Fathers must be more than 'walking wallets'

By Richard Thomas, Society Editor
Sunday, April 25, 1999

Expectant dads will be given a free guide to successful fatherhood in a Government-backed bid to persuade men to take a more active parental role.

Labour is set to launch a programme called 'Fathers Direct', designed to tackle negative stereotypes of fathers as abusive or uninterested in their children. The scheme is the first nationwide service offering information, advice and support for British fathers.

Adrienne Burgess, who will head the Home Office-funded scheme, said: 'We are setting out to change the whole culture which surrounds fathers, which undervalues the real passion that many have for their children. Fathers Direct will tackle the invisibility of all the good fathering which goes on.'

Ministers are worried that poor images of fatherhood and the army of 'absent dads' are having a damaging impact on children, especially boys. They are concerned that welfare and health services too often ignore the male parent.

'There is a wide acceptance now that fathers count, and that they need special support and help,' said one Government source. 'The idea that this competes with support for mothers is ridiculous - the truth is that helping fathers is good for mothers too.'

Home Office Minister Paul Boateng has been struck by research showing that the partners of those fathers-to-be who are involved in family life get better professional care. Other data shows that children with actively involved fathers perform better at school and are less likely to be in trouble with the police.

Burgess said the programme, which will run initially until the next election, will develop the guide for new dads, establish a telephone helpline, issue guidance to employers on how to help working fathers and set up a 'one-stop shop' of information on the Internet.

The announcement follows a high-profile conference last week at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which brought together experts on fatherhood from the US, Europe and Australia.

James Levine, an adviser to US Vice-President Al Gore, said that one of the biggest challenges was to tackle the narrow view of fathers as financial providers only.

'In the US, the big challenge is to get people, not least fathers themselves, to see dads as more than just walking wallets.'

The Government is putting the finishing touches to its own review of child support, to be published in a fortnight. It is likely to increase the amount substantially which fathers separated from their families will be expected to pay. The unveiling of Fathers Direct will be seen as an attempt to provide some balance to the new child support calculations, which are certain to anger some fathers.

One of the most difficult issues for campaigners for greater support for fathers, said Levine, was the frequent backlash from women's groups, who argued that money spent on fathers should be devoted to helping women because they undertook the bulk of childcare. A Bill to grant $1 billion to services for fathers will reach the US Congress in the next few months, and is likely to win bi-partisan backing.

'One lesson the UK can learn from the US is that attempts to help fathers are doomed unless you can get the support and collaboration of women,' said Burgess. She said one of the priorities for Fathers Direct would be to educate the providers of health, education and social services to involve male parents. 'When professionals say parent, they mean mothers,' she said. 'Family services means services for mums. That's the perception we have to change.'

Graeme Russell, professor of psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, told the IPPR conference that the unrelenting negativity of the media's portrayal of fathers was undermining their confidence. 'We surveyed fathers across the country as part of a "Fatherhood Audit", and one of the most striking findings was that while the fathers had a fairly low opinion of their role as dads, their partners rated them pretty highly,' he said. 'They are doing better than they think.'

But Russell said fathers everywhere feel trapped between growing pressures in the workplace and higher expectations of their role in the home. 'The bar has been seriously lifted for men,' he said. 'They want to manage it, but often feel unsupported.'

Burgess said: 'In the long run, I hope we won't need tailored support for fathers - parents will be what count. But for now, in the current climate, they need all the help they can get.'

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999