Including Fathers and Their Unique Contributions

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Imagine walking into your local school gym on a Saturday morning and seeing about 190 dads and their children playing a variety of games. This is exactly what you could have observed recently during Sparta School District's program called "Dogs with Dad." This particular Saturday was the second in a series of successful sessions in this small, southern Illinois community that were designed specifically to attract fathers of young and elementary-age children and to help them feel connected to their children's lives.

Teachers and family support professionals know the importance of developing meaningful partnerships with the parents of students. Over the last decade, many researchers, including Henderson and Berla (1994), have noted a variety of positive outcomes when parents are involved with their children's education, including:

higher grades and test scores,
regular school attendance,
positive attitude and appropriate behavior, and
less need for remedial work or special education.

However, raising a family and working long hours often mean that there is limited time available for parents to play a role in their child's education during the regular school day. Evenings are frequently taken up with sports events, music lessons, homework, and housework. Many parents are becoming more discerning about taking on activities not directly related to work or family, making it more difficult for teachers to engage parents in school-related activities.

According to teacher and father Terry Waldron, fathers who are working extremely long hours and have not traditionally been involved in their children's education may find it particularly difficult to feel included. Yet, it is clear that fathers provide a unique and important contribution to their child's academic development. In A Call to Commitment (U.S. Department of Education, 2000), researchers note that while children benefit from the involvement of both parents, fathers can provide additional benefits by modeling appropriate adult male behavior, providing financial and emotional support, and encouraging problem solving. There is some research to suggest that children of involved fathers were more likely to have consistently higher grades than children of absent or uninvolved fathers, and were less likely to be suspended or expelled from school (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). Other research suggests that mothers and fathers play important but complimentary roles. For example, in families where both parents are active caregivers of their children, mothers are more likely to assume the role of nurturer, comforter, and counselor, while fathers are more likely to emphasize the importance of skills leading toward work, boundaries, and discipline. Fathers are also more likely to get down on the carpet and engage their kids in the rough-and-tumble play that delights young children and also teaches the child important information about social interaction and appropriate touch (Klinger, 1997).

With the goal of finding innovative ways to include fathers in school-related activities, Terry and several of his colleagues decided to try something a bit different. It all started when Sparta school district staff members Melissa Gross and Penny King attended an urban education conference in Springfield, Illinois, and heard two presenters discuss the importance of fathering. Melissa and Penny invited the speakers from the Center for Successful Fathering to their small town in southern Illinois to present a workshop for school staff. The Center provides a variety of workshops and resources to help identify the unique contributions that fathers bring to their children's growth and development along with creative ways to engage dads. At this workshop and another training event that Terry and a local minister attended in Texas, they learned more about the importance of fathering. They also met people who had been successfully working with fathers from urban, rural, and migrant populations. Several common themes for successfully working with dads seemed to emerge. For example, fathers want to have more time with their children but are unsure about where to start. Fathers want the time they spend working with and for their children to be meaningful, and most dads simply want to have more time to play with their children.

With this new information, Terry and his team returned to Sparta and developed what they hoped would be the first of four sessions that would include not only educational time for dads but also social time in which fathers could play with their kids. Rather than plan another evening event, they decided to try Saturday morning and called the first session "Doughnuts with Dad." Equipped with coffee, juice, and boxes of doughnuts, the organizers hoped for a group of about 25 but were amazed with a response of 86 dads and their kids. The dads met separately for the first 45 minutes while the kids were being "wrangled" (playing) in the gym under the supervision of volunteer high school students. The dads spent their time talking about their experiences of fatherhood, as well as getting more information about the unique role of fathers. The next 45 minutes were spent with the fathers and children playing non-competitive games together.

Terry found, through the small group discussions, that some of the men had grown up without a father figure in the household, and consequently they were unsure about their role in the family and their influence on their child's growth and development. The support of the other dads and the resources provided were helpful for each dad as he began to think about his unique contribution to the family. Terry also discovered that many of the men didn't know what they were getting into because their wives had signed them up for the program and then "booted" them out of the house on that Saturday morning!

