by Mark Larson

Responsible Fatherhood Initiative Director

I enjoy talking with people about their work with fathers.  I like sharing stories about our hopes for and fears about working with men and their families and learn a lot through these stories.  One thing I have noticed from these stories is that people have strong and often conflicted feelings about fathers and their role in families.

On the one hand is a strong desire to see fathers more involved with their families and for obstacles to fathers’ involvement to be removed.  On the other hand is concern that some fathers engage in behavior detrimental to their families and that these behaviors are frequently overlooked.    Sometimes these perspectives are held by different people within an office or community.  Sometimes people feel internally conflicted between the two.  Almost always, the feelings about them are strong.

In practice, the conflict between these perspectives is reflected in a tendency to place fathers in one of two categories, “good dad” or “bad dad.”

Both perspectives are easy to defend.  The positive impact of fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives has been well documented.  A wealth of research indicates that father’s involvement in their children’s lives has positive impacts of children’s economic security, academic achievement, social development, involvement in crime and incarceration and more.  (Check out the National Fatherhood Initiative’s web-site for a comprehensive review of this research at www.fatherhood.org.)

At the same time, the negative impact of some fathers on their children is also well documented.  Children exposed to fathers who batter can be negatively affected in nearly every domain of their lives, including their social and cognitive development, academic achievement, and physical and mental health.  (Check out the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for a review of the impact of domestic violence on children at http://www.nctsnet.org/trauma-types/domestic-violence.)  Some fathers routinely ignore the basic responsibilities of parenting, including demonstration of respect for their co-parents and a commitment to their safety, and yet are granted enfettered access to children.

The problem of course is that when applied to work with individual fathers both the “good dad” and the “bad dad” label can lead us to overlook important information about the actual person we are working with.  If our tendency is to overemphasize the positive potential of fathers, in practice our assessments can overlook the negative impact of many current and historic behaviors fathers engage in, particularly coercive and violent behavior in their homes.  This can lead to decisions to provide fathers with access to children despite behaviors that continue to traumatize children and co-parents.  We can also become suspicious of mothers who continue to raise concerns about their children’s safety while with their fathers.

Conversely, we can also fail to recognize the positive contributions that a father can offer to his children by focusing exclusively on the weaknesses of a man’s parenting.  In practice, we can make minimal efforts to engage fathers and fail to assess the ways that they support their children’s well-being.  We can focus on keeping fathers away rather than helping them to become better parents.  We may fail to provide fathers with opportunities to successfully make changes in their lives and find meaningful ways for them and their families to contribute their children’s lives.   We may also accept the limited services available for fathers in our community because we don’t believe that fathers can or will change.

Improving outcomes for children and improving our daily practice with fathers requires us to move beyond the “good dads” and “bad dads” dichotomy.  (It also requires that we don’t make dads completely invisible when we work with families)   If we want to help children, improve men’s lives and protect the safety and well-being of women and children, we need to look at each father individually.  We must consider each father’s capacity for positive involvement in their children’s lives based on an assessment of his behavior, its impact on his family and his commitment to behavior change where needed.  We must also be aware of our underlying expectations of fathers and how issues of gender, race and class can impact these.

Here are some of the questions that can help us move in this direction.  When working with fathers or families, we can ask:

  • What behaviors has a father engaged in that support the well-being and development of his children?  What contributions does he make to providing for the safety, health, basic needs and nurturing that his children need?
  • What behaviors has a father engaged in that threaten the safety and well-being of his children?  Does he take responsibility for these behaviors and their impacts on his family?  Is he willing to commit to changing them?
  • How does a father view his role as a parent?  How does he describe his efforts to fulfill these roles?  What are his goals as a parent?
  • How does a man’s partner view his role in the family and contributions as a father?  What does she want from him in the future?
  • What concerns does his partner have about his parenting and what does she want to see change in the future?
  • With appropriate respect for age-appropriateness, what hopes and fears do a father’s children have regarding his involvement in their lives?

The answers to questions like these help us assess the individual strengths and needs of fathers and move away from the unhelpful trap of the “good dads” and “bad dads” dichotomy.  In doing so, we can strengthen our work with fathers, mothers and children.

Helping systems improve their capacity for this type of individualized assessment and engagement is the goal of DMA’s Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.   Our goal is to provide practical resources that help ensure that the positive benefits of fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives can be realized without overlooking the negative impacts of domestic violence in children’s lives.