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Fathers of this World

By Harald Breiding-Buss

In Oxford, UK, 40 of the world’s outstanding researchers, practitioners and academics in the field of fatherhood and families spent a whole week debating issues of international concern. Father & Child’s very own Harald Breiding-Buss was there.

An idea was born in Atlanta two years ago, at the Annual International Fatherhood Conference: to organise an event that would be more than a conference, but an actual working meeting with tangible results.

UK fathers group Fathers Direct ran with this idea and actually made it happen. For this they received the support of the Holland-based Bernard van Leer Foundation, which has a focus on Early Childhood Development. All the more significant that a major international funder like the Foundation, almost exclusively interested in children’s development, should sponsor a fatherhood event.

And, of course, it makes perfect sense to see fatherhood predominantly as a child development issue. Many delegates pointed out that there is a need, internationally, to see the father’s contribution as an asset to children’s development, rather than exclusively focus on it as a potential liability or danger.

Sounds familiar? In an article for Father&Child, Massey University’s Stuart Birks once pointed out that the Family Court, for example, regards access to his child after separation as a “treat” for the father, rather than a developmental component in the child’s life.

The government’s benefit system makes a single parent financially better off than a two-parent, but unemployed, setup, and also offers a single parent quite extensive extra training benefits, which two-parent unemployed families are not entitled to. Where a mother is a teenager, social and government workers are simply not interested in the father, unless he behaves badly.

To recognise a man’s presence in his children’s life as an asset to the child, we still have a long way to go in New Zealand and, it seems, in many parts of the globe.

And so, many delegates noted that in order to have a part in your children’s life a father is expected to prove himself. The phrase of a “good-enough father” went around: sure, in all parts of the world there are ideas about the ideal father – but should being an ideal father be a condition for input into your child’s life?

Being an ideal father is made much harder by limited access to all kinds of health and social services. The delegates were virtually unanimous that this is a major problem, and international agencies received a lot of criticism for targeting so many programmes and campaigns at women, without ever considering outcomes for men.

As the African delegates pointed out, HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns simply do not include men. And yet higher mortality rates of women than men once infected with AIDS mean that more and more children grow up predominantly in the care of men.

The only significant disagreements surfaced in the area of Domestic Violence. In many parts of South America rates of physical and sexual abuse of women and children by men are high. All delegates from South America – Peru, Brazil, Jamaica and Mexico were represented – thought that campaigns questioning concepts of masculinity need to be part of the solution.

Many Western delegates were decidedly uncomfortable with such ideas of “social engineering” and academics or politicians defining what manhood is or isn’t. Especially in the Anglo-American world, domestic violence legislation is abused by those who it aims to protect, and often produces worse rather than better outcomes for children.

Perhaps the answer was to be found in the research section of the conference, led by Michael Lamb and Charlie Lewis – both internationally renowned in the field for their work. Citing only scientifically sound studies with high sample numbers and/or sound methodology they pointed out that father-child contact is a key to a man’s own self-image.

A wide variety of studies from different parts of the world have shown that spending time caring for children affects a man’s hormonal balance, mental health and view of himself in similar ways as women’s. Men’s and women’s ways of parenting are surprisingly similar when they are put in comparable situations.

It is not being a man that makes the difference – it’s being away from children. South American men do not usually have such opportunities. Comparing notes with a Mexican delegate I discovered that New Zealand’s rate of single fathers (as a percentage of single parents) is nearly 100 times as high as in Mexico, where it is only a fraction of a percent.

It was with some of the South American delegates and people from Australia and the UK that we staged a role play that displayed the exclusion of men from health services throughout pregnancy and young parenthood.

The biggest surprise for me was that the South Americans never doubted the desire of their men to be involved like this. They blamed the health system far more than they blamed the fathers for men’s often very negative role in children’s lives.

What perhaps struck me most is just how thin the base of practical fathers work is internationally. With the exception perhaps of the US, where programmes target non-custodial fathers, teenage fathers, fathers of Latin-American ethnicity and fathers in prison, most countries do not have any major practical initiatives that fosters father-child relationships.

Where they exist, they almost always run as grassroots community initiatives without any backing of governments – financial or otherwise. Noone knew of a magazine such as Father&Child anywhere else in the world, although the British launched their own version at the conference.

In the UK and Australia there is government support at least for involvement in pre- and after-birth healthcare, and the US and Brazil have programmes for teenage fathers.

Initiatives elsewhere are often restricted to producing posters or books, and without sponsorship of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, most practitioners would not have been able to attend this event.

So what came out of it?

The cynic in me would say: just more paper that noone is going to read. For those of us in whose countries fathers issues are simply not on the agenda , however, there is now a tool to make policy makers pay attention.

An international gathering of experts, backed by a large international agency, has clout and boosts the credibility of those who as yet have no standing in the political system. The Russian delegate has emailed me after the summit saying that he can now organise local round tables and events, and his voice is being heard more than before.

The message is really quite simple.

To look after our children, we also have to look after our men.

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