The Fathers Who Care: Partners in Parenting Project:

Does it matter that there was not a partnership in the research process? 

Paul Callister
Sociology and Social Policy
Victoria University

Author's website: callister.co.nz

Introduction

In research and policy making there is a new interest in the lives of men. This includes a concern about the high suicide rate amongst young males, the poor performance of some boys in schools, men’s lower average life expectancy than women’s and the exclusion of a group of men from both work and family life. This interest is also seen in the popular media. For example Susan Faludi, well known for her book Backlash, is now expressing concern about the marginalisation of a significant number of men in modern industrialised nations (Faludi 1999).

In the United States, there has been a particularly contentious and on-going debate about the impact of "fatherlessness" on children and on society in general. This debate has flowed through into the policy arena with, for example, a Bill introduced into the senate in late 1999 to support poor fathers to strengthen their links to both work and family life.[1] However, in order to understand why some men have become socially and economically excluded, research is needed on men. This, in turn, raises some important issues about who should undertake such research. In this paper, I examine a recent research project on fathers in New Zealand and suggest that issues of inclusion and exclusion are just as important in the research process as they are in society as a whole. While I focus on a particular project, the issues raised have implications for other research projects on men in New Zealand.

[1] The senators introducing the Bill argue that welfare reform in the U.S. has been very successful in helping poor mothers obtain jobs and improve their economic circumstances. They suggest the next step in reforming welfare is to help poor fathers raise their standard of living and participate directly in the rearing of their children.

The Fathers Who Care Project

In 1995, I argued in the Social Policy Journal that the New Zealand government could play some role in promoting a higher level of involvement by fathers in caring for their children. I suggested that such initiatives might include funding and promoting research and debate around this issue. I also claimed that some lessons about the promotion of positive, involved parenting by fathers could be learned from Sweden (Callister 1995).

In the same year, the then Commissioner for Children, Laurie O’Reilly, with support from Save the Children Fund, initiated a research / advocacy project called Fathers Who Care: Partners in Parenting (FWC). The initiation of this project was in part influenced by the research on fatherlessness emerging from the United States but the project also emerged from a desire to develop ways of upholding the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and in particular article 18.

Parents have joint primary responsibility for raising the child, and the State shall support them in this. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.

Laurie O’Reilly, right up until his untimely death, was tireless in his promotion of the rights of children in New Zealand as well as promoting the benefits to children of having positive and involved fathers (O’Reilly 1997). It was largely due to his efforts that a fathers’ forum took place in Christchurch in March 1998. However, in this paper I argue that the way in which he initially set up the FWC project was to prove problematic.

In this discussion of the FWC project I focus mainly on the research process rather than the results of the research. I have chosen to do this because I believe that it was not an inclusive project and this has diminished its usefulness. I will argue that lessons should have been learned from discussions about research carried out on Maori people and women in New Zealand, as well as from similar research on fathers carried out in the United States, Sweden, the European Commission and Australia.

As I will be arguing that researchers bring with them a set of life experiences, beliefs and biases, it is helpful to state my broad view on the role of fathers in family life as well as my own involvement with the FWC project. Based on my reading of the rapidly expanding international research literature on fathers, I reject the simplistic views of writers such as Blankenhorn (1995) who sees "father absence" at the root of most major social problems. The Blankenhorn approach mirrors the now discredited theory of "maternal deprivation" promoted by Bowlby in the 1950s (Bowlby 1951). I also believe that children can be positively parented in a wide range of family types, including married and defacto couples, sole father and sole mother households, same-sex families, and "blended" families with one or more non-biological parent. However, national and international literature, as well as personal interviews, suggest that involved and caring fathers can, and do, make an important and positive contribution to lives of children and that for many children (and adults) the absence of a father in their lives has been, at the very least, the cause of much sadness (e.g. Amato and Rivera 1999, Braunias 1999, Lamb 1997, McCann 1999, Smith 1990, Snarey 1994). Overall, I agree with Sandra Coney, who states that the relationship with one’s father is "something most of us value as important in our lives" (Coney 1999: C4).

