A Father for Every Child

June 19, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Fathers can be forgiven if they sometimes feel like an afterthought. Even their special day, marked today by families around the country, lacked official national recognition for decades. Although it has been observed in one form or another since 1910, Father's Day merited a presidential proclamation only in 1966, some 52 years after President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Mother's Day in 1914.

But fathers can take heart. If there's anything encouraging about America's often-raucous debate on values and families, it's the increasing recognition across all political, racial and economic lines that children need fathers in their lives. Not just men with wallets, but fathers who spend time with them, care about them, watch closely over their development.

So far, research on fathers and children is less extensive than on the mother-child relationship. But studies that have been done usually reinforce common sense. Warm, nurturing relationships with a father -- or a father figure -- provide enormous benefits for children.

What's important is not simply the fact of having a man around, but rather the kind of interaction the relationship produces. Boys and girls with involved and nurturing fathers have a leg up in the perilous journey to adulthood.

Nurturing is a word society tends to associate with mothers, often without paying much attention to the abilities and desires of men to be involved in children's lives. All too often, society sends messages, intended or not, that make it more difficult for children and fathers to forge strong relationships.

James Levine, who runs the Fatherhood Project of the Families and Work Institute in New York, recalls his days as a young pre-school teacher in the late 1960s, when other adults were incredulous that he wasn't just a volunteer but worked with small children full-time.

Later, as a consultant to the Ford Foundation on children's programs, he found himself part of a team advising the foundation on how best to use its money to influence child care and public policy. He realized that all their recommendations shared a unifying theme: that child care was a women's problem, and women were the solution.

He objected. Shouldn't child care be a family issue, not a women's issue? And aren't men part of families?

Mr. Levine went on to found the Fatherhood Project at the Bank Street College of Education in New York, later moving it to the non-profit Families and Work Institute. This week, Mr. Levine and his colleague Ed Pitt, who specializes in male involvement programs, were in Baltimore to help lead Maryland Committee for Children's conference for child-care providers interested in making their centers more comfortable places for fathers to be.

The aim of the conference -- and of more extensive training sessions that will begin in the fall -- is to help child-care programs include fathers in children's lives. Much of the training would be applicable in any child-care site -- making teachers aware of tendencies to greet women more warmly or talk with mothers longer and more freely than with fathers. Often it is these subtle signals that can give men the sense that they don't really belong, regardless of their economic or social status.

But some of these techniques have especially strong potential in poor neighborhoods where female-headed households are common. These are the blocks where ''fatherhood'' often never progresses beyond the biological link and where these boys or men are shut out of traditional father roles of economic providers simply because they have no jobs.

But it would be a mistake to think that female-headed households have no men around, because they often do. (That can be as true in suburbia as in poor inner-city neighborhoods.) It may be the mother's boyfriend, an uncle, grandfather or other adult male. Whatever the connection, it makes a world of difference whether the relationship is warm and nurturing or indifferent and abusive.

At St. Bernardine's Head Start serving 200 preschoolers in West Baltimore, a weekly men's group has provided a way for fathers and other men to find mutual support and eventually to play a significant role in their children's lives. Often another benefit is that the men learn to communicate better with the mothers of their children, eliminating some of the hostility and bitterness that harms so many children.

St. Bernardine's men's group and other outreach efforts are being held up as examples of ways men can be drawn into child-care sites and, eventually, into children's lives.

Men matter to children. Father's Day is a good day to remember and celebrate that.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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