Fatherhood: Parenting Programmes and Policy
The father-child relationship contributes to positive emotional development and health outcomes of children, and thus is an important element in their development. It is also important for mothers, both for their health and psychological well-being, to feel their partners’ support in raising children. In Fatherhood: Parenting Programmes and Policy – A Critical Review of Best Practice, Fiona McAllister and Adrienne Burgess (2012) of the UK think tank the Fatherhood Institute reviewed ‘policies and programmes that promote or facilitate the involvement of father and father-figures from the pre-natal period through the first eight years of their children’s lives’ in order to ‘establish evidence of these programmes’ potential impact on family violence, child abuse of children’s health and learning outcomes’ (p. 5). The study also provides policy recommendations as well as suggestions for future research.
McAllister and Burgess base their findings on systematic reviews that focus on father engagement and parenting interventions programmes as well as more general preventative programmes related prenatal health as well as programmes that address child abuse. The authors also draw on peer-reviewed articles and reports produced by international organisation (e.g. World Bank, OECD, WHO) that focus on these topics. The study has a global reach and presents twenty case studies from the Global North and Global South in addition to a catalogue of projects with weaker evidence. The authors define those countries that belong to Global North to be from the ‘industrialised West’, the former Soviet bloc. They also list Japan, Australia and New Zealand to be a part of this group. Countries of the Global South are middle- and low-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The authors also noted that these definitions are not static and may change especially as the emerging economies of the world develop. In terms of specifying what constitutes ‘best practice’, McAllister and Burgess specified that it should have ‘two elements: evidence for effectiveness of a given programme and its incorporation of a gender perspective in terms of engaging men and collating findings from and about them’ (emphasis original, p. 14).
The state of the evidence
Despite the listed benefits of father engagement in child rearing, few studies have been done to evaluate programmes that focus on fathers. This is mostly due to the fact that there is greater evidence of programmes that target mothers (for instance, those living on low incomes, or teenage mothers). Moreover, there is much greater evidence from the Global North than from the Global South. In order to list greater number of programmes from the Global South, the authors widened the focus of the study to include best practices that have targeted for HIV prevention, maternal and child health, reducing domestic violence and empowering women. These programmes were included if some components of intervention could be transferred to parenting. Focusing on more holistic programmes also supports the argument of the report, that ‘one must not be drawn into thinking that father-only programmes are the best way forward’ (p. 14).
Main conclusions and recommendations
The evidence reviewed in the report demonstrates that involving fathers in their children’s lives as early as possible could promote their engagement later on because ‘father-involvement established early on tends to endure’ (p. 8). Policymakers and employers could promote father engagement by providing greater incentives for parenting leave. There is a multitude of benefits for fathers, mothers and children when fathers take up leave to care for their children. In addition to direct benefits for children, advantages of parental leave include fathers’ adoption of healthier lifestyle, reduced instances of women smoking and suffering from depression, more contact with children if parents decide to divorce (p. 7). Providing financial incentives for fathers to take up their leave has proven to be effective, in particular in the Nordic countries which have one of the most generous parental leave policies.
The study also recommends engaging fathers as a part of wider family engagement initiatives. This is due to the fact that when programmes are designed exclusively for fathers, fewer fathers participate compared to universal interventions engaging both partners. Evaluations of these programmes, however, should focus on fathers in order to evaluate the effect on this group. The authors also recommend that programmes should be holistic and multi-dimensional, and connected with community-based and national advocacy. In their review of what worked well so far, programmes with an holistic approach tended to be more effective. The study argues for the importance of more evaluations of these programmes to increase the level of evidence available in this field.