How to turn distant dads into family guys

U. CHICAGO (US)—Father’s Day is something of an empty holiday in many urban communities where men are often disconnected from family life, but social workers can make a difference against those odds, says a University of Chicago researcher.

“We need to encourage dads to be involved in their children’s lives, even if they aren’t present on a daily basis in their children’s homes. They can learn how to help care for infants and be available as their children grow up,” says Waldo Johnson Jr., associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration and a leading researcher on fathering.

“Social work, as a profession, has not been as active in engaging fathers in family life as it should be,” he says. “Some young men become fathers too early and do not connect with their children. There exists another set of fathers who are divorced. If they start new families, they often don’t engage with their children as much from their first family.”

In addition to helping mothers with financial issues within the family, fathers need support in assuming other critical child development concerns, he says.

According to the most recent U.S. Census figures on males who had never married, about one in five (22.2 percent) black fathers, age 15 to 54, lived with all of their biological children, compared with two in five (41.3 percent) white, non-Hispanic males.

Johnson contends that violence in cities often stems from a lack of fathering support. He is leading a research project to study, in particular, the beating death of 16-year-old honor student who was confronted by other teens last year on his way home from a South Side Chicago school.

“That tragedy was very much about a lack of fathering support to young males who perceive daily threats, not only to their developing masculinity, but to their lives,” Johnson says. “Premature death due to avoidable health concerns as well as homicide, incarceration, and the loss of economic opportunities have contributed to the departure of men in that neighborhood (and similar other neighborhoods) who are not around to monitor individual and community behaviors that force boys to grow up too soon.

“As a result, the boys have to establish their own ideas about what a man should be, and that makes them adapt a reactive, non-caring response in order to navigate through the dangers they face,” he says.

Johnson has suggested several ways in which social workers can become part of their families and more effective members of their communities:

  • Female social workers should not immediately negatively judge men’s capacity to be fathers and should encourage single mothers to involve their children’s fathers.
  • Fathers who live apart from their children should be informed of developments in the home that potentially threaten their children’s safety and be provided an opportunity to take custody prior to removal into foster care.
  • Family support programs should take a gender-neutral approach to parenting enhancement that also will expand the range of paternal roles for fathers.
  • Men should be encouraged to look for ways they can show caring support to their children, in addition to providing materially for them to experience a broader range of effective fathering and parenting.

“We must provide opportunities for these young men to see and embrace healthy notions of masculinity and fatherhood,” Johnson says.

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