How do you teach a kid to be a dad?
“I have a couple where the father is 15 years old and comes on a skateboard to the home visit.”
About 9 percent (900,000) of American men become fathers before their twentieth birthday. Many of these young fathers grew up in disadvantaged homes, often without fathers in their own lives. And the challenges to becoming a dad at such a young age are many.
Teen fathers have less education and lower earnings than men who delay childbearing. Some young dads, particularly low-income dads, respond to these challenges by withdrawing from their new families. But fathers are crucial to the wellbeing of their children. Research has shown that children with engaged fathers have better cognitive development, exhibit fewer behavioral problems, and do better in school. In other words, having an involved dad helps put children on the right track. How can we get and keep teen dads engaged?
Home visiting is one exciting—and still relatively new—approach to serving young and low-income dads. Historically geared toward pregnant women and mothers with young children, many home visiting programs are now expanding to include fathers. Through visits to the home, trained staff help young people navigate the transition to adulthood and parenthood.
We studied five home visiting programs that are reaching out to fathers in high-needs communities. In interviews, staff at some of these programs talked about the major challenges of serving young dads:
- Maturity: As one home visitor said, “When they’re really young, they’re so immature still. Developmentally, their brain isn’t ready for what’s happening.”
- Rollercoaster relationships: Parenthood, especially unplanned parenthood, can put a strain on any relationship. Add in teenage hormones and you have a recipe for instability. This can make it difficult for home visitors to gain access to young dads and can make young dads less interested in programs focused on the family.
- Multiple commitments and responsibilities: Many young fathers are still in school; others juggle school and work to try to support their new families. One home visitor talked about a client: “He just turned 16 and the baby is four months. He wants to get a part-time job and go to high school because he wants to be able to financially support his child…that’s a lot to handle.”
The home visiting programs we studied meet these challenges head on. Several strategies in particular can help engage young dads in home visiting and in parenthood:
- Defining fatherhood: Home visitors can’t force young dads to grow up, but they can help teen fathers develop a framework for healthy fatherhood, by showing them how to contribute to their children’s lives in material and emotional ways. As one home visitor explained: “I think dads are really expected to man up, be a guy and get a job. There’s so much in society stacked against them, especially minority or poor dads. We can’t change the economic system in the country but we can help dads find the pathways to success.”
- Relationship education: Much of healthy parenting is healthy coparenting; promoting communication and understanding between parents is critical. With young dads, home visitors spend more time teaching about coparenting; one dad said the home visitor helped him and his child’s mother learn “how to talk to each other and how to calm down.” The program structure itself can also help strengthen the relationship. By coming together to learn about parenting, young parents feel more like a family. Another father said, “Coming to these kinds of events [like home visiting] brings me and the mother closer together in our relationship.”
- Working with fathers’ schedules and commitments: To accommodate busy father schedules, many programs schedule visits outside 9 to 5 hours, and vary the timing week to week based on what works for the dads.
Through the program, young fathers learn what it means to be a dad and strengthen relationships with their families. Though our data is merely anecdotal, the result seems to be more confident fathers, which can lead to healthier and happier children. As one father said, “Initially…I had just said to myself I wanna be a better father than my biological father. Now that I have [been in the program,] it was like, I could definitely do this. Especially with the help and the resources that I have, this is gonna be an easy job.”