I attended the launch of the FWC project in 1995. At this launch I expressed my concern that while Laurie O’Reilly was the overall director of the Office of the Commissioner for Children (OCC), there were no men actually involved in the research team, acting in advisory roles or even on the publicity team. I continued to make this point to various members of the research team throughout the research. I also attended a focus group of fathers in Wellington facilitated by Rae Julian with Marguerite McDonald acting as a recorder. At various stages of the project, a number of other individual men and fathers’ groups expressed concern about the lack of involvement of men in the project (e.g. Father & Child 1998, MENZ Issues 1998, Rowley 1999). The researchers were well aware of these concerns yet, over the four years of the project, and despite some turnover of research staff, it remained primarily a woman-only enterprise. For example, in the final report in the series, written by Anne Kerslake Hendricks (1999: iv), the acknowledgments section notes:

The researcher gratefully acknowledges the advice and support received from the Project Leader, Trish Grant, who has overall responsibility for the Fathers Who Care: Partners in Parenting project. Rae Julian has also provided valuable advice and encouragement. The assistance of John Brickell and Cynthia Tarrant as recorders for the focus group discussions was appreciated. Raewyn Good, Ngaire Bennie, and other members of the Ethics Committee of the Association of Social Science Researchers, contributed to the development of the research proposal. Dr Anne Smith (Children's Issues Centre, University of Otago) shared references and research reports. Dr Jenny Neale (School of Applied Social Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington) offered advice about the structure of the final report. Support with the project was also gratefully received from Janet Upton, Necia Hira, Sefulu Sione and Pauline Coupland, at the Office of the Commissioner for Children. Dr Gabrielle Maxwell (Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington) is the main consultant to the overall project, and helped shape this research.

This shows that one male was officially acknowledged in this last study, as a recorder, but without any involvement in the analysis.[2] [3]In the series of reports, John Brickell (1998) was recorded as the author of the study on parenting programmes but, again, this had Gabrielle Maxwell and Rae Julian as research advisers. In addition, another woman wrote the early sections of the Brickell report and, in the early stages of the overall project, a further female researcher undertook much of the literature review.

[2] It is important to note that, in terms of the ASSR involvement, the ethics committee comprised both men and women and that Raewyn Good and Ngaire Bennie were simply named because of their roles as convenor and secretary. In addition, the ASSR were not involved in the actual running of the project or reviewing the findings.

[3] Footnote 2 suggests that it may be inappropriate to only rely on official acknowledgements and that other men may have been heavily involved in the project. However, if there were other men who were significantly involved as researchers or advisors in the overall FWC project, then it is still of interest that they were not thanked in the acknowledgments section. In attempts to show discrimination in the publishing of academic journal articles it is common for researchers to assess the gender balance of the named authors and the order of their names in articles (e.g. Rodgers 1996).

Does it matter that men, and especially fathers, played virtually no official role in planning the research, reviewing the literature, undertaking the data collection, interpreting the results and peer reviewing the findings? Similarly, would it matter in the late 1990s if a research project on mothers, such as the delivery of maternity services, involved almost only men? The answer partly depends on the overall aim of the particular research project. According to the author of the first of the Fathers Who Care reports, the overall aim of the project 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 (Julian 1998: 1).

Specifically, the research was designed to answer the following questions (ibid: 9):

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?

Four research reports were produced, as well as resource kits. The first study reported findings from a series of focus groups, the second a study of parenting programmes for fathers, the third the results of a national telephone survey and the final report covered children’s views about fathers. It was clear from the beginning this project was not purely an academic exercise to provide a new body of knowledge but more of one designed to help change the behaviour of a number of key stakeholders, in particular fathers. Overall, the title of the FWC project suggests that a partnership in parenting was being sought. It could have been reasonably expected that the researchers demonstrate this partnership in the research process rather than making one partner the subject of research of the other. As I will discuss later in the paper, the fact that this project was not put out to competitive tender may have inhibited putting together a "partnership" type team.

