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Celebrating Special Fathers

David Jones

By David A. Jones

Being a father is one of the greatest joys in my life. My wife and I raised four sons, all of whom are now young adults. Reflecting back, I can recall countless hours of challenges, concerns, frustrations, and laughter—a great deal of laughter. The thing that kept me coming back, that instilled a desire in me to engage with them, was the reciprocity. In an instant, we would go from being lost in our own individual thoughts to a fluid exchange in our mutual space. This dance enticed me and fortified my resolve to scaffold our interactions.

I could not imagine a scenario that would compromise or change my enjoyment of this engagement until, through the course of my work with parents in an Early Head Start program, I met a young mother. This teen mother, whom we'll call Grace, loved and cared for her 6-month-old son, whom we'll call George. When we first met, I could not tell that he had any issues, but Grace self-consciously blurted out, "He's disabled." She explained that this beautiful, brown-eyed baby was born with Down's syndrome, which causes developmental and intellectual delays. Grace went on to share that George's father was having a hard time accepting and interacting with their son. She wanted me to help her, him, their family.

I had never had to deal with a differently abled child. Yet because of my experience with my sons, I had a hard time with the notion that a father would shy away from his own child due to a disability or developmental delay. If you think this story ends with some miraculous intervention on my part or change of heart on the part of George's father, sadly, I must disappoint you. However, this was the beginning of a very important education for me.

I was blown away by the many psychological and emotional changes parents needed to confront when they met their differently abled child. Often, early attachment and bonding issues resulted in scenarios where parents wanted to give up on their child. I saw cases where father involvement was essential to attachment and bonding when a mother had difficulty connecting with the child. In other cases, I watched a mother rapidly become expert on her child's specific developmental issue and respond accordingly.

A father playing with disabled child in swingNeedless to say, this resulted in a major shift in my approach to service delivery when working with fathers. I had a deeper understanding of the special consideration and support parents need, particularly fathers of children with some form of disability. While I saw potential and possibility in my sons, these fathers were locked in a world of limitations and inabilities, even if only for a while. They would not immediately experience the reciprocity or the enticement of a shared mutual space. They were adjusting to the realized child instead of the idealized child and so much more.

I've since learned about Dick and Rick Hoyt. This world renowned father-son team has participated in more than 1,100 races. Rick sustained brain damage at birth and was later diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. Dick was told, "Forget Rick; put him away in an institution. He's going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life!" Dick, however, did not give up. He increased his knowledge, he dealt with a range of emotions, and he fostered a relationship with his son Rick. He saw possibility for his son's life. While this is, of course, an exceptional circumstance, I know there are many other fathers that have successfully negotiated this journey with a similar commitment and intensity of engagement.

In 2014–15, 6.6 million children and youth received special education services; that's 13 percent of all public school students (Children and Youth, May 2017). This year, I'd like to celebrate those fathers who go deep in an effort to better understand their differently abled child, and the array of issues they must contend with. These fathers celebrate, enhance, and support their child's milestones while embracing their abilities.

Happy Father's Day!

David A. Jones is a Senior Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start.