Writing Fatherhood’s Missing Manual

Father si teaching his son to ride a byke in the park

This commentary was originally published by the Deseret News.

For Darvin, 29, staying connected to his 7-year-old son, Dion — who lives some distance away — was a struggle. When Darvin called, Dion refused to share any updates on his life, insisting that he didn’t want to talk. “I was kind of on the verge of just not calling,” Darvin said. “It (was) tearing me down.”

But after Darvin brought his problem to a group meeting at the Fostering Actions To Help Earnings and Responsibility (FATHER) Project, an organization that helps noncustodial fathers stay connected to their children, he was able to see things differently. The other fathers urged him to consider Dion’s perspective: It was natural for a 7-year-old to be unenthusiastic about a phone call when he had a lot going on in his life. It remained crucial, they emphasized, for Darvin to keep calling and telling Dion that he loved him and was thinking about him. Dion would remember that in the long run.

“That helped and made a lot of sense,” Darvin said. “I wasn’t seeing that at first.”

Darvin is not alone. Thousands of American fathers have found that programs like the FATHER Project are making a difference for them and their families.

These kinds of father-focused programs address a very real need. Today, a quarter of families are led by a single parent (usually a mother), according to U.S. census data, with this number even higher among families with low incomes. And many other families include a father figure who is not a biological parent. In situations like these — where a father does not live with his child, or where someone has suddenly been thrust into a fatherly role — guidance on how to be a positive force in the child’s life can make all the difference.

Social service providers did not always recognize this, and many programs traditionally focused much more on motherhood than fatherhood. Except for campaigns to give fathers more equity in parental leave and custody arrangements, policy discussions have tended to center on ensuring that fathers contribute their fair share financially.

But a quiet revolution has been brewing. It started about 50 years ago, when fathers began organizing to advocate for better services to meet their needs. A variety of community-based groups — from religious organizations to advocates for marginalized people — took note, launching programs to provide that support. Today, similar programs are now run by a diverse range of organizations, including hospital systems and local government agencies. They take a variety of forms, from support groups to one-on-one advising.

The popularity of these programs — which today draw thousands of participants via word of mouth, social media, or referral by other service providers — has support from the federal government, which invests about $150 million per year on marriage and fatherhood programs.

Do these programs work, though? The results aren’t always easy to measure, especially when it comes to difficult-to-quantify outcomes like the strength of father-child relationships. So far, the research suggests that something is working. But what? The answer will help more fathers and families thrive.

What’s Gone Right?

The endorsements of men like Darvin suggest that the government’s investment may be paying off. But it’s less easy to understand precisely how and why. Policymakers, funders, researchers, practitioners, and participants are all trying to answer simple questions: What’s gone right? And which components of these programs have made the biggest difference?

Recent studies have begun to hint at some answers. Findings show, for instance, that programs where fathers learn how to spend quality time with their kids (as opposed to just being urged to spend more time) have positive effects on participants and their families, as do programs that teach skills for improving the coparenting relationship with the child’s mother.

Tone also seems to matter. Research suggests, for instance, that it’s more productive to help fathers participate holistically in their children’s lives — and, in the process, help them find work so they can contribute financially — than to deliver services with a punitive subtext that treats fathers with low incomes as “deadbeat dads.” Fortunately, programs have increasingly recognized this over the last decade, adjusting their messaging accordingly.

At MDRC, a national social policy nonprofit where I lead research on and partnerships with fatherhood programs, we are also closely examining how to improve service delivery. In one instance, we applied a technique called rapid-cycle learning to test different approaches to recruitment and engagement. In 10 programs across the country, staff learned new techniques, such as coaching the father rather than simply signing him up for services. We then tested how this affected fathers, using these insights to make further adjustments. In another instance, we showed that fathers who joined programs for one purpose, such as learning parenting skills, also took advantage of other kinds of support with the encouragement of program staff, such as role-playing difficult workplace situations in order to boost their odds of employment success.

There is more to do. Overall gains are positive but still small: One analysis found program participants outscored a control group by 5 percent on combined measures of father-child involvement, parenting skills, economic well-being, co-parenting success, and child support contributions. It’s easy to feel impatient with this pace of change, but incremental progress adds up. What’s important is to keep trying new ideas, scaling existing ideas that work, pinpointing what’s less effective and adjusting accordingly, collecting better data, and centering both the individual and the family unit. We know from long experience that by doing all this, we will see even more positive change for thousands of fathers and their families, one detail at a time.

What’s Next for Dads

To understand what the future of fatherhood programs might look like, it’s helpful to consider what we already know — and what these programs have already accomplished.

For starters, we know that these programs build on strong enthusiasm for the work they do. The fact that they started at the intersection of movements and ideologies — and today enjoy strong bipartisan support — suggests that even in our polarized times, people with a range of beliefs have a shared vision for how this work can help families. It also underscores how research can validate the success of grassroots innovations.

We also know that today, with more sophisticated data collection techniques and analytical tools, we are better equipped to understand what works in these previously unresearched environments. Large language models, for instance, will help us make sense of a higher volume of unstructured survey responses. Funders are increasingly recognizing these opportunities, opening doors for new kinds of research — and new kinds of partnerships with the practitioners who work directly with fathers.

Most importantly, we know that the stakes of this work are high, especially for kids. Today’s developmental psychologists regard early childhood, in particular, as a powerful window for shaping the trajectory of kids’ lives. While there’s still more to understand about and improve in fatherhood programs, we know for certain that the more caring adults that kids like Dion grow up with — including fathers like Darvin — the better their chances are of meeting the challenges ahead.

Dina A.R. Israel is a senior associate at MDRC who has worked on studies about fatherhood for more than a decade.