Other Models of Research

Other government agencies, whose primary role is to promote behavioural change, have recognised the need to involve key stakeholders in the research and advocacy process. For example, the National Health Committee (1998: 38) argue that long term changes in behaviour which improve the wellbeing of individuals and groups can be achieved with limited funds in programmes "which involve members of the target group from the very outset of the programme and are sensitive to their needs." Two important target groups in New Zealand are Maori and women. These are of course not distinct groups, and it is well known to researchers that a variety of factors such as education, disability, and sexual preference cut across all groups, including men. However, much has been written about research on Maori and research on women so this literature can at least provide a guide to methodological issues in researching a target population.

Researching Maori

Te Puni Kokiri (1999) has recently provided a guide for government agencies for research evaluations of Maori outcomes. This guide is drawn from a wide range of publications about Maori research and ethics.

The guidelines note that evaluations range between one extreme of non-Maori involvement and the other of Kaupapa Maori evaluations where "[t]ypically Maori make up all of the research team" (p. 9). This latter model is the preferred one. In a section on ethical issues they note:

Evaluators with cultural, language/reo, subject and research competencies are required to undertake an evaluation involving Maori. The gender and age of evaluators are also important considerations when undertaking specific evaluations (p. 14)

They also suggest that:

One of the key weaknesses of mainstream evaluations has been a lack of Maori input at the evaluation’s formative or planning stages. The first and most important step to improve the quality of evaluations for Maori is to involve them early at the planning stage (p. 17).

Te Puni Kokiri also recognise that stakeholder involvement is crucial in research and that it is it is helpful if Maori stakeholders are given an opportunity to comment on draft analysis. This is so "Maori stakeholders can verify whether the analysis is valid and appropriate, and thereby add substantial value to the analysis"(p. 36).

Researching Women

Another important group who are the subject of much research in New Zealand are women. There has been much theorising within New Zealand and international feminism about "who should research whom" with regard to women. Much feminist writing rejects an ideal of ‘objective’ knowledge.

Feminist writers have been particularly concerned about how women have been portrayed in history. In relation to women in New Zealand history, Julie Glamuzina (1992:41) argues:

Obviously, a writer’s gender, class and race shape their world views. But there has been insufficient acknowledgment within mainstream history writing in Aotearoa of the political role of the historian as a producer of knowledge. Instead, claims continue to be made that historians provide the ‘objective’ view. Meanwhile, feminist and other writers have convincingly demolished the validity of the objective writer.

Glamuzina further notes that the construction of history necessitates the recognition that "all sources are filtered by the historian, who assigns meanings and decides what is important" (p. 42).

In specific relation to Maori women’s histories, Maori feminist researcher Kathie Irwin (1992) also has a strong view about who should research whom. She argues:

Work for Maori women must be promoted and undertaken by Maori women. People have spoken on our behalf for long enough (p. 7).

While these debates continue, there is currently general acceptance in New Zealand, particularly within government agencies, that women need to both take a key role in researching the lives of women and be involved in extensive advocacy on their behalf (institutional examples include the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women). In some areas of discussion and dissemination, such as the Women’s Studies Journal, men are excluded from contributing to debates about gender.

What about power relations?

In the literature on researching Maori and women there are two dimensions of particular interest. The first, which I mainly draw on, is that Maori and women (and particularly Maori women) have a different set of experiences from Pakeha and from men (and particularly Pakeha men). The literature cited would suggest that tapping into these differences in experience would be important in guiding research projects. In terms of researching fathers, most researchers have grown up in a society where there have been relatively strong divisions of labour in paid work and in childrearing. They are also influenced by their own patterns of relationships and if they have had children how they have raised them. Therefore you would expect that men / fathers might have at least a slightly different view about various issues of parenting (and if they are wired biologically as different from women then their "nature" might also give them a different viewpoint) so men / fathers should be a key part of a research team on shared parenting. It was clear that the FWC researchers believed there were some differences between men and women otherwise the project would not have focused only on fathers as a separate category but rather on parents.

