Embracing Fathers & Male Caregivers in Early Learning Spaces

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June 27th, 2022, 4:39pm

Did you know that a child with an involved father or father-figure is more likely to do better in their education? Studies show their presence can lead to an increase of nearly ½ a year of academic learning over children with less involved fathers! As our culture shifts perspectives and better recognizes the value of fathers’ presence and involvement in child-rearing and household responsibilities, we find ourselves at a pivotal point. How can our early learning programs embrace fathers and male caregivers? How can their presence and involvement strengthen our early learning programs?

This month, our Family Engagement tip focuses on how our early learning programs can intentionally welcome, value, and work with fathers and male caregivers. We specifically discuss the importance of fathers & male caregivers in early learning & development, what challenges exist, and what approaches we can take to better support their engagement.  

The Impact of Fathers & Male Caregivers in Early Learning

Why is it important for fathers to be involved during the early years of a child’s life?  

Studies have shown fathers play important roles in their child’s early learning, particularly by setting examples of positive masculinity, modeling healthy social emotional behavior, and providing mentorship and comfort.  

According to Edweek’s article,Dad’s Shape Their Kids’ Education in More Ways Than You Know, Research Says, studies show that a father’s consistent presence is notably important in the early years of a child’s life. Their presence is more pivotal during these years as it creates a foundation for the child’s positive development.  

Here we share a few more statistics regarding children who grow up with involved fathers/father figures: 

  • 39% more likely to earn mostly A’s in school 
  • 45% less likely to repeat a grade  
  • 60% less likely to be suspended or expelled from school  
  • 2x as likely to go to college and find stable employment after high school 
  • 75% less likely to have a teen birth  
  • 80% less likely to spend time in jail  

How about in the early years? Check out the graphic below to learn more about the positive effects of a father’s involvement on their child’s early education! 

The Early Learning World: Existing Challenges to Engaging Fathers and Male Caregivers in Early Learning Programs 

Positive male role models are seen in a variety of different roles and settings.  Fathers dress up and have teatime with their daughters, uncles rejoice and take an active role in their nephew’s upbringing, grandfathers reassure their grandchild when they cry during a difficult situation, and more men generally who help guide children through life as positive male role models.  As men play increasingly greater roles in daily home life or as the primary caregiver, their realities and our expectations also must adjust.  

In doing this, our thoughts and beliefs will show up in our actions and support how positively and warmly we welcome a father, their family, and their unique caregiving dynamic.

In this next section, we share commonly-held views of fathers and their role as parents/caregivers. We will demonstrate how we can flip these impressions to see fathers with a more strengths-based mindset. 

Traditional View

Strengths-Based Mindset

Fathers’ child rearing responsibilities are often seen as less difficult or involved and more comparable to “babysitting” than mothers’. In some cases, it’s implied that they supervise their children “on occasion” compared to the cultural view of mothers who are seen as the primary caretakers. We can start by assuming fathers are doing their best and have existing knowledge and skills that make them equally competent caregivers. When we view fathers as engaged and capable caregivers, we are more inclusive of their ideas, their knowledge and their opinions in support of their child’s learning and development.  

Consider these situations, as they often reflect our inclination towards communicating with mothers/female caregivers without also including fathers/male caregivers:  

Which parent or guardian does our program contact when a child has an emergency?  

– Who is addressed in messages, bulletins, paperwork sent home?  

– When it comes to important decisions around a child’s educational path, are both parents/all involved guardians informed of the decision?  

If you answered, “mother or female caregiver” only to the questions above, we want you to reflect on this style of communicating with families.  By including all family members in your outreach and conferences about children, you are more likely to develop greater perspective and gain more information on each child in your care.  You might also receive valuable input or engagement from the fathers in your program. 

How Early Learning Programs Can Support Father-Child Relationships

With these reflections and key ideas in our pockets, we can now move into what they could look like in action. Explore these next two sections for inspiration that can transform your program’s father engagement culture and practices.  

