Iain Duncan Smith's plans to tackle fatherlessness by sending more dads to parenting classes won't work, says Katrine Wallis.
Last week Iain Duncan Smith announced a pilot scheme which will offer parenting classes to men. It is hoped that these classes will help prevent the breakdown of the two-parent family and ensure that more children grow up with both parents in their lives. On the face of it this may seem like a good idea. Indeed, so far most of the discussion surrounding this proposal seems to be reinforcing how important fathers are in the lives of their children. But is it really likely to work?
My answer to that question would be no for the following reasons. First the stated aim is to prevent breakdown of the two parent family. Becoming parents is a time of great joy, but also a very stressful time for a couple with many adjustments, including increased financial constraints, disruption of sleep and a change in the role of each adult. Now the government adds to this mix with the idea that one of the main reasons for relationship breakdown is that men are poor fathers.
This suggestion places the responsibility for making relationships work on men, not on both parents. Relationships are an interaction between two people. Telling one party that they are the problem and the other that their partner is at fault is hardly a recipe for improving any relationship.
The second reason is the message this suggestion sends to dads. The message is not: “Men, you are great fathers but we believe you can still improve” rather it is “men you are such poor fathers that if you don’t learn how to do it, your children will grow up without you”. Do we really believe that men are inherently poor fathers unable to parent a child without prior training?
Helping fathers to remain involved in their children’s lives is very important: While many single parents do an outstanding job, children on average do far better in life if they have grown up with two involved parents. Rather than jumping to conclusions that men are inherently bad fathers, who must be trained before they are of any use, the government should determine and address the real barriers to fathers parenting their children.
These barriers are likely to be complex, but a starting point could be to return to those identified by Centre for Social Justice in their report on Fractured Families which states that:
"A significant barrier to fathers’ involvement in the lives of their children is a perception that children may be unaffected by lack of father involvement – or even better off as a result of it. Services, policies and legal processes are often perceived to focus on the mother-child relationship only....fathers have often been portrayed as inherent threats to mothers and children and required to prove their fitness to have a relationship with their children."