The second dimension is one of power relations. One aspect of this is that there is an imbalance of power between the researcher and those researched. For instance, Pakeha men are often seen as at being located high up the power hierarchy and Maori women near the bottom although, again, issues such as disability or sexual preference can alter the rankings. In relation to heterosexual childrearing couples, there is often the view put forward that the partnership is unequal, with fathers having more power than mothers. Within feminist literature, there is on-going debate about whether oppression gives a better vantage point in terms of understanding the world. Feminist standpoint epistemology suggests that women, who are seen as generally oppressed, are able to provide a "truer" picture of family life than men. This view is contested by other feminist writers, some of who argue that researchers need to be able to learn from each other across various conditions of oppression (see Hyman 1999 for a review of these debates). Unequal power gives both the powerful and the powerless different insights and in order to change the behaviour of a powerful group it seems logical to try and tap into both these insights at all stages of the research. The blurring of traditional hierarchies of oppression adds further complexity to these debates. As a result, it is no longer simply a case of assuming that a low-skilled Maori sole father will be higher or lower on the scale of oppression than a well-qualified Pakeha female researcher.

Identity Politics or Real Concerns in the FWC Project?

The concept that the gender, ethnicity and other characteristics of a research team might be important was not unknown to the researchers in the FWC project, many of whom have a long track record of research in New Zealand.[4]  For example, in the final report of the series, Kerslake Hendricks highlights the benefit of using the Bronfenbrenner "ecological" framework for research on children. She notes that "[t]his framework acknowledges the subjective interpretation of experiences and perspectives, and recognises the interactions occurring between individuals and their environment "(p. 5). She goes on to quote one of the research advisors, noting that when researching the views of children that "the researcher’s age, gender and ethnicity might affect the children’s responses" (p. 14). She also acknowledges that her role may have affected responses from boys. When discussing why, at one school, no boys, but six girls, initially volunteered to take part in the project she says:

[4] One of the project advisors was, at the time the project was being undertaken, on the national committee of the Women’s Studies Association. The first aim of this association is "to undertake, promote and disseminate research about women by women from a feminist perspective" (Women’s Studies Association newsletter 1997: 2).

It is significant that so few boys initially volunteered to take part. This pattern was repeated at both schools and across both age-groups. Further research is indicated to explore why boys may be reluctant to take part in such discussions. For example, it is not known whether the subject matter (fathers), the process (group discussions), or the fact that the principal researcher was a woman were inhibiting factors (p. 74).

This conveys an acknowledgement that researchers’ characteristics might have affected the responses of children in the discussion groups. However, despite criticism from some participants in the fathers’ focus groups, there was no acknowledgment in the Julian (1998) report that having a female facilitator and, in most situations, also a female recorder might have influenced responses.

These are examples of how the collection of the data may have been affected by the composition of the research team. The following, drawn from the final report on children's perspectives, provide examples of how the reporting of the results may have also been affected by the composition of the research team.

In this report there are sections on what makes a good fathers and what makes bad fathers. In addition, in the introduction comment is made that the voices of some children were not included. These were the children "whose relationships with their fathers have been affected by abuse or neglect" (p. 3). It is completely understandable that the issues of negligent and abusive fathers are raised. It is clear that not all fathers are good fathers. However, in contrast, in all the reports the authors went to great lengths to say that an interest in fathers does not imply a criticism of mothers, and in particular sole mothers, and that any shift towards more support of fathers should not be at the expense of mothers.[5] Few people would dispute that most mothers are good parents or many mothers need far more support than they currently receive. However, in much of the European literature on assisting fathers to become more positive and involved parents, particularly that which has been developed by mixed teams of researchers, a more realistic approach is taken to describing the roles of men and women in families and how both might adapt to change. For example, the European Commission Network on Childcare (1993: 4-5) notes:

[5] It is interesting to compare this with early literature on women improving their position in the labour market. Only the most reactionary writers stated that such a move should not disadvantage men.

At times, advocacy for a higher level of involvement of fathers in families will inevitably be seen by some women as disadvantaging them. For example, if joint custody was more common, this would generally reduce the amount of time mothers had with their children, so some women will resist this change. While there are a wide range of factors which inhibit men from taking a more active role in childcare, including many factors that are under their own control, international literature suggests women can assist or inhibit, through various gatekeeping behaviours, such change (e.g. Allen and Hawkins 1999, Burgess 1997, Doherty, Kouneski, and Erickson 1998).[6]

[6] In the New Zealand context, Julian (1998, 1999) also notes other similar research.

