Men. They’re all alike. Ask any roomful of women, walk through any greeting card shop: They’re thoughtless, insensitive and just when you need them, absent.
Such attitudes turn up in television sitcoms and elevator talk. They turn up in preschools and social service agencies, too, and as such, experts say, they’re hurting families.
With nearly two in five children living apart from their biological father, too many American children already lack a male in their lives.
Kids who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor, do poorly in school, drink and use drugs. They’re more likely to become single parents themselves at a young age.
All of which seems far away from a circle of Spokane 4-year-olds shrieking under a giant nylon parachute at East Central Community Center. Around them, men ages 20 to 64 heave giant rubber balls off the nylon into the air.
The scene has all the hotdogs, squeals and laughter of an impromptu picnic.
In fact, it’s the result of a year’s work by Head Start to bring men into classrooms. The federal program, administered through Community Colleges of Spokane, serves about 1,000 preschoolers in Spokane County.
In a national movement sweeping into Spokane, social service agencies are changing how they treat fathers and other men who are helping raise children.
Among the signs: Fathers are meeting weekly at a parenting class funded by the Downtown Rotary Club and North Side Exchange Club. Teen dads are meeting in a support group at Crosswalk. And last Friday, five Spokane agencies applied for an $85,000 federal grant to reach out to fathers even more.
At Head Start, where as many as half the children live in single-parent homes, teacher Susan Gamache recruits men for her East Central classroom the same way she involved men in her own children’s lives. She taps friends, male teachers, businessmen and grandparents.
She greets men dropping off kids at the door, sends home written thanks and enlists mothers’ help. She located a significant male in every student’s life and held male involvement days to celebrate them.
The result is a classroom in which more than half the 229 volunteer hours were completed by men. Men videotape class events, record books on tape and lead field trips. Involvement by both mothers and fathers is up.
“We are succeeding because we are not just ‘putting up’ with men,” says Gamache. “We want them in our environment and we are inviting them in.”
When men are in the classroom, the children are calmer. Tantrums and fighting lessen. Children witness the vital differences between men and women.
The men tend to learn what is normal for preschoolers: that they often squirm, pick their noses and resist sharing. Mothers say they feel more supported in their role and better able to parent themselves.
As the parachute game at East Central accelerated, a sturdy 5-year-old grew disoriented, panic crossing his face.
“Daddy?” Alexander Shaw shouted until he spied a pair of familiar knees and threw himself against them.
“I want to be here for my kids,” said his father, Carl Shaw, who is married and a Head Start volunteer. “I had a good relationship with my dad but I don’t remember him being at my ball games or teaching me how to play catch. I want my kids to know me.”
This much Alexander already knows: There are legs and then there are legs that belong to your dad.
First, Bob Stirling says, this is not about women. Not about attacking women, replacing them or detracting from a mother’s role. Mothers and their importance in children’s lives are not in dispute.
For the last 30 years, fathers have been.
For years ignored by child-rearing literature, then assigned financial responsibility for children and little nurturing responsibility, and finally removed by divorce, the father’s role has grown increasingly confused. Now, the boys who grew up without fathers are fathers themselves.
“We have a huge group of men out there who never had a father, never learned how to father. These young men don’t know the importance of their own role - that’s the bottom line,” said John O’Neill.
O’Neill and Stirling are Head Start social workers working to remedy that.
O’Neill first became concerned while teaching parenting classes that almost no fathers attended. He noticed the tiny percentage of men on staff at Head Start. He noticed that absent fathers were not mentioned during home visits, and no one questioned where they were.
“That was not happening and everyone was OK with that: the supervisors, the feds, all of us.”
It is no longer OK.
Staff now schedule conferences when fathers or significant males can attend - often at night. The number of male staff has doubled to 12. Teachers such as Gamache and Carol Isakson have opened their schedules and classrooms to grandfathers and other men who are already positive role models in a child’s life.
