The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 22, 2015

How home visits can help dads become better fathers

December 22, 2015

We interviewed William in his living room, as his twin two-year-old daughters occasionally interrupted to share their most recent drawings with him. William is a 36-year-old African-American father who lives in the Midwest with his daughters and their mother, his fiancée, who was pregnant with their third child, another girl. He had been participating in a home visiting program for a little more than a year, beginning around the time he was released from prison.

William was really open about his favorite parts of the program, from child safety courses to the annual fatherhood football game. He repeatedly mentioned the class on the safety of children sleeping, once saying “There’s certain things I didn’t know, that you—you’re just taught one thing so long, and then—this is unsafe? I never thought about a baby being under your arm as unsafe.”

During the hour we spent with William, however, it was clear that the program benefited him in ways much beyond a parenting class, particularly through his relationships with other fathers in the program and with the home visitor. “I didn’t have a father growing up,” he said. “I didn’t have a role model, or many male role models in my life, so to have these other successful fathers around me is—it just makes me feel like ‘okay, I have a community base. I have a foundation that I can go to when I can’t figure it out.’”

Although home visiting programs have traditionally focused on mothers and children, we visited five programs across the United States that recently began providing home visiting services to fathers. We spoke with dads at each of these programs about the benefits of home visiting programs on their own lives.

  • Child development and parenting knowledge: Dads learned how to care for and appropriately discipline their children and what to expect as children grow and develop.
  • Employment, resources, and community services: Home visitors connected dads with resources (e.g. diapers and clothing), benefits (such as food stamps), and other programs (including vocational training programs and therapy).
  • Anger management and better communication with partners: Dads learned strategies for controlling their anger and used the home visits and support groups as outlets, improving their interactions with their children and partners. One dad noted, “They help a lot in controlling yourself and how to behave in a situation when, for example, the children are making a mess. Sometimes there are fathers who don’t know anything about this and they don’t have help and in that situation. They grab the child, hit them, mistreat them, and yell at them, like that. They explode. The father program has helped me to control myself on my own.”
  • A peer community: In the programs that offered father support groups and activities, dads were able to talk through their issues and learn from other dads. “I was able to relate with some of the guys in the group," noted another father. "It helped me on my views about fatherhood. How I should go about it, and really it helped me to forgive my parents. Sitting here, talking throughout the sessions and everything, it took a weight off my shoulders. Because I was never really able to talk to anybody else about it… I feel it helped me become a better father.”
  • Support from home visitors: Home visitors provided dads with multiple forms of support, such as information, resources, and perhaps most importantly, emotional support. They became mentors, confidantes and friends. “It’s like [the home visitor is] a very good support for me because it’s somebody I can actually trust and I can lean on and be like, “This is what I’m going through and I really need some support,” and he’s there," said one participant.

While home visiting programs were originally designed for moms, they provide an important opportunity to support dads and to improve their children’s futures. William had just one complaint: “Only thing I can say is we need more of [these programs]. We need more of them. Just to get the word out there, that say hey, we can do it. We can be fathers.”

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