The Case for Dedicated Dads

Fathers who get involved in their kids' education have a big effect on the health, academic success, and happiness of their sons and daughters.
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Courtesy of Tray Chaney

One out of every three American children grows up without a biological father. These 24 million kids miss out on the many benefits of having a dad around, like being less likely to get involved with crime or abuse substances, and being more likely to achieve academic success. According to a report on involved fathers published by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, 

Research has shown that fathers, no matter what their income or cultural background, can play a critical role in their children’s education. When fathers are involved, their children learn more, perform better in school, and exhibit healthier behavior. Even when fathers do not share a home with their children, their active involvement can have a lasting and positive impact.

Mothers are very important to their children’s development, of course, but research has shown that fathers help kids grow in specific ways. Children with involved fathers are more ready to succeed academically when they start school and tend to show more patience. As those kids grow, this leads to “better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement.” According to a 2001 U. S. Department of Education study, "highly involved biological fathers had children who were 43 percent more likely than other children to earn mostly As and 33 percent less likely than other children to repeat a grade.” Other researchers have found that highly engaged dads contribute to their children’s mental dexterity, problem-solving skills, intellectual curiosity, and enjoyment of school, which is no small thing. Children who are curious and enjoy learning are far more likely to be able to tap into their intrinsic motivation and curiosity, resisting the discouragement that can come with school environments that rely heavily on external rewards like grades, test scores, and awards.

Recently, some authors have claimed that parents don’t really have much of an effect on educational success. “Parental involvement is overrated,” wrote the New York Times in April. The authors argued that “…most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.”

But many experts on education and child development vocally disagree. Some challenged the methodology behind the claims; others, such as developmental psychologist and researcher Marilyn Price-Mitchell, felt the authors were too limited in defining what qualifies as academic success:

Family engagement affects many aspects of youth development, including resilience, learning, social skills, caring, self-awareness, creativity, strategy, and character. All of these things, when integrated into a “whole view” of the child, are really what makes kids succeed.

Fortunately, fathers are becoming more and more involved in their children’s lives. The number of dads who stay home with their children has doubled since 1989, and schools are trying hard to welcome the men who volunteer at their kids' schools. Last fall, 100 schools across Maryland’s Prince George’s County invited fathers, grandfathers and uncles into their schools for “Men Make a Difference” day. Administrators hope this annual event will show these “male role models ... the importance of being engaged in a child’s education and how such involvement could change a child’s life.

While educators work on finding ways to invite fathers into school life, others are trying to help fathers invest in their children’s social and moral education at home. Actor, hip-hop artist, and father Tray Chaney, best known for his role as Malik “Poot” Carr on HBO’s The Wire, has launched a “Dedicated Father” campaign in an effort to “uplift and encourage fathers” to be present and engaged in their children’s lives. He’s also fighting stereotypes, trying to change perceptions about the myth of the absent black father. In his “Dedicated Father” video, Chaney appeals to men to be role models and support their children’s emotional and educational growth.

 

All this attention to the importance and influence of fathers may be starting to pay off. A summary report on fathers’ involvement in their children’s learning published by the National Center for Fathering and the National PTA shows that, over the decade between 1999 and 2009, fathers have “significantly increased their involvement with their children at school” and “significantly increased their interaction with teachers, school officials and other parents.”

But the report also identifies a few areas with room for improvement. Thirty-nine percent of fathers report that they never read to their child, 32 percent never visit their child’s classroom, and 54 percent never volunteer at their child’s school.

The first step toward encouraging fathers to get involved in education may be just to ask—nearly half of the fathers polled by the PTA indicated that they had never been invited to join the organization. As a result, it started the PTA MORE campaign: Men Organized to Raise Engagement. The PTA and the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services have all recognized the need to invite fathers into the educational process, offering simple changes schools can make that would make it easier for fathers to be involved, which include:

  • Invite fathers into the process of educating their children. Because the popular assumption around school invitations and events is that “parents” is a euphemism for “mothers,” fathers may not feel welcome to attend. Reach out to fathers and seek to include them—specifically—in school events.
  • Make paternity leave a viable option for fathers. When asked what is keeping them from becoming more involved in their children’s education, “Fathers ranked institutional practices and barriers imposed by the workplace as the most important reasons for their low levels of involvement … Paternity leave is the most frequently discussed means of enhancing paternal involvement.”
  • Eliminate language barriers. Many fathers do not speak the same language as their children’s teachers. Some are deaf, and others are functionally illiterate. In order to remove this barrier to engagement, reach out to all parents, in all their native languages and forms of communication.
  • Be flexible in scheduling conferences. Many parents find it challenging to schedule conferences during work hours, and for many, taking time off from work for a conference is simply not economically feasible.
  • Educate parents about how to get involved. Many parents want to be involved, but don’t know how. If fathers have not traditionally been involved in their children’s education, it only makes sense that schools need to give them a place to start.  

It may be difficult to quantify a father’s involvement in his child’s education in terms of standardized test scores, but engaged dads have a big effect on kids’ overall learning and development. Fathers don’t have to be perfect, know best, or have all the answers to their kids’ homework; they can still shape their kids’ character, ethics, sense of self-care, social skills, resilience, and responsibility. At school and in life, those are the skills that matter most. 

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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