Although they’re skilled at fathering, too many men, and boys, are inept at fatherhood.
But fatherhood is back in fashion.
That should please the National Fatherhood Initiative which issued its “Call to Fatherhood” in June. (The bulk of that document, which proposes a broad offensive to counteract “an increasingly fatherless society,” was published on the Perspective Page on Aug. 24.)
While Promise Keepers rallies and million-man marches grab national headlines, a considerable amount of less-publicized attention also is being paid to fatherhood.
For example, the theme for the annual Northwest Regional Parenting Conference next March at Edmonds Community College will be “Fathering: An Update for Parent Educators.” The U.S. Department of Education issued a report in October linking kids’ performance in school to their fathers’ involvement. And, as the cover story in Thursday’s South Side Voice reported, an increasing number of businesses are recognizing the need for male employees to be active in their children’s lives, including volunteer service as room fathers.
Throughout the Spokane area, meanwhile, numerous agencies are trying to design a structure for helping men meet parental responsibilities. Just building it doesn’t assure anybody will come, however.
Dan Wolfley, a social worker who came out of retirement about six months ago to work as a family resource specialist for the Spokane Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Center (SCAN), recalls trying to set up a support group for fathers.
“I sent 130 fliers out and out of that 130 fliers I got one guy who came once.”
Wolfley didn’t quit. He formed a committee of representatives from agencies that seek new ways of meeting fathers’ and their children’s needs.
The committee includes representatives of Head Start, neighborhood community centers, Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, SCAN, the Volunteers of America’s Crosswalk program for street youth, and various private individuals.
One lesson Wolfley and others have learned from experience: Don’t tell the dads it’s a support group. “They’ll run,” he says.
“Women for years have known the strength of coming together and being in solidarity with each other,” says Bob Stirling, a social worker for the state Division of Children and Family Services. “Men tend to me more individualistic.”
Therefore, successful fatherhood programs are light on lectures and videos but heavy on interactivity, hands-on projects and, sometimes, seemingly unrelated activities that lure them through the door.
That may mean gathering fathers together to watch Monday Night football, then, after the game, switching off the television set and talking about shared issues.
“You want to be able to find something that will hook them and get them invested, get them more involved in the long run in their children’s lives,” says Stirling. “That’s what it’s all about.”
He recalls working with a group of teen dads at Crosswalk.
“We found some of the guys didn’t really know how to have a good time without drinking and drugging. So we’d do things like miniature golf, go to the batting cages, ice rink and all that.”
The next step was to bring in speakers for interactive presentations about such basic child-care skills as changing diapers and mixing formula. They also talked about establishing paternity so the young men could assume responsibility for their children. Out of the 10 original members of the group, eight went on to establish paternity, says Stirling.
Older fathers aren’t much different, according to Stirling.
“I think men typically have a hard time being buddies without something like drinking involved, or sports. They can’t really express the whole feelings thing - talking, asking for support.” It’s no surprise that the task poses special challenges, says Fabian Napolsky of Early Head Start.
“We have dads who have all kinds of experiences with the children and with their partners, and they’ve been away from the children a lot, and we’re expecting them to take on this parent role. Of course they’re going to be uncomfortable and have such difficult times,” he says.
And it isn’t just dads who have to realign their thinking.
“Part of it was working with staff, training staff to reach out to fathers and make a special effort to include them,” says Stirling.
And, as a further complication, a lot of fathers come to parenting programs not so much because they want to be better parents but because the courts or Child Protective Services have ordered them to.
“Some of them were interested in coming in and learning some better parenting skills, but a lot of them made it clear from the get-go they want to get the court off their back,” says Wolfley.
One dad in the first category is Robert Paulk who gained custody of his 3-year-old son Nicholas a couple of months ago is and now is enrolled in parenting classes at Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.
“They’ve taught me some terrific things,” said Paulk, 34. Such as the importance of giving Nicholas a sense of security.
“When I first started taking him to day care he would just bawl. I knew he had fun while he was there but he just did not want to go,” said Paulk.
“Well, they told us that if they did not get that security at a younger age, where they knew somebody was right there for them all the time, they’d be real insecure about things.
“Maybe he was thinking I wasn’t coming back after I dropped him off. Now he realizes dad’s there every day to pick him up.”
Paulk’s own father dropped out of the picture when Paulk was 3, but he had a close relationship with his grandfather. Paulk himself was eager to have a child. “When Nicholas was born it was the happiest day of my life.”
And while he enjoys the time he spends with his son, he says juggling his work schedule with the reponsibilities of a single parent and meeting the requirements imposed by CPS is a challenge.
Paulk didn’t graduate from high school but has a GED and hopes to go back to school to learn computer skills.
“Maybe that’s something I can teach my son, see if I can get him a head start on something in life.”
For now, he values the parenting classes.
“I think this would be a good thing even for fathers who aren’t going through what I’m going through with CPS.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Hector Casanova/The Kansas City Star
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FOR MORE INFO Readers who want more information about parenting programs for fathers can contact Dan Wolfley of SCAN at 458-7445.