Family Engagement

Effective Communication Strategies to Engage Fathers

It is the collective responsibility of all program staff, including leadership and direct service providers, to create a healthy, welcoming environment for all parents, including fathers. Throughout our efforts to engage fathers, it is important to recognize that the most effective communication takes place within the context of a trusting relationship.

"The biggest thing I hate, [is when people say] 'Oh, you're babysitting your kids?' They're my kids. I can't babysit my kids ... How do you babysit what you brought into this world?"
Damien, Dallas
Zero to Three, National Parent Survey Report (2016)

According to the Zero to Three National Parent Survey (2016), many fathers report feeling frustrated or shut out by well-meaning comments. The survey highlighted one father who felt upset by people's references to his spending time with his children as babysitting: "Give me the credit and support I deserve. When I'm with my kids, don't assume I'm the temporary helper. I'm not "babysitting" my own kids; they need me and I love being a dad. I feel like my life started when I became a father. But too often, I feel judged – by strangers, by family members and even by my child's mom. When I feel stressed and overwhelmed, I don't feel like I get enough support. Like most dads, I'm not in it for the credit, but I'm not getting the credit I deserve."

Being intentional and taking advantage of natural opportunities to engage fathers facilitates the relationship-building process. One approach is sharing observations to begin a conversation with a father. By noticing and commenting on something positive you observed about a father's interaction with his child, you can discover who this father is as an individual and how he navigates the world.

Consider the following examples as ways to build relationships using this approach.

  • Example: You see a father and son laughing while reading a book together on the couch in your program's dedicated family space. You can engage the father in a conversation later by focusing on the interaction you observed.
    Staff: I noticed you and John were laughing while reading that story.
    Father: It's our favorite book. I love to hear him laugh, so I use different voices to tell the story. He never gets tired of hearing me read this story to him.
  • Example: You watch a father grab hold of his son's hand as they cross the parking lot of your program. You can engage this father in a conversation by sharing your observation.Father and son holding hands
    Staff: I noticed you grabbed Jacob's hand tightly when you crossed the parking lot.
    Father: Yes. I've noticed sometimes the drivers are not careful backing out of the parking spots and I want to make sure he makes it across safely.
    Acknowledging to him that you know his child's safety is important to him could be the beginning of a deeper conversation about how the father understands his role. He is not only a nurturer and provider but also a protector. He might even share a story about a time when he did not pay as much attention to safety as he does now, or about how he learned from his own parent the importance of safety.
  • Example: You would like to engage a father in your program's literacy activities but do not know enough about him to approach the topic of volunteering. Taking time to reflect on your strategy will be important. One strategy you might use is to observe and describe the behavior of his child to start the conversation.
    Staff: Some of the parents have been volunteering to read stories in the classroom. Lately, when a parent enters our classroom, Anna jumps up and down and claps her hands. She practically shakes from the excitement.
    Father: Really? [Smiling] I'm glad she is enjoying story time. Reading stories with her isn't my thing. At home, my wife usually reads her a bedtime story.
    Staff: What is your favorite thing to do with Anna?Father and daughter dancing
    Father: Anna and I like to listen to music and dance. We crank up the music and just have fun.
    Staff: So that's why she gets excited about music too. Well, if reading isn't your thing, we are happy to have you come in for a dance lesson. You and Anna can do your thing.
    Father: [Smiling] Thanks, I will think about it.

By using the child's behavior as an entry into the conversation, you can begin to gather information about this father. Perhaps he wants his children to exceed his own educational achievements, but he may or may not be ready to discuss with you. His perspective is important for you to know before attempting to engage this father to participate in program literacy activities. Also, just because he might not feel comfortable reading to the class doesn't mean you can't find another activity for him to participate in that is a better fit.

Timing is everything. Be patient: watch, wait, and adapt. Once you have begun developing a relationship with fathers, they can and will provide you with valuable information about what is important for their child and which family members they believe can provide additional insights.

Within your own ongoing professional development, you will want to be more than just "okay" with father engagement. If you feel any reservations, talk with a trusted colleague or supervisor. Consider reflecting on your past experiences or relationships with your own father and other important men in your life. Consider how positive and negative experiences with men in your life can influence your interactions with males.

Finally, it is essential to acknowledge that fathers are unique, with their own histories and experiences. By understanding their individual strengths and challenges, you can create an amazing experience for them, their child, and their family.

Last Updated: November 28, 2018