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An Interview with William Marsiglio and Kevin Roy: New Policies to Help Fathers

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
February 14, 2012

Fatherhood-PolicyWilliam Marsiglio (University of Florida) and Kevin Roy (University of Maryland) are the co-authors of Nurturing Dads: Social Initiatives for Contemporary Fatherhood (Russell Sage Foundation, 2012). The book explores the ways new initiatives can address the social, cultural, and economic challenges men face in contemporary families.

Q: Let’s start with your book’s title. You argue that contemporary models often equate “good” fathering with the ability to bring home a weekly paycheck. You say this framework is too narrow and is being redefined. What is the new model you propose?

A: To be clear, for a few decades now, part of the cultural narrative about fatherhood has included references to the “new age father” or the “new father.” Scholars and other commentators of family life have highlighted how fathers are increasingly more active with and nurturing toward their children. Thus we are not the first to call for the public to support men’s nurturance of their children.

But we do, in a fairly comprehensive way, draw attention to the limitations of formal federal and state policies that hinge on fathers’ lack of residence, marriage status, or financial contribution. At the same time, we advocate for a new cultural discourse about fathering that will guide an eclectic yet coordinated set of initiatives to help fathers in all sorts of circumstances become more nurturing and responsive to their children’s everyday needs. The social transformation we seek will ensure that good fathering is widely defined to accentuate nurturance to the same extent, perhaps more so, than financial support. We stress diverse initiatives to forge unconditional, positive bonds between fathers and their children.

Our model for a more nurturing fatherhood is anchored to four key themes: First, we show how fathering is a social arrangement, not just an individual preference or set of personal experiences. Second, we highlight how a complex set of circumstances influence the paths men experience over time as fathers. These paths involve men’s identities and perceptions about being a father, their one-on-one relationships with specific children, and their relationships with the mothers of their children—both as romantic partners and coparents. Third, we explore how trust building processes in many forms can affect fathers’ relations with their children. Many important interactions involve fathers with children, partners, and other family members; other types of activities and decision making incorporate policymakers, activists, program coordinators and youth works, researches, and parents. The fourth theme speaks to our efforts to demonstrate how place matters in the lives of fathers and families. When we consider the social forces that foster or constrain fathers’ involvement with their children, aspects of public and private locations related to commerce, criminal justice, education, faith, home, recreation, and work come into play.

In short, we offer fresh thinking about fathering that underscores the need to enhance fathers’ nurturing spirit toward their children in diverse settings, while articulating a broad view of policymaking that encourages creative collaborations between multiple stakeholders.

Q: In your chapter on building bonds between fathers and children, you cite a number of innovative programs that seek to improve fathers’ parenting skills. Could you talk about a few here?

A: There are diverse ways programs can influence parenting skills. Some seek to inspire men to get more involved in their children’s lives assuming that good things will result; some try to help fathers to change their style of parenting in more precise ways; and some are best viewed as a hybrid of the first two strategies. Paternity leave policies tend to fall in the first category. They typically don’t focus on specific skills. Instead, they try to set the stage for fathers to have the free time to get to know and interact with their infant and young children.

Compared to paternity leave policies, the successful program “Boot Camp for New Dads” is a project that addresses parenting skills more directly. It’s been around for about two decades and has serviced over 200,000 fathers in sites across the country. The program focuses on helping fathers by teaching guys whose partners are pregnant practical infant care-giving skills. Workshops have veteran fathers bring their infant children with them to demonstrate things like changing, burping, wrapping, and calming babies as well as discussing matters such as creating a parenting team, child safety, preventing child abuse, and dealing with relatives. The mainstream workshops often rely on sports and military traditions to impart messages and target fathers irrespective of whether they are disadvantaged or not.

Eco Dads is a new and innovative responsible parenting program that is a bit of a hybrid approach. Launched in 2009 by a California-based group of dads, this initiative helps to build community programs that give fathers a way to connect with their children and nature. It focuses on reinforcing parenting values and developing moments for meaningful father-child exchanges. The campaign has online and offline training activities that provide fathers and children opportunities to work together to improve the environment in places like oceans and beaches, playing fields, schools, gardens, and the like. A key part of this program’s mission is to help fathers be environment stewards while teaching their children to appreciate nature. This initiative has considerable potential if local organizers can partner with schools and recreational organizations to develop ways for men to integrate and demonstrate their nurturing ways toward nature and their children.

A number of programs that work with fathers who live apart from their children because they are in prison or deployed in the military are making use of computer technologies to provide men the chance to reach out to their children. Programs that use modern technologies are likely to increase as people grow more familiar with visual computer media.

Q: You argue current policies fail to recognize that partners can build a sense of family out of commitment to their child, rather than to each other. What role should marriage play in policies that seek to promote fatherhood?

A: Research from the 1970s and 1980s framed the effects of father involvement within married-couple households, and by extension, the effects of father involvement after divorce via maternal gatekeeping in “broken” families. Contemporary families are increasingly complex and dynamic, and frameworks that prioritize marital status don’t allow us to understand the breadth of fathers’ day-to-day experiences with their children.

