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June 24, 2019

Recognizing the Importance of Fathers in Early Childhood

Policy and programs haven’t modernized to meet the needs of dads who want to be dads — and the children who need them.

The founding director of The Fatherhood Project knew the role of fathers was shifting, but when Offset, rap star and husband to rap queen Cardi B, recently reached out in hopes of making the nonprofit a public player in his transformation into a better father, Dr. Ray Levy knew it was gaining traction.

As fatherhood evolves and research reveals why he’s more than an accessory, policy makers and programs often haven’t caught up.

“It’s not yet recognized in our culture that fathers are critical and that more and more fathers are interested in being active fathers,” Levy said.

Levy, also a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, designs programs to support the father-child connection.

The state of fatherhood
The number of stay-at-home fathers went from 4% in 1989 to 7% in 2016. As a result, fathers made up 17% of all stay-at-home parents in 2016.

The same year, 24% of stay-at-home dads reported that caring for the children was the main reason they stayed home, up from 4% in 1989, according to the Pew Research Center.

A little more than half of working fathers said in 2015 that it is very or somewhat difficult to balance family and work.

As of 2016, about a quarter of couples who live with children were in families where only the father works — in 1970, almost half of couples were in families where only the dad worked.

Couples living in dual-earner families now make up the majority of two-parent families with children.

Beyond the bacon
When fathers are involved during pregnancy, mothers are 1.5 times more likely to receive prenatal care in the first trimester, improving both maternal and infant health outcomes.

“There are academic, behavioral, social, and emotional advantages to children when fathers are engaged in their lives,” Levy said. “It lowers the rate of depression in girls, involvement in the criminal justice system, and teen pregnancy.”

Many government-operated programs are built on dated perceptions of families and fail to recognize fathers.

For example, some programs are based on the misconception that a father has resources while a mother doesn’t. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, for example, are typically awarded to the mother, who usually has custody of the children.

Child support is often managed in a retributive way, with those unable to pay being prosecuted, often adding more barriers to a father’s ability to access gainful employment. Suspending driver’s licenses and adding prohibitive interest rates to unpaid child support payments don’t serve families.

What does are programs that help fathers attain education, job readiness, and fathering skills.

Targeting fathers
Health professionals can empower new fathers by describing what they can expect after birth, how to support both mother and baby at home, and ways to bond.

The Arkansas health department reached out to men as safe-sleep champions by partnering with fraternal groups, and a barbershop in Oklahoma became a site for early childhood learning and parent education.

“They need to recognize they have skills they don’t even know they have,” Levy said.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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