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Back to School: Engaging Fathers in Children’s Futures

Beginning late last month, children of all ages across Philadelphia and throughout the region began heading back to school. It’s a time of hope and promise as we look to the future.

It’s a time when children need all the support they can get so they can carve a safe, productive path through an increasingly complex world. Parents, family members, teachers, and members of the community all have important roles to play.

Fathers, in particular, contribute a major part to the wellbeing and preparedness of their children throughout the journey into adulthood. In some cases, that influence is missing because of various forms of family disruption.

Those fathers who have been able to remain engaged with their children in spite of family disruptions, often times encounter systemic barriers that reinforce father separation. We have found that in the mind of the general public, their roles, for whatever reason, often are less visible or under-appreciated.

Unconscious Bias

Ironically, it’s a bias that is often nurtured, in part, by the people most interested in helping. Many who work in organizations providing social services, for example, tend to be female-centric, focusing on families headed by mothers or other female relatives.

In addition, many social service agencies have unintentionally developed policies or practices that limit fathers’ engagement in their children’s’ development. Removing this unconscious bias and working proactively to engage fathers would enlarge the network of adults that children can look to for meaningful support.

One initiative that seeks to rectify that unintended consequence is the Father Friendly Flagship Agencies (3FA) Project, which oversees a comprehensive, multi-year certification process for agencies offering diverse systems of care dedicated to increasing fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives.

Positive Steps

Episcopal Community Services of Philadelphia became certified as a 3FA agency in January and is taking a number of positive steps to encourage fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives. ECS, for example, is the only 3FA-accredited agency in the region focusing on the homeless population.

Our 3FA Pilot project at St. Barnabas Mission has incorporated “father engagement questions” to explore the interest of the mother to engage or re-engage the father: a father recruitment summer activity, opportunities for fathers to eat together with their children “Dinner with Dad”). While this may seem innocuous, for these fathers, it’s an important step since St. Barnabas Mission only serves women and children.

Overcoming Stereotypes

Unfortunately, the unconscious bias against fathers mentioned earlier often has led to inaccurate stereotypes. The fact is, there are many fathers who, even though they live apart from their families, still take an active role in their children’s’ lives. We know this because we have witnessed their level of concern and commitment to their children as part of ECS-sponsored programs, workshops, and discussion groups.

For these men, particularly if they are unemployed, or homeless, it’s important that they receive reassurance that their participation and influence in their children’s’ lives matters. They should also have tools and support to help them improve their own lives, so they will have the time and capability to give more to their children, so they can help them grow and develop into promising, productive adults.

Back to School

As we gear up for back to school time, let us reconsider existing stereotypes about so-called absent fathers:

  • Notice and acknowledge fathers taking their children to and from school
  • Notice and acknowledge fathers reading books to their children
  • Notice and acknowledge fathers talking to their children’s teachers about their academics

We also need to speak to fathers directly and create positive environments that engage and encourage them to stay involved with their families and children by removing barriers.

For the sake of their children’s future, fathers need to be a part of all proposed solutions.