However, the evaluations from the morning's program showed that the dads and kids had a great time. When asked if Terry received any negative feedback from single moms who may have felt excluded, he responded that he had not. But, he continued, the message that they are trying to send through this program is that ideally kids need the positive support of both parents and that "a woman may not need a husband, but a child needs a father."

The next session was snowed out, but Terry knew they were on the right track when dads started calling him at home on Saturday morning to make sure that the session would be rescheduled. The attendance at the rescheduled "Dogs with Dads" (hotdogs were served instead of doughnuts) more than doubled from the first session. Fathers came from other communities, including one dad who had driven in from another state for the event. Also included were "father figures," men to whom children with absent fathers turn when they want a father's involvement.

At the end of the second session, fathers commented that not only did they enjoy the information that they received during the educational sessions, but they also enjoyed seeing their children play with friends and meeting the friends' dads. Once again, the event was a huge success. The group is looking for a site that will hold a larger number for the spring session, which they plan to have at the local park and call "Picnic with Pop." Terry says that as long as the dads and kids keep coming he will keep on supplying the education, activities, and catchy names.

You can find out more about Sparta School District's Fatherhood Initiative Events by visiting

For more information

Center for Successful Fathering
13740 Research Blvd., G-4
Austin, Texas 78750
Telephone: 512-335-8106; toll-free: 800-537-0853
Fax: 512-258-2591

Concerned Black Men, Inc.
Washington (DC) Office
16511 K. St. NW, Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20005
Telephone: 202-783-5414

Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA)
100 W Randolph St. Room 6-600
Chicago, IL 60601
Telephone: 312-814-2796

National Center for Family Literacy (has parenting program information)
Waterfront Plaza, Suite 200
325 W. Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202-4251
Telephone: 502-584-1133

National Center for Fathering
10200 W. 75th St., Suite 267
Shawnee Mission, KS 66204
Telephone: 913-384-4661

National Center for Fathers and Families
University of Pennsylvania
3700 Walnut St., Box 58
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6216
Telephone: 215-573-5500

National Fatherhood Initiative
101 Lake Forest Blvd., Suite 360
Gaithersburg, MD 20877
Telephone: 301-948-0599
Fax: 301-948-4325

National Fathers' Network
Kindering Center
16120 N.E. Eighth St.
Bellevue, WA 98008-3937
Telephone: 206-747-4004 ext. 218

Other Reading

Biddulph, Steve. (1997). Raising boys. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts. (ERIC Document No. ED424005)

Canada, Geoffrey. (1998). Reaching up for manhood: Transforming the lives of boys in America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Elium, Jeanne, & Elium, Don. (1994). Raising a son. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.

Gurian, Michael. (1999). The good son: Shaping the moral development of our boys and young men. New York: Tarcher. (ERIC Document No. ED435444)

Horner, Steve. (1998). Single parenting from a father's heart. St. Paul, MN: Bang! (ERIC Document No. ED420386)

Lewis, Nikki. (1996). Families and schools: An essential partnership. Tallahassee, FL: Southeastern Regional Vision for Education. (ERIC Document No. ED399023)

Marzollo, Jean, & Trivas, Irene. (1993). Fathers and babies. New York: HarperCollins. (ERIC Clearinghouse No. ED405985)

Ornstein, Yevrah. (1996). Forging the new fathers. Woodacre, CA: Harmonia.

Shulman, Shmuel, & Seiffge-Krenke, Inge. (1997). Fathers and adolescents: Developmental and clinical perspectives. London: Routledge. (ERIC Document No. ED405992)

Sylvester, Kathleen, & Reich, Kathy. (2000). Restoring fathers to families and communities: Six steps for policymakers. Washington, DC: Social Policy Action Network.

Time education special. (2001, May 21). Time, 71-83


Henderson, Anne T., & Berla, Nancy. (1994). A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to school achievement. Flint, MI: National Committee for Citizens in Education. (ERIC Document No. ED375968)

Klinger, Ronald. (1997). Common sense no-frills, plain-English guide to being a successful father [Online]. Available: [NPIN editor's note (01-22-03): this URL no longer exists]

U.S. Department of Education. (2000). A call to commitment: Fathers' involvement in children's learning [Online]. Available: [NPIN Editor's note (01-15-03): this URL no longer exists]
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