had no experience—of what it was like to father a child. I had nothing to draw on from my upbringing as to what a father’s role was and how he survives this tiny little thing that depends on you and I’ve had to learn that in the past 18 months as I’m going along.
“I’m doing a good job I think, so for me I would possibly appreciate some kind of vocabulary with people who want to help me understand what it’s like to become a father. I went to all the ante-natal classes with my wife, I went to presentations, I read books with her. I do feel that as an adult I’ve missed out on some experiences I would have had, had I had a father.
Families still need fathers
“I do believe I’d like to be there for my child and give her some of the father child experiences that I never had. And I do need to learn those because I don’t know what they are at the moment.”
Robert Chainey of the charity Families Need Fathers concluded the discussion saying:
“There’s not that much support for dads. It’s expected that women will go but it’s not expected that the male parent will go and very much the ante-natal classes are focussed on women. There’s very little about being a dad, about your role in the hospital and what you can do when you get home.
“I think men tend to back off and let the women do it—or some men do—and I think any training and involvement in the whole process at a critical time is welcome and we must have it as a formal process if only to say to dads you are as important as mothers are in terms of raising a child.
“If the state doesn’t involve the father through some formal process right from the outset what does that say to dads across the country? It is a scary time which is why so many relationships fail early on, but if you don’t have an formal help, there’s no doubt that more of those relationships will fail.”