The upholding of positive images of motherhood in the reports, tempered by the articulated need for a balanced view of fatherhood, is particularly surprising given the focus in national and international conventions on giving primacy to the welfare and rights of the child above the rights of either parent (e.g. United Nations, 1989). One of the roles of the New Zealand Office of the Commissioner for Children is to uphold such conventions.

However, even when "good" fathers were described in this report there are examples where the results still portray fathers negatively. There is an overall section on the "characteristics of a good father". This begins by listing some themes from the responses of secondary school students. The short quotes generally portray fathers in a good light. However, this is then followed by a reporting of the views of primary school children about appropriate behaviour for fathers. The first three quotes, which are of a longer length, were (p. 21):

Now he doesn't drink any alcohol at all. But when he did drink it, I never saw him drunk, he would never do something like get drunk if I was around. [Comment from a child whose father was described in the essay as a recovering alcoholic.]

My friend's Dad doesn't live with them because he used to abuse my friend and his Mum too and he used to drink alcohol and smoke dope. My father drinks beer, but he don't get all crazy and he acts cool. My mum and my Dad stopped smoking a long time ago when they first had a baby.

My Dad doesn't get violent when he's angry, but he can shout quite a bit.

These quotes relate to how the fathers of three children dealt with alcohol abuse, smoking and anger management. While the section then moves onto more positive examples of "good fathers", the underlying themes of this initial material in this section on primary students are of fathers as abusers of women and children and angry men who have problems with alcohol, smoking and drugs. There clearly are fathers in the community with these characteristics (as there are mothers), but I do not think that a mixed research team would have placed these particular examples in this position in the text.

Yet, even if there was no bias in the reports, if the target group of the research feel that they are marginalised in the research process then they may not take the results seriously no matter what the research says. A major aim of this project was to change male behaviour so it would have been useful if individual men and men’s groups (who often work with men trying to change their behaviour) had felt that they had some real input into the research process.

Four overseas models of research on fathers

I now turn briefly to research on fatherhood undertaken in the U.S., Sweden, the European Commission and Australia. These are all projects that were developed with the primary objective of changing parenting behaviour.

In the U.S. there is the Fatherhood Project. It has been examining the future of fatherhood and ways to support men’s involvement in childrearing. This project was founded in 1981 under the direction of James Levine and co-direction of Dr. Michael Lamb and Dr. Joseph Pleck. Both Lamb and Pleck have had a long history of research on fathers (e.g. Pleck and Sawyer 1974, Lamb 1987). In 1989, the project was relocated to the Families and Work Institute and operates under the direction of James Levine and Edward Pitt. In this project, it was obviously seen as important to have male researchers in key positions in the research teams. The project has examined many of the areas of fatherhood examined in the New Zealand FWC project, including investigating "father-friendly" business policies, ways to get fathers more involved both in family life and in early childhood education programs. It has produced a wide range of resources, including practical guides for employers, books aimed at a popular audience and academic publications (e.g. Levine and Pittinsky 1997). The reference lists of the reports show that the New Zealand FWC researchers were aware of this project.

In Sweden, there has been a long interest in promoting shared parenting and a number of initiatives have been launched to help try and achieve this goal. For example, the Government appointed a Working Party on the Role of Men in 1983. This working party, a mixed team of men and women, organised seminars, publications and projects (Ministry of Health and Social Affairs 1994). In addition, the working party initiated a research program on masculinity and promoted books and film productions on men’s issues. In 1992, this was replaced by another working group, called Fathers, Children and Working Life. This had the task of analysing men’s use of parental benefits and the possible labour market barriers preventing men from taking parental leave. As well, in 1989, the Swedish government started a campaign called Daddy Come Home. The Ministry of Health and Social Affairs provided funding for conferences, seminars, and other information campaigns to encourage fathers to undertake a larger share of unpaid childcare (Ministry of Health and Social Affairs 1994).

Moreover, in the last few years, projects have been developed to educate young men about childbirth and childcare. Within the existing parenthood training programs, meetings are arranged for fathers-to-be and new fathers. As well as learning about the process of childbirth and early parenting, they are also informed of their rights to parental leave and the way in which their role will change in the family. Men are the group leaders in these fatherhood meetings, a factor which is seen to be important.

