The Blog

Where Are All the Men?

Fatherhood and motherhood should not be seen as opposing forces - both roles complement each other. An involved father reduces the stress on an overburdened mother, improves family functioning and helps to build mum's own relationships with her children. And vice versa.

On Monday I celebrated fathers day. A day when I spoke about the importance of dads at a Barnardo's Labour Party Conference fringe event. With me were David Lammy MP, the Royal College of Midwives and speakers from Working with Men, Mumsnet and members of the audience - all flying the flag for fathers. All of us agreed - the time has now come for fatherhood to sit alongside apple pie just as much as motherhood.

A father's relationship with his child starts very early - far earlier than many people realise. It's now known that a baby can hear his or her dad's voice when still in the womb. Amazingly, hearing that voice provides a key foundation for a child's security and well-being.

Research shows that newborn children can pick out their father's voice in a room in the first hour or two of life. And when a man has previously talked to his unborn child using short, calming words the baby responds emotionally. On hearing dad's voice a crying baby is more likely to stop - the familiar, soothing sounds give the child a feeling of safety.

At Barnardo's we work closely to engage dads from the start. For example, new parents in Manchester can register the birth of a child at our Benchill family action centre. We encourage dads to attend the registration of the birth in person. This ensures unmarried fathers can be on the birth certificate. It also provides an opportunity to make contact with fathers, engage with them and address concerns they may have about children's centres being just for mums. We then help dads learn how to respond, cuddle, relax, play and talk to their child, using an approach we call Five to Thrive.

From birth through to college or work, the important role dad plays in his child's life is increasingly recognised. For example, fathers help advance children's early literacy development by reading to them, sharing stories and exploring the world together. In fact, it has been found that dads are key to improving children's academic success.

Attitudes towards fatherhood vary across different backgrounds and cultures. But wherever a father comes from, encouraging him to take a hands-on role in family life boosts outcomes for children. And this is particularly the case when working with disadvantaged children. Dads on the lowest incomes are 14 times more likely to never read to their children than fathers from the richest families.

Clearly, fathers can pass both disadvantage and advantage down the generations.

Over summer, the government announced an extension of its troubled families programmes to 500,000 families. It also said it would introduce a 'family test' on all government policy. All governments need to consider how policy - on issues from paternity leave to long working hours - help fathers to play a fuller role in the family.

For families who are struggling, we know now that parenting programmes work best - and are more cost effective - when they reach out to both mum and dad.

Yet fathers are largely overlooked or ignored by mum-centric parenting programmes in the UK. Such programmes rarely attempt to engage with fathers or evaluate their impact on key outcomes.

Barnardo's published a report two years ago that highlighted the lack of support available to young fathers who want to play an active role in their baby's life. There are plenty of schemes for teenage mums, but teenage dads can find it tough to get time off school to attend ante-natal appointments or even birth.

How dads are depicted in the promotion of family services doesn't help. Too often, fathers are absent in parenting materials or portrayed as incompetent or a risk. Not surprisingly, men often feel sidelined from services provided for their own children.

The situation is exacerbated by the way fathers are portrayed in the media or treated by public services. The dominant narrative around domestic and other abuse creates the impression that fathers are often a threat to the family or a risk to a child's safety.

There is little recognition that fathers generally act as a protective presence in the family. There is poor acceptance of the mounting evidence of the importance of engaging fathers in the safeguarding process.

Children, and boys in particular, need positive male role models. A major area of concern is the glaring gender imbalance in the caring professions. Teaching, for example is still a female-dominated profession. While more men are training to become primary school teachers, only one in four teachers are men. A similar percentage of primary schools have no male teachers at all.

Perhaps the time has come for some schools to consider male-only shortlists for vacant posts?

Recent years have seen a greater focus on the father's family value and a growing debate over what it means to be a dad in 21st century Britain. Barnardo's is one of many charities taking innovative approaches to engaging dads. But charities are limited in what they can achieve on their own.

We need a much bigger change, driven by government, with a change in the commissioning, design and evaluation of parenting programmes. We need as change in public attitudes towards fathers, and a change in the way policy is formulated around fathers.

Fatherhood and motherhood should not be seen as opposing forces - both roles complement each other. An involved father reduces the stress on an overburdened mother, improves family functioning and helps to build mum's own relationships with her children. And vice versa.

Perhaps most importantly, a focus on fathers would give children an important message. Dad is as important as mum.