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Historically, fathers have been side-lined in bringing up children, with mothers seen as the ‘gatekeeper’. Indeed, back in the mid-1970s, a father’s involvement was typically around 15 minutes a day. Thankfully, this outdated mindset has changed significantly, and dads and father figures are becoming more involved than ever.

Unexpectedly, COVID has facilitated father/child relationships. During lockdown in 2020, 78% of dads were spending more time with their children, 68% spent more time than usual on home schooling/homework, and more than half felt better equipped to support their children’s learning and education.

And yet 44% of fathers in a recent report2 confessed to lying or bending the truth to their employer about leave for family-related responsibilities.

This is shocking! Even in the 21st century, there are barriers to fathers sharing childcare. Children with involved fathers are more likely to have better well-being, higher self-esteem, be more resilient, have better language development and higher educational attainment!3 Dads, then, are key. Our role as early years practitioners is to reverse negative societal views regarding fathers’ involvement. Where do we start?

Science and facts of fatherhood

Science demonstrates that fathers are designed to be equal partners in parenting from the beginning. Expectant fathers influence child development. Here’s how:

  • Fathers’ mental health during the pregnancy is linked with their child’s well-being later in life
  • During pregnancy, there are changes to areas of fathers’ brains linked with nurturing, attachment and responsiveness. The brain literally ‘bulks up’ for these skills ready for the birth of the child. One key change is a testosterone level dip4 just before and after the birth of the child. As a result, dads have more of a natural urge to care for their new-born baby
  • Fathers pass on 50% of their genetic material to their child’s development. However, they pass on epigenetic contributions too. This is where their environment and behaviours can cause changes to be made in the way their genes work and this modifies the genes they pass on. Such epigenetic modifications will not just affect the next generation but can be transmitted across future generations

Should fathers get all the fun?

Dads are often labelled as the ‘fun’ parent and yet this ‘fun’ is crucial for both child and father. When dads and children engage in boisterous, happy play, their brains release higher levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, triggers loving, protective feelings and positive emotional responses. Play stimulates the production of this hormone, whilst caretaking for dads generally releases less. Consequently, dads will enjoy the more physical aspect of play, the rough and tumble. Good news all round!

Adverse Childhood Experiences Score (ACES)

When men experience any ACES (traumatic or stressful experiences before the age of 18) it may have an impact on future relationships, including how they view their own children. The higher the ACES score, the greater the negative impact. For instance, their perception of a child’s ‘behaviour’ at 6 and 12 months may become more negative due to stress they experienced as a child.5 This negative perception may continue as the child gets older. Robust and effective support for all fathers, regardless of very young children, is key.

Are we being intentional about including and engaging fathers?

Early years settings are keen to involve dads. But we must go much further than this! We must ensure that all fathers feel and remain fully engaged. To do this, we need to be aware of any barriers that may prevent dads from becoming involved.

What are these barriers?

  1. How much does the ‘female’ atmosphere of pre-school put fathers off? A group of early years practitioners in Milton Keynes picked out a different park each month to set up a ‘toddler friendly trail.’ Out of roughly 50 adult participants, a third were men. Men were not targeted but clearly felt more comfortable being in the park, rather than the femaleness of the early years setting. What might put fathers off from coming into your setting? How comfortable do dads feel around the female atmosphere or environment in general?
  2. What are the attitudes towards dads? Is there an assumption that mums will come to nursery events more than dads?
  3. Fathers’ work and geographical proximity impacts their involvement. Does your setting know where dads live and work?
  4. Research demonstrates that fathers appreciate humour, non-judgement and fun. Does your nursery reflect this?

ACTIONS FOR DADS’ ENGAGEMENT
Connect with all fathers:

  • Ask how fathers are and keep asking.
  • Invite them by name into the setting
  • Make sure events are geared for dads as well as mums
  • Reflect dads’ interests in newsletters and other literature
  • Find out dads’ interests – sports, maths, cooking?
  • Find out what dads enjoyed/didn’t like about school
  • Invite fathers in to play football or other physical activities
  • Offer ‘Dad and kid’ activities, e.g., running clubs
  • Have a named person, a ‘Dad’s Champion’, who leads the staff team on father engagement in the setting
  • Train practitioners in engaging with fathers

Conclusion

Intentional engagement with fathers is a must. After all, research confirms a positive, strong and direct link between the active involvement of father figures and children’s cognitive skills development, their ability to deal with stress and being better prepared for school.

Successful father involvement takes place where the whole team understand how the engagement of fathers is everyone’s responsibility, where staff do not by default always engage with mothers.

Start today by ensuring that the involvement of father figures becomes entrenched in your settings’ values. Dads and father figures come in all shapes and sizes, from stepdads and grandfathers to uncles and family friends. We need them all. They are, indeed, crucial to every child’s development. Bring them into the setting and ensure they feel welcomed and needed.

What are we waiting for? Get the invites out today!

About the author:

Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced early years consultant. She has a wealth of experience in teaching, both in the primary and early years sectors. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 where she developed a keen interest in early intervention, leading her into international work for the early years sector. Helen cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she wrote her first book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners for which she won the Professional Books category at the 2018 Nursery World Awards, and “Building a Resilient Workforce in the Early Years, published by Early Years Alliance in June 2019. She also writes articles for early years magazines, such as Nursery World, Early Years Teacher Organisation, QA Education, Teach Early Years, and Early Years Educator.

Helen is the co-founder and Education Director at Arc Pathway, an early years platform for teachers and parents.

Helen can be contacted via LinkedIn.

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