“We have literally changed our form to include significant adults in the family, male or female, grandmother or grandfather, and have a way to list those needs separately,” said Susie Weller, social service manager for Spokane County Head Start/Early Childhood Assistance and Education Program.
Teachers have recorded data, written papers and held workshops to explain what they’re doing and why.
They’ve been blasted for it. Mothers are often angry and hurt that men are being asked to be involved. At training workshops, when Stirling asked for words associated with men the audience called out “predator” and “deadbeat.” And that was from staff.
“It was threatening,” said Weller. “What I heard was a lot of pain, anger and disappointment from male relationships in our own lives.”
“There’s a lot of male bashing going on,” Stirling said. “But if you want to increase father involvement, it has to be a father-friendly environment. There needs to be some gender healing that takes place.”
Every afternoon, Richard Perkins, 64, drops Aireal, 5, off at Head Start. Twenty years after he thought his child-rearing days ended, he is raising his granddaughter. At male involvement day, he stops by to share lunch and grouse good-naturedly.
When teachers ask him to volunteer, he says no. “But then I always show up,” he says.
Just then, Aireal runs across the rooms and leaps into her grandfather’s arms, almost knocking them both to the ground. They laugh.
Professionals call it father hunger: children’s need for positive male attention. Weller says she sees it in kids hanging around support staff, male teachers and visiting fathers.
“Their faces just light up and I know those kids are missing that kind of attention in their lives.”
At Bancroft Center Wednesday nights, eight men sit, notebooks open, for Engaging Fatherhood.
This is not Diaper Changing 101. It’s a sophisticated, literate discussion on how children grow and the critical role that fathers play in that growth.
“I have a 6-year-old daughter living with me. I’ve taken some classes but I need to know more, a lot more,” said one student.
I have an 8-month-old who lives with his mother, I need to learn everything I can,” said another.
At times, the Bancroft room shimmers with frustration: with custody disputes and anger at the children’s mother. But more obvious is a delight in children and an interest in parenting them better.
One father recounts how his daughter smacked a neighbor boy.”Why did you hit Christopher?” he demanded.
“Because I didn’t know you were watching,” she replied.
The class laughed appreciatively.
“This is a personal mission I’m on,” said Gary Garvin, who teaches the class with O’Neill.
“We spend all this time, money and education on how to survive in the business world but we don’t teach parenting.”
A former steelworker who left his job 11 years ago to raise his children, Garvin now is completing a master’s degree at Whitworth College.
From the beginning, he and O’Neill knew that men think differently from women. They tend to be more logical, cognitive and want just the facts, and that the class had to be taught accordingly.
O’Neill’s goal is to challenge the notion that if men establish paternity and pay child support they’re responsible fathers.
“Paying child support is a minimum,” he said. Becoming a competent involved father will be far better for the child - and will inevitably lead to support.
The two men were so determined to offer parenting class they didn’t wait for funding. Later, the service clubs, through SCAN, stepped in.
Engaging Fatherhood is included in the $85,000 grant proposal that SCAN, Head Start, the Department of Social Health Services, Employment Security and the Spokane Office of Child Support Enforcement is seeking.
The goal is to reach men at different points in their lives to stress the importance and responsibility of raising children. Outreach would stretch from high schools to prerelease centers to communication classes between mother and father.
Sue Hille, coordinator of Spokane Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Center, says the proposal will ultimately pay for itself by reducing the need for intervention.
“We will go after other money if we don’t get this,” she said. “The deeper I’ve gotten into this grant, the more excited I’ve gotten. The time has come.”
Weller says Head Start, which has long prided itself on being family-centered, now truly is.
“We’re linking up what exists and doesn’t to support the entire family,” Weller said. “When you support the adult relationships, you ultimately support the child. They feel the security of a larger circle of people caring for them.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Daddy’s home Nationally, the demand for father training is growing because: Research is showing the importance of fathers. More fathers, in response to pressure to financially support their children , are saying they want to be more involved. More fathers are gaining custody and want training.
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