The Ministry of Health and Social Affairs (1995) also produced a book called Men on Men: Eight Swedish Men’s Personal Views on Equality, Masculinity and Parenthood. This book was part of the material Sweden produced for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Many of these writers were, in fact, quite critical about aspects of men’s lives, while also identifying various barriers to men’s greater involvement in childcare. Many of the barriers are the same as those identified in New Zealand (Birks and Callister 1999) These include the Swedish equivalent to the family court as well as the attitudes of both mothers and fathers. However, of particular relevance in this collection is an article by Lars Gustafsson (1995) who, at the time, was Vice Chairman of the Swedish Save the Children Fund. As already noted, in the New Zealand context Save the Children Fund was a key sponsor of the FWC project. Gustafsson discusses ways to build bridges between men and women, which he sees as essential in supporting positive parenting by men. He was particularly concerned about male violence in families and wanted to find ways of reducing this. However, to do this he argues that men need their own voice, their own research and their own analysis. He notes that "[r]esearch on men is just as important as research on women, and it should, primarily, be undertaken by men" (p. 64).

As a third example, the European Commission (e.g. 1990, 1993, 1994) has produced a number of research reports, as well as organised seminars, to "examine how to support increased participation by men in the care and upbringing of children" (1993: 4). Again, these projects have not treated men as merely the subject only of research, but have tried to develop a partnership approach between men and women in developing the research, planning and participating in the seminars as well as developing subsequent policies for changing behaviour.

Finally, in Australia in January 1999 a report was published by the Department of Family and Community Services called Fitting Fathers into Families: Men and the Fatherhood Role in Contemporary Australia. The primary responsibility for this project was shared by Graeme Russell of Macquarie University and Lesley Barclay of the University of Technology, Sydney and had both men and women in the research team. Graeme Russell, in particular, has had a long history of research on fathers in Australia (e.g. Russell 1983, 1989). Unlike the FWC project the Australian study was put out to tender. This allowed researchers to put together teams they thought most appropriate for undertaking the research. The successful bidders felt it was critical to not only have a balanced team in terms of gender, but also academic discipline and location of research.

Conclusion

Given an increasing research and policy interest in the lives of men, it is important that there is a debate about the methodologies used for researching them. This will include establishing the situations where it is most appropriate to use a male-only team, the situations where a mixed team will provide the best results, and those where a women-only team might provide some useful insights. However, in general in research on men, and in particular on issues of shared parenting, I suggest that an "inclusive" approach to research is the most appropriate. The argument for inclusive research is especially strong when behavioural change amongst the group being researched is an anticipated and hoped for outcome of the research process. Target populations should generally be part of the research process not just the subjects of the research.

The international research on fathers clearly shows that in order for fathers to be supported in new roles within families they need to be "included" in a range of institutions and institutional thinking. This can include such things as designing parenting rooms in shopping malls that are "friendly" to both mothers and fathers as well as printing gender-neutral resource material for parenting courses. European, American and Australian research on men and childcare also suggests that a key part of changing the behaviour of men and women is to provide role models at the level of individuals, families, workplaces, or research teams where more equal sharing has been achieved or is being seriously worked towards. The Fathers Who Care: Partners in Parenting project was not inclusive and the results of the research will have less impact on changing behaviours than if it had been.

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Russell, Graeme; Lesley Barclay, Gay Edgecombe, Jenny Donovan, George Habib, Helen Callaghan, and Quinn Pawson (1999) Fitting Fathers into Families: Men and the Fatherhood Role in Contemporary Australia, Canberra, Department of Family and Community Services.

Smith, Gwendoline (1990) Will The Real Mr New Zealand Please Stand Up? Penguin Books, Auckland.

Snarey, John. (1993). How Fathers Care for the Next Generation: A Four Decade Survey, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Te Puni Kokiri (1999) Evaluation for Maori: Guidelines for Government Agencies, Aroturuki me te Arotakenga, Monitoring and Evaluation Branch, Wellington.

United Nations (1989) The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted 20 November 1989.

Women’s Studies Association newsletter (1997) The Aims of the Association, 18 (2): p. 2.

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