Fathers in our studies do not typically link their success as fathers to their success as marital partners, and they question the notion that intimate relationships with the mothers of their children are “failures” if they don’t result in marriage.” What we hear from the men in many of our interviews is that fathering is viable not just through or with the mothers of children, but through and with the children. Men value the father/child relationship on its own terms.

This shift in focus seems subtle, but it is profound in its implications for policies and programs. We situate fathering as a social arrangement, which reflects our view that marriage is only one of many social and family contexts in which men act as parents.

We find that policies and programs can be rather blunt tools to promote marriage. Evaluation of marriage promotion programs show mixed results. Fathering programs that include marriage promotion can be effective, perhaps most clearly in faith communities. For many families, however, a broader goal of supporting healthy relationships between mothers and fathers—regardless of marital status—is more effective. In the book, we trace the development of trust and commitment among coparents, and we emphasize the weight of a “past history” of intimate relationships that can complicate marriage as a long-term goal. Cohabitation has emerged as a viable alternative path for many young parents in the United States and around the world. And, as a practical matter, marriage can be expensive. All of these forces combine to produce a new, challenging environment for contemporary marriage. We see that promotion of marriage, as an expression of the possible range of healthy and supportive relationships between parents, can be one way—but not the only way—that programs engage and encourage men’s nurturance of children.

Q: You suggest policies should pay more attention to the transitions men make in their lives, particularly the new adulthood phase, which now lasts much longer than before. How can policymakers better help young fathers between the age of 18 and 30?

A: In the book we emphasize that men’s fathering changes course many times over the course of their lives. Men adapt to critical shifts in their relationships with partners and with growing children, their jobs and careers, and their health. Their fathering must change in accord with such shifts. Like many program staff and policy makers, we look at the human capital needs for fathers during these transitions as a starting point for effective social initiatives.

Perhaps no other period of the life course is changing as quickly as the period known as “emerging adulthood,” from ages 18 to 30. Decades ago, men moved more quickly into adulthood, in a time when education was less critical for careers and when men and women became parents and married at earlier ages. What young men struggle with today is the challenge to manage a densely-packed cluster of transitions that happen almost simultaneously: leaving their parent’s homes, finishing education, finding a good job, securing a committed partner, and having children. There is no routine path to accomplishing these transitions.

Policymakers who aim to support young fathers’ human capital needs can turn to any number of important initiatives. We mention a number of programs that help young fathers finish high school with a degree, or that support them with referrals and finances to complete post-secondary degrees. During the recent recession, job training and placement has become even more daunting and yet more salient for a generation of young men with the highest unemployment rates in many decades. Some national programs have had success in training young fathers for a globalized workforce. Many young men specifically grapple with histories of incarceration during this period of their lives, and few programs offer resources for re-entry into communities through second chance programs. Finally, young fathers who attempt to find housing for their partners and children have few options. Policy makers need to assess realistically the large number of young men who still live with their parents during these stressful transitions, and discern how to move them and their young families cost-effectively into safe and viable housing.

With so many human capital needs, policy makers will realize that crafting an initiative for any one need will not be enough. Researchers, and fathers and families alike, look toward a coordinated and comprehensive set of policies for youth. Such an articulated web of policies would present a broad and achievable vision to move young fathers from school to work, possibly through a national service or national apprenticeship program. Across these policies, young fathers might simultaneously receive education in financial literacy as well as relationship literacy.

Q: One problem you identify is that fathers often have to spend time away from children for their jobs. How have other countries addressed the issue of paternity leave and flextime?

A: Paternity leave policies have received a fair amount of attention in a number of Scandinavian and European countries although the United States has lagged behind in this area. A number of these countries offer some type of entitlement for fathers with newborns. These are structured in all sorts of ways by offering “daddy days” or a “father’s quota” of leave time. Some include paid reimbursement at various rates, others are unpaid. Because of poor recording keeping, it’s very difficult to get a good handle on how often these programs are used and what type of impact they have on men’s identities as fathers and their experiences with their children. A few studies in the United Kingdom and the United States indicate that men who take paternity leave are more involved in care-giving types of activities with their children 8 to 12 months after birth—things like changing diapers, feeding a baby, or getting up at night to calm a baby. What is not so clear is whether this is largely a selection effect, ie., men who are more nurturing than their counterparts may be more likely to take paternity leave.

Among industrialized countries, Sweden has the longest history of introducing progressive social policies to entice fathers to spend more time with their infant children. Although these programs have not been as successful as many had hoped, contemporary fathers in Sweden and Iceland spend more time with their newborns than was true for earlier cohorts of fathers. An upward trend from 2001 to 2005 has been documented in the number of paternity leave days fathers have taken in Sweden (14 to 21) and Iceland (3 to 33). Some promisingly news is that President Obama’s administration has taken some positive steps to entice states to do more in the area of paternity leave.