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Mel Gravely

How Involved Fathers are Forging New Ground

head start fatherhood

I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.

Muriel Strode
The Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers, 1903

In the past, women were much more likely to be the primary caregivers who nurtured a child’s early development. That means that when the fathers of today were kids, their education and care was most commonly done by women: their teachers, moms, grandmas, aunts, and neighbors.

But as women began to enter the workforce en mass starting in the 1970s, fathers began to take on more childcare duties. According to a report from 2013 (pdf), fathers’ care time increased from 2.5 hours per week in 1965 to 7.3 hours per week in 2011. While mothers still spend about double the time on childcare, the overall trend over the past 50 years means that fathers are spending more time on childcare than ever.

I’d like to think about that for a second. There is an entire generation of men who grew up in a time when fathers and men in general were not heavily involved in their day to day care. Not only that, they could turn on the TV and more often than not, see the same. But despite a lack of role models in their personal lives and even in pop culture and mass media, many men today are forging new paths and have embraced their roles as caregivers.

As Head Start educators, how can we support fathers in a positive way as they “forge new ground?” How do these fathers succeed when they have no set guidelines to steer them through the tumultuous waters of parenthood? We think that’s through a process of self-evaluation, communication, and support.

Self-Evaluation and Communication

Self-evaluation and communication between family members goes hand-in-hand. It’s important that the father knows what image he’s trying to portray of himself to his children. For men who grew up without a good male role model, this image can be brought together by taking the characteristics they did like from their fathers, subtracting the traits they didn’t like, and adding in some examples from other parents. This ideal needs to be expressed with their partner, and a discussion of perceived gender roles and what exactly each parent is expecting from the other helps to bring together a cohesive parenting plan.

A key component of this discussion is defining what the word “involvement” means given each family’s unique situation. A study asked fathers to list things they did well as a dad. The results showed two primary types of fathers–those who were good role models because they spent extra time with their children and those who were good role models because they led by example. Either type of involvement is good so long as it’s agreed upon by both parents and is well suited to the child’s growth.


Men need both support from their families as well as from the community as a whole. Family support can be as simple as working around dad’s schedule–by taking into consideration when the father is working and what kind of job he’s doing, a family can schedule an activity that will be beneficial to both the dad and the child during a time that is convenient for everyone. It’s also helpful if families accept that guys will need some social time with other men. It’s important for them to be able to talk to their friends and peers, not just so they can blow off steam, but also so they can bounce around ideas and get different perspectives on how to be the best father and partner. Interacting with their community helps men grow as caregivers, and as such should be encouraged and supported.

Where Does Head Start Fit In?

Parent Involvement is one of the key components of Head Start. As Head Start educators, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we are sometimes asking fathers to do something that they haven’t seen done before and that they have no “model” for. We have to support fathers interested in being more active in caregiving as well as reaching out to those who may not understand the importance of father involvement or feel they don’t have the capabilities to increase their care time.


ECLKC already provides some great resources on how to best engage fathers. The Gravely Group also offers an intensive workshop, in person or online, called The ABCs of Fatherhood, to learn new ways to promote and enhance male involvement in your program. As we have seen, despite a lack of historic role models, fathers are stepping up and connecting more with their children. It’s our job to help encourage that behavior and continue to provide the resources they need to accomplish their goals.

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