Focus Group Findings
The office for the Commisioner for Children has completed its Focus Group research on mens and womens attitudes to the fathers Role. The Executive Summary is printed here in full.
The overall goal of the research was to assist in creating the best possible environment for the upbringing of New Zealand children through identifying ways of enhancing the role of fathers and supporting those fathers who would like to participate more actively in the parenting of their children.
FOCUS ON FATHERS AND KEY INFORMANTS
The “Focus on Fathers” and key informants research project was designed to find out a range of fathers and mothers perceptions of the father in the New Zealand context, and the identified issues that made being a father easier or harder.
This information could also be used in the development of a survey questionnaire, which would look at the views and attitudes of a larger and more representative sample towards fathers and fathering.
The research addresses the following questions:
♦ What is the role of fathers in New Zealand society, as perceived by men, women and children?
♦ What are the obstacles which prevent men from carrying out their fathering role in the way that they, along with women and children, would like the role to be undertaken?
Seven focus groups of men, and seven of women, took place in Wellington, Christchurch, and Auckland. These included three groups for Maori men, Maori women, and Pacific Island women, who volunteered to take part through relevant organisations.
They covered a wide range of people. Participants in the other groups either volunteered to take part through a sample of schools and early childhood centres; or were drawn from a list of people who had expressed their interest in the topic to the Office of the Commissioner for Children.
The people on this list who were unable to attend focus groups comprised the key informants.
The focus group discussions followed a structured question format. The responses were followed up with supplementary questions if necessary. The key informants were sent postal questionnaires.
The focus group research findings showed that there had been a change in the perception of the role of fathers, at least among those parents who take a particular interest in the topic.
This finding was confirmed by the results from the interviews with key informants, who had a similar range of opinions to those of the focus group
The Current Role of Fathers
The respondents said that fathers should be able to participate in all aspects of parenting. Few men or women suggested that fathers should be solely breadwinners, while the mothers stayed at home primarily to care for the children.
When differences were seen in the roles, they were explained in terms of male-Hess and female-Hess. Some people felt that fathers were better qualified than mothers to teach qualities such as independence, and dealing with the outside world.
The corollary was also suggested – that mothers were better able to model caring and emotional qualities. However, few respondents thought that there should be any difference in what was taught to sons or to daughters.
Most felt that both needed exposure to all aspects of life. In distinguishing between the current roles of fathers and mothers, they were, possibly, reflecting their own socialisation, which determined their perception of what they could best model to their children; while at the same time, they acknowledged a desire to provide different socialisation for their children.
This finding was borne out by the description of the qualities of a good father, and by the high level of unanimity on this topic among the focus groups. When they were listing the qualities, many of the respondents commented that most of the qualities should apply equally to either parent.
Warmth, love, guidance; and time for the children were constantly mentioned. The provider role was mentioned infrequently. The focus members may be seen to have been creating a new stereotype, as they collectively built up their ideal of a father.
Clearly there is the potential for great change in the role of fathers – were it not for the obstacles in the path.
Barriers to Becoming Good Fathers
There was general agreement on the main reasons why many fathers do not meet the ideal. Stereotypes, fostered through attitudes and conditioning, and supported through the media, were seen to be the most pervasive obstacle.
The fathers who met the ideals were often unrecognised outside their immediate circle. They often felt unsupported, and sometimes experienced discrimination, in their role.
Fathers, who separated from their partners and sought custody of their children at the Family Court felt disadvantaged by the stereotyped image of women as primary caregivers. Many of comments emphasised the pain that accompanied the loss of their role as full time father and the perceived unfairness of this loss.
Solutions to this problem are not easy, it is important that the overriding concern is the best interests of the child.
Employers were seen as contributing to the fathers problem of not having time for the children, through the lack of recognition of the need for family time in most contracts. The employers were often constrained by the demands of a competitive market.
Financial pressures and fear of unemployment precluded many fathers from taking a stand for greater consideration for their role. Mothers in paid employment had similar problems – many were forced to take part time or lowly paid jobs, with no prospects of promotion, so that they could be with their children when necessary.
They too, would benefit from changes to employment practices as suggested. The changes would be in the best interests of all families, The current respondents had many suggestions about how the obstacles to good fathering could be overcome.
Some changes could be effected through education and training; some would require financial input; and others may need legislation. All would require a change in the attitudes of both men and women towards the role of fathers.
Conclusions: Breaking the Barriers
There was a wide range of views among the respondents on ways to promote the changing role of fathers to the wider community. Most reported that changes had happened within their own families. Now they wanted similar changes reflected throughout New Zealand society.
Most agreed that promotion of a positive image of fathers and fathering was essential in order to persuade the many men who could not overcome their conditioning to see the advantages for themselves and their families, of their playing a more active parenting role.
If the desire for change were sufficiently strong and general attitudes were to change, then more men might stand up and demand their rights as fathers, thereby forcing other changes, such as legislation, and ensuring greater support systems throughout society.
Fathers exist at all levels of society, from the Governor General to the unskilled worker. Fathers occupy the majority of positions of power in the country; they are members of many influential organisations. They have, therefore, the greatest potental for enforcing their views of any group in New Zealand.
It must be stessed, however, as indicated by both male and female respondents, that any push for greater enhancement of the role of fathers should not be at the expense of mothers.
This study, while concentrating on fathers, has also revealed issues of concern for mothers who try to do their best for their families, especially solo mothers.
Changes which seek more equal sharing of family responsibilities and more recognition of the role of fathers in the family should be promoted in a way that is beneficial for men, women, and children.
The views expressed in this study are those of parents with a particular interest in the role of fathers. More research is needed, in order to test the findings within a representative sample of the New Zealand community.
Before wide scale social change is suggested, any proposals must be analysed for their potential impact on all members of families, and on all types of families, including other ethnic groups.
However, the commitment to the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child expressed in Article 18 must be at the forefront of change:
…both parents hare common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.