Fatherhood is a big business these days, but it’s missing an important piece.
I looked up “Father’s Day” on the Hallmark card website and found 88 cards for Dad, 60 gifts and two “keepsake ornaments”: a Harley-Davidson motorcycle figure and a Return of the Jedi Scout Trooper. (I know, I don’t understand the connection to Father’s Day either.)
Research on what makes a good father is now a staple on university campuses and the subject of countless news articles. Googling “father organizations” brings up 52,700,000 hits — not as many as “mother organizations” which offers 73 million results — but by no means a shabby showing. The title of a book reviewed this week in The Washington Post asks the question, “Do Fathers Matter?” For author Paul Raeburn, the answer is an emphatic yes.
All this attention to dads is great. My father, despite his penchant for bad jokes, remains a hero to me. But something critical is lacking in the general conversation: finding better ways to convince young men they should be ready to be fathers before they become fathers. That means making available to them information not only about abstinence but about artificial methods of birth control as well — condoms for them and the IUD, implant and other methods of reliable birth control for young women. (Note to women: You’re the decisionmaker about getting pregnant and giving birth. It’s your body. But engaging your partner from the beginning can make the pregnancy and subsequent child-raising a lot easier.)
To some older leaders in the “fatherhood movement,” this common-sense approach is not obvious. Unlike men now in their 20s and 30s, many of whom were exposed to at least a lesson or two about female, as well as male, body parts, pregnancy was not something these men talked about in polite company.
Even today, most fatherhood organizations focus on encouraging men to be actively involved once their sons or daughters are born. The National Fatherhood Initiative, probably the best known of such groups, is one of those. “We’re helping dads get skills they need,” says Vincent DiCaro, vice president of communication. “We haven’t delved deeply into pre-fathering work.”
Nor have the authors of My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative launched this year by the White House. The project challenges communities to invest in programs that bolster educational and work opportunities for young men of color, and also encourages mentors to get involved in supporting young men. Little in that challenge, however, suggests that communities also find ways to help educate young men about the decisions they make regarding sex, relationships and becoming a father. Some pregnancy prevention organizations are waiting to see if these issues will be more fully addressed as the initiative is implemented.
“It would be wonderful if My Brother’s Keeper could help young men break the cycle of early fatherhood,” says Andrea Kane, senior director of policy at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “Early fatherhood has profound consequences both in terms of young men being able to achieve their own education and career goals and in terms of the prospects for their children.”
Efforts to teach men about contraception and how to obtain it are often the result of determined individuals in specific cities. Carl Cunningham is one of those men. He advises the Mobile, Ala. chapter of the Kappa Leadership and Development League, sponsor of the League’s Guide Right program assisting 100 young men of color in middle and high school.
Cunningham and his associates talk about making “proud choices” which, in the case of sex, might mean not having it, or putting on a condom and encouraging your partner to use birth control as well. Cunningham and his leaders are serious about the issue: If a young man is dating a woman who gets pregnant, he must leave the group. This twist on the now-outdated shunning of pregnant unmarried women has happened only twice, according to Cunningham.
“In order to change the family tree, it takes drastic measures to get drastic results,” Cunningham explains. “You have to be upfront with these young men. We ask them, ‘Do you want to re-create the single parent household in which you grew up? Being sexually active can change your life.”
A program in North Carolina takes a softer approach called Wise Guys, which talks about teen pregnancy prevention with young men ages 11 to 17. Rick Brown, director of program expansion, says prevention discussions often are part of a high school sex education program. But sometimes they’re held in partnership with a community organization or a juvenile detention center.
Two things about Wise Guys stand out. One is, instructors teach young men about young women’s choices of contraception “so they can be supportive of their partners,” says Brown. In addition, instructors make an effort to enlarge young men’s understanding of masculinity and manhood.
“Most men are getting the dominant messages of our culture — prove your manhood, a child is a notch on your belt, your reputation as a player,” says Brown. “Wise Guys gives young men “a picture of manhood that they can respect and buy into. It’s about being strong in how much responsibility you’re willing to take for yourself and the people you care about. That’s not a hard sell; it can fit into the picture of the hero being more than just a tough guy.”
Wise Guys also serves men ages 18 to 29 in colleges, halfway houses and prisons. These men ask questions such as: When is a man ready to have a child? Or if he already has a child, what does he want for his next child?
“We also spend time on anger, stress and substance abuse, all of which is related to the quality of their relationships,” says Brown. “It’s family planning on a different level.”
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