Kids Do Better When Fathers Are Involved
When McGyver first became a father 10 years ago, he wanted a different relationship with his children than he experienced with his own dad. McGyver believes his dad was a good person, but lacked the ability to have an intimate relationship with his kids. He grew up feeling something was always missing.
Now a father of four living in South Los Angeles, McGyver is preparing for his 10th Father’s Day as a parent. The holiday is an opportunity to reflect on what he has accomplished as a dad and how he has worked to be a constant presence in the lives of his kids. This has meant blocking out weekends for uninterrupted family time and fully embracing whatever activities his kids find interesting.
His focus on being a more involved father is what led McGyver originally to sign-up for Children’s Institute’s Project Fatherhood. McGyver, whose youngest son and daughter are enrolled in CII’s Head Start programs, learned about Project Fatherhood a few months ago while attending a health fair and felt the program resonated with his own beliefs about being a dad.
“What fatherhood really means is being there to grow up alongside my kids,” he says. “I’ve wanted to be heavily involved in their lives from the get go and have them know that their dad is always behind them.”
This Father’s Day will mark Project Fatherhood’s 23rd year supporting dads in their approach to parenting. The program works with a range of dads – those, like McGyver, who seek out the program voluntarily, as well as fathers who are court-mandated to join due to claims of abuse or neglect in the home. Regardless of how men get there, Project Fatherhood staff promote a culture where dads are active participants in their family and serve as a constant support to their kids.
Project Fatherhood fills a crucial gap. Nationally, 19.7 million children, or roughly one in four, live without a father, and few programs exist that focus on the needs of parenting men. Program Director Keith Parker says it’s important to understand that the role of father is not optional in families, observing that, “Father’s Day honors the essential role of fathers in their children’s lives.”
Dr. Hershel K. Swinger founded Project Fatherhood at CII in 1996 after observing the stigma around fatherhood in South LA that limited the involvement of dads in their children’s lives. Some fathers grew up with dads who practiced “tough love” – a way of parenting that often included physical or mental abuse – while others had no contact with their fathers.
What fatherhood really means is being there to grow up alongside my kids. I’ve wanted to be heavily involved in their lives from the get go and have them know that their dad is always behind them.McGyver, CII Parent
Over the last 23 years, the program has reached more than 15,000 dads who have parented 23,000 children. The program fostered a successful partnership model with the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services that is being replicated on a national level.
Dr. Edward Berumen, Program Supervisor for Project Fatherhood, said Dr. Swinger was a visionary in understanding that investing in fathers could improve the abilities of families to overcome the challenges of poverty in South LA.
According to the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality, when fathers are involved during pregnancy, mothers have fewer complications. Throughout infancy and early childhood, a present and engaged father can make a major difference in a child’s social, emotional and mental development, and children with involved fathers have better outcomes in school and reduced risks of teen pregnancies.
“If you want to improve outcomes for children, you need to involve fathers,” Berumen says. “We need programs like Project Fatherhood that strengthen father involvement for the benefit of the whole family.”
Dr. Berumen said a Project Fatherhood’s success is due to networks of support among dads who gather in weekly group discussions to share their experiences and offer suggestions and support. Dr. Berumen and other Project Fatherhood staff facilitate these discussions, but let the fathers lead.
“Fathers walk away learning from people who have gone through similar experiences,” he says. “They go home and use what they’ve learned to improve their relationship with their own families.”
Johnnie has been going to the Project Fatherhood group discussions for three years and said they have transformed the way he parents his 4-year old daughter. Johnnie said many of the dads in his group grew up with absent or abusive fathers and find the groups to be a safe space where they feel comfortable talking about their histories of trauma.
If you want to improve outcomes for children, you need to involve fathers. We need programs like Project Fatherhood that strengthen father involvement for the benefit of the whole family.Dr. Edward Berumen, Project Fatherhood Program Supervisor
“I didn’t grow up with a father, so I’m trying to be the example that I never had when I was a child,” Johnnie says. “I had challenges early on, but now I live for being a father.”
Project Fatherhood staff say many of the dads decide to stay in the group well after their children grow up, because they enjoy the bonds they’ve formed with other fathers and want to be mentors to new dads. One father has been involved in the groups for 19 years.
Michael, who has been a part of Project Fatherhood for several years, said he doesn’t know if he will still be attending the groups in 15 years, but does appreciates how the group helped him realize that good parenting never ends and there are always opportunities to make small tweaks. He said he wants to give that back to other fathers. “Because of Project Fatherhood, I am constantly learning about being a good father and learning different ways to improve myself,” he says.
McGyver said he carries a similar sentiment as he gets ready to join Project Fatherhood. Whether it is his first Father’s Day or his 20th, growing as a father is something that never ends.
“I’ve learned that having kids is not the same as being a father,” he said. “It takes a lot of work, but it is humbling to look at my kids and be amazed by them every single day.”