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Fathers - changing behaviour, changing expectations, changing services

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Parenting is important to men, and dads are important to their children. Over the past fifty years some striking changes have taken place. Today’s dad is no longer always the stereotyped married breadwinner and disciplinarian in the family. Whilst some biological fathers don’t do fathering, other non-biological fathers can and do e.g. grandfathers/uncles, foster fathers, adoptive fathers and stepfathers. He can be single or married; externally employed or a stay-at home dad; gay or straight; an adoptive or stepparent - and well capable of caring for children facing physical or psychological challenges. Whoever and whatever they are, more is now expected of dads and the changes are remarkable.

Changing selves

Dads now play a more active role in a child care and domestic life in general. Whilst dads still do less of the parenting, their involvement is increasing. Their involvement in child care has increased from less than 15 minutes a day in the mid-1970s to three hours a day during the week, with more at the weekend. Hands-on fathering, whilst not the only measure of a good dad, is now dads expect of themselves and hope to do.

Changing social expectations

Fifty years ago societal expectations of fathers – during pregnancy and childbirth, their involvement in childcare and domestic tasks – remained low. For instance, up until the late nineteen fifties, fathers were typically excluded from the birth of their children. Until recently the needs of, and services for, dads were often seen as an after-thought or at worst a distraction from the real work of supporting mum. As long as dad brought home the wages and supported mother as a primary parent, his job was deemed largely over. The evolution of the roles and responsibilities of dads has been gradual but speed has picked up. Now today if a man is not present at the birth of his child, we think something is amiss. Changes to birth registration and paternal leave are also indicators of growing acknowledgement at governmental level - and expectation - of the importance of dads in the lives of their children.

Changing family expectations

Women (as do dads) now expect a good dad to be involved in birth plans, child care and decision-making about children. Most dads think they currently spend too little time with their children and too much time at work. We also know that children want more involvement from their dads.

Changing Services

We know that children are likely to be smarter, healthier and happier if their dads are positively involved. Over the past thirty years, the positive contribution that can be made by dads to child development, welfare and protection has now been established and this can be seen in positive attitudes to schooling, keeping out of trouble and taking care of personal health; the fruits of a positive father contribution can also be seen in children’s later-life emotional and social well-being.

So services for children and families will deliver their best when they involve dads. We also know that services that include dads mean that the responsibilities for child care and domestic work don’t fall to women alone.

The Scottish government has signalled its interest in developing services for fathers in its National Parenting Strategy. This top level commitment was expressed by the Minister for Children and Young People on Fathers Day 2012:

Dads being fully involved in their children’s lives has all sorts of positive benefits for the wider family and community. However, we need to go further to ensure that as a society we truly value and support dads in the role that they play.

Let’s make this happen.

Prepared by Jeremy Davies of the Fatherhood Institute.