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Mel Gravely

Ying to the Yang: How Fatherhood Compliments Motherhood for a Happy, Healthy Childhood

As a Head Start consultant, I often find myself as the only man in a room full of women. It's true, Head Start, and early childhood education in general, is dominated by women - staff, volunteers, and of course, mothers. It's in rooms just like these that I'm often talking about the value of father engagement in Head Start.

Educating others on fatherhood is one of my passions. Since I became a father myself, both to biological children and foster children, I learned from first-hand experience how important my role as a father was to my children's development. Now, I'm not saying more important than a mother's contributions, but rather an equally important weight on a perfectly balanced scale. The other side of the coin. A ying to the yang.

First, let me start by saying that I feel single mothers have received a bad rap. Households led by a single parent increased 10-fold in the last half of the 20th century, the vast majority of which headed by mothers. During that time, many seemed too eager to blame every societal problem on single-parent households. Children are too angry, too sad, too loud, or too shy, commentators would argue. And it's all because the father isn't present...

While sometimes misguided, I understand the inclination. We all want what's best for children and want them to grow up to become happy, healthy, and productive adults. And of course, an engaged father is not some magic spell that casts success on any child who has one. I'm sure we could find plenty of examples to the contrary.

Here comes the BUT...

But, on average over the long-term, children who have two engaged parents, both mother and father, do better than children who don't.

While researching the topic on ECKLC, I came across the article "Appreciating How Fathers Give Children a Head Start." I had read the article before, but hadn't visited it in quite a few years. The article itself is extensively researched, including 46 footnote citations and a suggested reading list of 11 books. I could write a dozen blogs using the content presented in this article alone.

From the very first paragraph, you see that engaged fatherhood is not a substitute for engaged motherhood, but that both parents bring valuable skills to parenting that work best when they're used together.

"Scholars now know that boys and girls who grow up with an involved father, as well as an involved mother, have stronger cognitive and motor skills, enjoy elevated levels of physical and mental health, become better problem-solvers, and are more confident, curious, and empathetic. They also show greater moral sensitivity and self-control."

In one section, "Fathers Help Prepare Children for the Real World," the article touches on how fatherly love perfectly compliments motherly love.

"Generally speaking, fathers tend to see their child in relation to the rest of the world, while mothers tend to see the rest of the world in relation to their child... fathers help children prepare for the reality and harshness of the real world, and mothers help protect against it. Both are necessary as children grow into adulthood."

In another example about discipline, it states:

"Fathers tend to observe and enforce rules systematically and sternly, which teach children the objectivity and consequences of right and wrong. Mothers tend toward grace and sympathy in the midst of disobedience, which provide a sense of hopefulness. Again, either of these by themselves is not good, but, together, they create a healthy, proper balance."

Back to these rooms of women, many of whom are mothers themselves... While Head Start policy makers are constantly talking about the importance of fathers and getting fathers involved, mothers (and particularly single mothers) can often feel like their contributions (which are vastly larger overall) aren't appreciated. Quite the contrary. The reason we talk about fatherhood so often is that it takes a lot of extra effort to get fathers engaged. And just like a father can't be a mother, a mother can't be a father. Rather, they are perfectly complimentary.

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times... If a child's father is around, it is imperative that we as Head Start staff do everything we can to engage him in his child's education. Exhaust every avenue, overcome objections, and do our best to not take no for an answer. I know it can be challenging, but most things that are worth doing are. It takes planning, it takes a strategy, but most importantly, it takes the firm decision that you're going to make it a priority for your program no matter how hard it seems.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! Do you have a fatherhood initiative? What are some common objections you hear? How do you deal with them? Leave your comments below!

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