The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 12, 2014

Helping fathers become better parents

June 12, 2014

“No single factor is more important in the life of a child than the love and support of caring, committed adults.” –My Brother’s Keeper Task Force Report to the President, p. 7.

On this Father’s Day, the role of fathers is even more in the spotlight, largely because of the recent release of the report from President Obama’s task force and a near-concurrent publication from a group of foundation executives called A Time for Action: Mobilizing Philanthropic Support for Boys and Young Men of Color.

Two-thirds of black children and one-third of Hispanic children are growing up in households without a father living with them. However, the fact that a father does not live with his children doesn’t mean he is completely absent from their lives—or that he wants to be absent from their lives. In fact, over 60 percent of low-income dads report seeing at least one of their children daily.

Researchers who have been looking at this issue and talking with mostly young noncustodial fathers find that generally, men want to be a part of their children’s lives. In Doing the Best I Can, Kathy Edin recounts many stories of fathers who think that having a child is a blessing and supporting their children both financially and emotionally is something they really want to do.

Similar sentiments come through in other studies as well. Recently, some of my Urban Institute colleagues met with young men involved in a fatherhood program. When asked why he was trying to be a better parent, one young man expressed a feeling that most of the group shared: “We didn’t have a father, and we don’t want to see our children go through that, too.”

Going beyond learning from their father’s mistakes

But often these young men don’t have the resources or knowledge about how to be the best fathers—how to earn enough to provide financially, how to be emotionally and developmentally supportive of their children, and how to make their relationship with their child’s mother work to the benefit of the child. Instead of letting them “learn from their father’s mistakes,” as some of them are trying to do, they could benefit from more structured support from the community and the government.

There are many fatherhood programs designed to help noncustodial fathers get job training and develop coparenting and parenting skills. Some of the larger training programs that include fatherhood initiatives in their curriculum include STRIVE-New York City and the Center for Urban Families. Others, such as the Young Dads Program in Minnesota, focus just on fathers under age 30. If programs like these are effective, they will help these men become a more positive force in their children’s lives.

Fatherhood behind bars

Being a good father is more challenging for fathers who are in jails or prisons. One of every nine black children, one of every 28 Hispanic children, and one of every 57 white children has an incarcerated parent. Often, these parents are incarcerated a long way from home, and it is difficult to build or maintain bonds during this time, making it nearly impossible to resume a healthy parent-child relationship once they come home.

The federal task force behind My Brother’s Keeper recommends several steps prisons can take to help incarcerated parents build their parenting skills and stay connected to their children. Several states are facilitating family visits, and many states are already operating responsible fatherhood programs in prisons, often using standard curricula like InsideOut Dad and Active Parenting Now.

If these programs can help noncustodial fathers be a positive force in their children’s lives, Father’s Day will be a happy one for mothers, sons, and daughters, as well as newly empowered fathers. And it will make every day a better one for families as well.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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