Fatherhood: Episode IX - A golden age?

As Father’s Day has just passed, Tony Sharp from Who Let The Dads Out? explores the challenges of raising the next generation

My friend Carl had just become a father for the first time and was struck by a sudden revelation: “My baby is amazing,” he shared. “Handling him and caring for him is really fun and interesting. I thought my role was going to start much later, when my son was older, but I’ve had to change my thinking.”

Carl’s understanding of family had been shaped by his experience with his own parents and their distinct roles. As a dad-to-be, Carl had a set idea of how he was going to father his first child, but within hours he had begun to revise his preconceived model. Parenting roles and approaches have dramatically changed over the generations. It is much more normal than it used to be for both parents to work and juggle parenthood together. In this country we have shared parental leave, stay-at-home dads and plenty of opportunities (and expectations) for men to be much more engaged in caring for their infant children.

At a recent summit I attended we debated whether we’re living in a golden age for fatherhood or a time of crisis for men raising the next generation. Cases for each side were presented, then delegates voted on how they felt. Golden age won by a small margin.

Whether we are motivated by a sense of great opportunity or crushing need, Christians who want to support families can look for ways to come alongside those who are learning to be fathers or father figures to the next generation. This is not to elevate the value of fathers above mothers in any way, as both play hugely influential roles. But in a society that is often described as fatherless it is worth reiterating the benefit of supporting and encouraging dads (Christian and non-Christian) for the wellbeing of the whole family.

Who Let The Dads Out? grew out of this need. The movement was birthed out of a church in Chester and has grown over the last 15 years. It challenges churches to connect with dads in their communities so they can form friendships, provide encouragement and give families the opportunity to explore the Christian faith. Here are some of the things we’ve learnt along the way.

40 per cent of divorcing dads in Britain lose contact with their children within two years of the split

A new hope

No matter how many prenatal classes you attend, nothing can prepare you for the birth of your first child. When my wife underwent an unplanned caesarean I was sent off to a changing room, told to put on scrubs and informed that someone would be back to collect me later. The next 45 minutes were the longest of my life as I sat alone while every worst-case scenario played out in my head.

Thankfully all was well, and I was briefly brought into the operating theatre to see my baby daughter being lifted into the world. Seconds later I was ushered away, and the next three days were spent travelling back and forth to the hospital. I started to bond intermittently with this new life until my wife recovered enough for them both to come home. While I didn’t feel overlooked in the process, there were key moments when I felt vulnerable, isolated and very alone.

That was 23 years ago and times have changed, but some young dads describe themselves as the invisible person when their children first came into the world. A goodie bag for the expectant dad – a survival kit designed to make dads feel valued and help them get straight into the joys of nappy-changing – is one way to address this issue.

EPIC Dad provides free provisions for expectant dads in Forest Heath, Suffolk. The project was initiated by Richard Keeble from Abundant Life Church, Lakenheath, who explained the thinking behind the name and vision: “We’ve all heard the expression ‘epic dad’, sometimes in the context of getting it wrong. ‘Epic dad fail’ is a common internet search. But we want to celebrate fathers and help to encourage families and communities.

“We’ve chosen EPIC to represent four key roles of a father or father figure: encourager, provider, instructor and carer. Under this project we have initiated a weekly dad, baby and toddler group, a monthly social evening for dads, a monthly Saturday session for dads and their children, other one-off family events, one-to-one support, and now the new dad goodie backpacks.”

Not going (Han) Solo

There are various ways to support the dads you know. Engage with them around a common interest. If you share a passion for cycling, snooker or golf, for example, doing these things together can be great way of walking beside them. You’ll probably end up having great conversations with dads who might normally shy away from more formal structures such as discipling, mentoring or pastoring.

Parenting groups present a real opportunity for churches to come together in a local area and deliver targeted parenting support to those who need it. There are good arguments for encouraging dads who have a partner to attend programmes together so that they can parent well as a team. But some fathers, including estranged and single dads, may feel more relaxed and open when they attend a programme specifically aimed at men.

Care for the Family has developed Time Out for Dads within its portfolio of Positive Parenting courses and Parentalk videos. Its Let’s Stick Together resource also recognises the pressure relationships come under after having children and gives useful advice on getting fathers involved in parenting.

If you haven’t got the capacity to run a group in your church why not point dads to resources that are already out there? The National Parenting Initiative provides a directory of churches running or willing to run parenting programmes. Its list includes Care for the Family courses alongside Family Time by New Wine, the Family Caring Trust, The Parenting Course and Kids Matter.

One of the best ways to support dads, both inside the Church and beyond, is to create an informal monthly group for them. You could draw on dads you know to help and invite their friends. If your organisation or church already has a parent and toddler group, it might be worth mentioning your dads-only group here. We’ve also found that advertising things through mums tends to work well. While personal invitations are always more effective than leaflets, you may want to let people know about your group via social media networks, fliers in shop windows and maternity wards, or through organisations such as The Dad Network.