  • Return to our core family engagement assumptions:
    1) All families have strengths,
    2) All families are doing their best
    , given their capacity and reality, and
    3) All families bring
    strengths to the table.
    It’s our role to meet families where they are and see them as fully as we can, recognizing their realities, gifts, knowledge, expertise, and dreams.  
  • It is our responsibility to reflect and challenge our preconceived ideas or biases about fathers, fatherhood, and expectations of male caregivers. In addition to the ideas shared in the last section, consider the cultural differences in caretaking roles and unique family dynamics (such as single fathers, same sex fathers, stepparents, stay-at-home dads, etc.). As with any family, we can better support parents/caregivers by building strong relationships, getting to know them, and getting to know their dreams, needs, strengths, etc.  
  • Recognize cultural differences in fathers’ parenting styles can vary based on race, ethnicity, and upbringing.  Different is not deficient.  When we build relationships with fathers, we learn more about their individual views on parenting and can work together to provide information that best supports their child’s growth and development.
  • Get informed about each family’s unique dynamic. This starts with learning about each family and who makes up their family unit (relatives, stepfamily, foster parents, close friends, etc.), what their caregiving practices look like (who manages drop off/pick up, who does the child spend time with, what are the family member’s schedules like, etc.).   
  • Check in with families and make the additional effort to ensure the responsible parents/caregivers are all part of the conversation around their child’s wellbeing and early learning journey. Consider the specific practices of:  
    1) calling each parent/guardian when scheduling family-teacher conferences,  
    2) notifying at least 2 caregivers when a child is sick or injured,  
    3) adjusting paperwork to provide families the opportunities to have more than 1 guardian sign off on decisions effecting their child.  
  • Build opportunities to recognize a father’s/male caregiver’s strengths into your program’s processes. Such as including fathers in entrance interviews, a father/male caregiver celebration day, newsletter activities, family bulletin boards, family-teacher conferences, inclusion on committees,  etc.  
  • Make a consistent effort to connect with fathers & male caregivers in your day-to-day interactions. What can this look like? For instance: asking children and fathers/male caregivers about their shared time, what they enjoy doing together, and how their weekend/evening/morning/vacation went.
  • Include visuals of fathers/male caregivers and children in your program’s environment – both in-person and digitally. Think of your classroom environment, posters displayed, dolls/toys that represent male figures of different skin tones, flyers, and emails used to family members.  
  • Create targeted outreach specifically for fathers & male caregivers. Phone calls, emails, newsletters, flyers, social media announcements, etc.; take your pick. Especially consider personally inviting them – this extra effort can make all the difference!  
  • Create tailored events for fathers & male caregivers. These events geared towards fathers and male caregivers are pivotal, as they offer more comfortable spaces for their participation, which can allow them to open up more, support each other, volunteer and connect with children, offer their strengths and voice in support of our programs, etc. Be sure to include fathers in the planning of these events to ensure they reflect the needs and interests of the father-figures at your program.  Potential events include:
    • Monthly “Donuts with Dads,“Grub with the Guys” events – these can be support groups, conversation spaces with program staff, etc.  
    • Father/Male Caregiver & Child events – to play, support early literacy, strengthen early math habits, support social-emotional learning, etc. Check out the activities that Sesame Street in Communities offers on their Dads Resource page for inspiration! 
  • Tailor your messaging, resources, and activities for different family structures. Consider stepparents, grandparents, uncles, etc. – how can our offerings better include them?
  • Empower fathers and male caregivers to take leadership roles in your program. Whether you have a family-child care program or center-based program, this can be a rather effective strategy and it adapts well! Here are a few starter ideas: 
    • Ask about their knowledge of local resources & services and if they can serve as liaisons to your program, encourage them to offer an activity for children that centers on their strengths/hobbies (like a read-aloud time, music, STEM experiments, building DIY crafts), invite them to join Parent Advisory Councils or other leadership committees (school, district, etc.). 

Naturally, consider your program’s capacity and unique family dynamics. Above all, if we can center the voices of the fathers/male caregivers and their families, then our home-school relationship will flourish.  

When children have a strong, constant, supportive and loving relationship with a responsible father figure, they are more likely to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted, and resilient citizens. Our early learning programs are in a pivotal position to support father-child relationships and bolster interactions with positive male role models, particularly in these valuable early years of a child’s life. As Frederick Douglass shared, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 

Cristina Espinoza
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles

Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 7 years, including having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as a youth development promoter in Costa Rica. In conjunction with Quality Start Los Angeles, Cristina is passionate about supporting families to feel empowered in the changing landscape of their surroundings with their children’s wellbeing at the forefront.  She is a champion of strengths-based systems and services that build resilient families and youth.