Opinion Articles

Teaching fathers to be ‘involved’

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The Coalition Government recently announced a pilot scheme offering fathers ‘men only’ relationship classes aimed at encouraging them to be ‘involved’ as their children grow up. These classes signal a shift from ‘mother-centric’ antenatal support. The classes are part of broader scheme to prepare couples for the impact a baby may have on their relationship. The scheme will be piloted in six counties (Cheshire, Merseyside, North East England, Eastern England, the Midlands and London) with areas of relatively high rates of single parent households.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ announcement of the scheme cited research by the Centre for Social Justice that suggests a 16-year-old is more likely to own a smartphone than have a resident father:

Ministers believe it cannot but have a negative impact on our society. 

Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith said:

It is not only the bond between a mother and her child which makes a real difference to a child’s life, it is the bond between a father and his child too. The problem of absent fathers is far too common - with households left worse-off and, more importantly, children left without the positive involvement of two parents in their life.

A historical perspective suggests that this latest effort to bolster the ‘traditional’ nuclear family probably springs more from a desire to encourage the ‘positive involvement’ of men’s financial rather than their personal contributions to families. There are three problems with this new scheme.

First, the initiative is hardly new. Policies trumpeting men’s involvement in family life while seeking to secure their wages have been in operation for over a century. By the end of the nineteenth century, the ideal of a masculine ‘breadwinner’ as the cornerstone of family life was embedded in welfare legislation. The first social workers targeted mothers as recipients of parenting classes – yet they commented extensively on the need to keep fathers positively involved by making home a place of comfort where responsibilities of fatherhood were rewarded with privileges and rights such as domestic authority and the biggest share of the best food.

By the interwar period, state-sponsored Maternity and Infant Welfare Centres introduced ‘Fathercraft’ classes and Fathers’ Councils. While these classes helped men with hands- on parenting, fathercraft was being defined as ‘the art or craft of making money to keep wives and children’ in the Daily Mirror. Like the DWP pilot today, this scheme sought to counter mother-centric welfare support in ways that confirmed men’s primary role as a breadwinner while seeking to expand it to include play and nurture.

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed myriad schemes to promote what became labelled the ‘New Man’ model of ‘involved fatherhood’. However, recurring state-sponsored initiatives to improve father’s involvement remain tied to a conception of fatherhood related to maintenance payments rather than men’s intrinsic parenting skills or desire for contact with their children.

The second problem is such policy initiatives rely on an arbitrary notion of a ‘golden age’ of ‘traditional’ family life. Most historical research shows that the nuclear family is a relatively recent invention of the industrial revolution, cemented as the cultural ideal by the 1950s. Yet, despite state attempts to promote the nuclear family, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were typified by multiple family formations from single parent households to households constituted of unrelated adults pooling resources and child-rearing responsibilities. There is little historical evidence to suggest that the nuclear family is the key to, as Iain Duncan Smith puts it, ‘promoting a strong society’ or that stigmatizing other forms of ‘family’ is helpful. Throughout recent history, the family is seen as both a problem and a solution to society’s ills.

Third, the ‘feckless’ father is a recurring bogeyman of family policy. For some families where a parent, regardless of sex, is violent or abusive then absence is probably desirable. Nevertheless, initiatives aimed at boosting men’s involvement in family life rely on fairly inflexible notions of ‘absence’ that assume men’s physical separation from children some or all of the time inhibits any other kind of togetherness. Historical research shows that the feckless father stereotype has often been exaggerated, partly because welfare and social reformers have approached parenting from a middle-class conception of what constitutes ‘good’ parenting. Social workers in the late nineteenth century frequently expressed frustration with men’s ‘irresponsible’ parenting: taking children into pubs, encouraging rough and tumble, putting children to work, being careless of dirt, and indeed, ridiculing social workers and their ideas. Yet the testimonies of men and their children reveal that so-called ‘irresponsible’ parenting could be enjoyable and beneficial.

Into the twentieth century, ideals of a ‘good’ father became increasingly pervasive, cemented in political initiatives targeted at the family, but also through an increasingly prescriptive media that sought to establish standards around parenting. In 1949, for example, a quiz measuring fathers’ behaviour in the Daily Mirror rewarded those men who took ‘an active part in games and physical exercise and set a good example to children’. Few policy reformers, past and present, have asked men what they want from fatherhood or recognized fathering as an ongoing process that evolves as children grow up and men get older.

Historical research from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exposes the flaws in the ‘absent father’ model, which presumes that men are required to be physically embedded at home. However, in the past children could develop meaningful relationships with fathers they saw rarely, through many means: correspondence, advice, training and education, short visits and, crucially, an abstract sense of ‘togetherness’ that sustained men and children during periods of separation. Being absent from the family was often necessary for financial provision. For fathers whose jobs took them away from home and family, sometimes into dangerous situations, absence could develop extra significance and breadwinning an emotionally significant act. The limits to the amounts of time men spent with their sons and daughters, often in the evenings and weekends, could render that time more special to both fathers and children.

For men and children, breadwinning and caring fatherhood have been closely intertwined, part of a shared understanding of what fathers should do for their children, which depended on class and regional background as well as personal family dynamics. Yet the efforts of policy makers like Iain Duncan Smith, from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries, confuse this link. By promoting involvement through men-only classes, they continue to reinforce the difference between male and female parenting, thus reasserting men’s historical role as breadwinners rather than carers, and thus failing to tackle the problem they outline. Fathers have been ‘involved’ for a long time. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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