The dark side

A high proportion of parents are going it alone, and our churches and communities will contain hurting families, including dads. Many dads are looking for advice on how to fulfil their roles effectively, whether they are in a relationship or not.

One dad I spoke to had taken on a stay-at-home parental role while his wife worked. He struggled to come up with activities and creative play ideas for him and his daughter, and found his energy levels flagging each day. He was trying so hard, but he felt isolated and alone in his struggle to be a good parent and partner.

According to the Netmums website, approximately one in three couples split up within three years of their first child being born. Research from the Economic and Social Research Council suggests that 40 per cent of divorcing dads in Britain lose contact with their children within two years of the split. Court judgements relating to the wellbeing of the family are a factor in a number of cases, and often young fathers are in search of a parenting course to help them remain a positive influence in their children’s lives.

In a society that is often described as fatherless it is worth reiterating the benefit of supporting and encouraging dads for the wellbeing of the whole family

The Fatherhood Institute website says: “Involved fatherhood provides real protection from the dangers of educational failure and adolescent disaffection.” The Centre for Mental Health’s briefing paper, Fatherhood: the impact of fathers on children’s mental health, also highlights the distinct role fathers can play in nurturing wellbeing in children.

If you aren’t already connected with estranged dads in your local area, it may be worth contacting your local council to see if they’d be willing to let your church become a contact centre where dads and their children can meet safely and under guardianship. Many statutory bodies value the contribution that the faith sector is making in society and are increasingly open to working with churches to help deliver community support services.

Use the force

As well as giving many mums a much-needed break, parenting groups are invaluable to dads, whether they are raising children with a partner or alone. David, a father to two girls, takes an equal share in parenting alongside his ex-partner. He cites various networks that have helped him, including a local Families Need Fathers group and a Daddy Cool! parenting programme.

The final Daddy Cool! session explores how fathers can be intentional in sharing beliefs with their children. The session deliberately avoids focusing specifically on Christian values, recognising that parents want what’s best for their children and therefore inherently want to pass on the ‘good stuff’. Many dads who attended the programme said they hadn’t really thought about personal beliefs before taking part in their discussion groups.

Mark, a dad in Tonbridge, attends a group with the children from his second marriage. He says: “I have two older boys from a previous marriage and can remember feeling lost most Saturdays with them as a single dad. I would have loved to discover something like this.” Joining the group has been particularly life-changing for Mark. “It was this that got me into a church and started me on the path to faith,” he explains.

Research suggests that fathers have a significant influence on faith in the family. Washington Area Coalition of Men’s Ministries (WACMM) claims that when a father becomes a Christian the rest of the family will follow him to faith 93 per cent of the time.

Malachi 4:6 talks of “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of children to the fathers”, verses that are echoed in Luke 1:17. This indicates that when fathers’ hearts are turned towards their children it “makes ready a people prepared for the Lord”. Perhaps in situations where a man can declare the words of Joshua: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” and a Christian faith foundation is established and faith has a better chance of being passed down to the next generation.

Take time in your church services to intentionally celebrate dads and use those opportunities to invite dads who may not normally come. Father’s Day could be a great way to challenge dads about how they pass on their beliefs and values. Give fathers in your church voluntary roles in areas they have an interest in. They can be discipled through serving, and this will demonstrate to the wider Church that it is important to involve dads in this way.

The droid they’re looking for

Not every father will be able to attend a parenting programme. Books make simple and affordable gifts that a dad may well appreciate. I would recommend The New Dad’s Survival Guide by Rob Kemp, which offers advice that can help fathers fully share in the joy of parenting. The Sixty Minute Father by Rob Parsons is aimed at making sure a father doesn’t miss out on the “greatest opportunity of his life”.

Inside Fatherhood by David Atkinson includes interviews with ten fathers sharing gritty stories from their own parenting experiences. Founding Fathers by Nathan Blackeby, CEO of Christian Vision for Men, draws on his own and other writers’ reflections at various stages of fatherhood. It is interspersed with studies on seven biblical fathers as a challenge for all men to be great fathers in a “fatherless society”.

You could also give dads storybooks and child-friendly resources to encourage them to read and pray with their children.

Whether or not we are living in a time of golden opportunity for fatherhood, we can play our part in valuing, equipping and pastoring dads. Whichever way you decide to this, let me leave you with this final tip: the way to a man’s heart is often through his stomach!

Additional parenting resources

The Parenting course


The Bible Reading Fellowship


Care for the Family


Christian Vision for Men


The Dad Network




Family Caring Trust


Family Time by New Wine


Kids Matter


Kitchen Table Project


National Parenting Initiative


The Fatherhood Institute


Parenting for Faith


Who Let The Dads Out?


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