Fathers are more than just sperm donors, breadwinners or disciplinarians. Modern fathers might still carve the roast or take out the rubbish bins, but they also care for their children, take them to school and healthcare appointments, worry about their wellbeing and provide emotional support.
Fathers are not necessarily biological parents; they can be step-fathers, uncles, brothers, grandfathers or father figures. A father is the male identified as most involved in caregiving and committed to the wellbeing of a child, regardless of living arrangements, marital status or biological relationship.
Whatever their relationship, there’s no doubt that fathers’ engagement with their kids is beneficial to their children’s lives.
When fathers are more involved in their children’s lives, there’s a wealth of evidence that shows improved pregnancy outcomes, better physical and mental health throughout infancy, childhood and adolescence, and benefits to cognitive development and educational outcomes.
Unfortunately, the evidence base to guide interventions aimed at increasing parents’ involvement in their children’s lives suffers from marginalisation of fathers and a resulting inability to extend research findings to all fathers.
It seems more is understood about the barriers to fathers’ engagement with some aspects of their children’s healthcare than how to best facilitate fathers’ involvement. However, there are useful resources to guide healthcare providers in engaging fathers in the care of their children.
The tips that follow come from resources designed to guide child health nurses and paediatricians, but they are relevant to anyone who cares for children and wishes to better engage with fathers.
Visual and verbal cues can help fathers feel included and welcomed in places that provide care to children. They can also help to overcome the perception that mothers are expected to assume the main role when seeking healthcare for children. The display of images and books that depict fathers and children can normalise fathers’ presence in health facilities. Engagement of fathers by practice staff can help them feel valued when they accompany their child during healthcare consultations.
Conversation with fathers — about their involvement in their children’s lives, their relationships with other parents and family members, and their perceptions of their children’s health and wellbeing — will help build a rapport around fathers’ roles and care of their children.
Fathers may not usually accompany their children to healthcare appointments, so it might be necessary to extend an invitation to them via other parents or caregivers. Impressing upon parents and caregivers the valuable and unique influence of fathers on the lives of their children can be strong motivation to encourage fathers’ involvement. An indirect approach to fathers should not place responsibility on others for a father’s involvement, but help them understand its benefit.
Emphasise to fathers their influence as role models. By modelling responsible behaviours, fathers can encourage healthy diets, regular exercise, and avoidance of risk (thereby reducing potential harm from injury, alcohol and other drugs).
Use a strength-based approach when involving fathers in their children’s care, that recognises their expertise as parents, their resilience, capabilities and skills.
Use active listening (verbal and non-verbal acknowledgement of parents’ views; paraphrasing and clarifying questions or statements to confirm understanding). When children visit with both parents, ensure both have opportunities to provide their perspective.
Fathers’ attendance at healthcare appointments for their children provides an opportunity to engage men in conversations about their own health. Encouraging fathers to keep vaccinations up to date can protect them and their families from infectious diseases. Screening fathers for perinatal depression could have similar benefit for family function and child wellbeing.
Differences of opinion relating to children’s health can be a source of conflict within families. Cooperative parenting and a healthy relationship between parents can be supported by enquiring about attitudes and beliefs about parenting, and relationship challenges and disagreements. It may be beneficial to offer the opportunity to discuss how differences of opinion can be resolved, or investigate other services that might support family relationships.
Share information about children’s healthcare with both parents. This can be achieved by encouraging sharing of information with other parents when only one attends with their child. Information resources can be provided for parents to share. Attending parents can be asked to provide questions and comments from the other parent at subsequent visits.
Known barriers to men’s use of health services, such as conflict with work commitments, are likely to inhibit fathers from engaging with their children’s healthcare but factors relating to individuals and organisations providing care can also have an effect. Training can improve practitioner competency and organisational practices, resulting in increased engagement with fathers.
Making the most of fathers’ involvement in children’s healthcare can help to realise the full benefit to them of having an engaged father. It also offers the opportunity to increase family wellbeing, which has broad benefits for society.