On Psychology

Jewish World Review March 10, 2000 /3 Adar 2, 5760


Dr. Wade Horn

Seeing Men as "The Problem"
is Worrisome Attitude

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q: In light of the demise of the American family, I was encouraged to read in your column of an effort to fund programs to teach fathering skills to men. What encouraged me was not the programs themselves or what they teach men, but the fact society may be starting to do something about the problem.

However, I am troubled by this solution because it assumes that men are the problem. The unspoken message is that there is something wrong with men who need help in being responsible fathers.

I reject this thinking. There has not been a significant change in men over the past three decades. Women, on the other hand, have gone through drastic changes. Whereas society increasingly sees men as evil and oppressive, women are becoming the favored class. Sending men to fathering school is not the answer to our larger societal problems. It will only teach them how to get along with their new master skirts.

A: As this letter writer correctly points out, I am unabashedly in favor of expanding programs designed to help men be more effective fathers. It may, therefore, come as something of a surprise to learn that I agree there is danger in assuming that every man needs a fathering class to be a good dad.

Econophone Even before the invention of child development specialists and psychologists such as myself, most men somehow managed to be good and decent fathers to their children. To suggest that all men, everywhere, need a class to be good dads is to professionalize fatherhood and, in the process, infantilize men.

Moreover, buying into the idea that men are incapable of fulfilling their paternal responsibilities without the assistance of a professional, could lead to an expansion of an already bloated welfare state. Heaven knows we don't need that.

Also, assuming men are the only ones who could benefit from parenting education is buying into the cultural myth that parenting comes more naturally to women than to men. It doesn't. Women are just better at asking directions. (Who, after all, do you think is buying all those "What to Expect When You're Expecting" books?)

At the same time, I remain quite convinced there is a dire need for more outreach, support and, yes, even skill building programs for fathers. How can this be?

First, there are times when many men are especially anxious about fatherhood. One of those times is when a man is awaiting the birth of his first child. I see nothing wrong in helping men in such circumstances learn skills, such as how to hold, diaper, and burp a baby, that will not only decrease their anxiety, but increase the likelihood they will interact in positive ways with their babies.

Trakdata Second, some fathers have children whose needs are so extraordinary that adequately caring for them requires knowledge beyond what one might reasonably assume is common in the broader culture -- caring for a child with spina bifida or cerebral palsy, for example. I think we can all agree on the appropriateness of providing men with the skills and knowledge necessary to be effective fathers to children with special needs.

Third, some men grew up in homes without fathers, some in homes where fathers have been absent for generations. Others grew up in homes with psychologically absent, or even abusive, fathers. Where would we expect such men to learn what it means to be a good father? From watching Homer Simpson on television? As Bart Simpson might say, "Get real, man."

However, in supporting the expansion of outreach, support and skill building programs for fathers, I do not mean to suggest that all men need such programs. Indeed, I would be the first to protest if fathering programs were made mandatory (except, perhaps, in cases where the man was determined to be so neglectful or abusive that he was a danger to his children).

Nor do I believe that government ought to be the primary provider of these kinds of services to fathers. Government rarely does a better job than the private sector in providing services. There is no reason to expect a different situation when it comes to delivering services to fathers.

So, though I acknowledge the importance of expanding outreach, support and skill building services to fathers, I do not believe all men require such services or that government should be the provider of choice. Rather, I believe government ought to play a role in supporting efforts in the private sector that are then offered to men on a voluntary basis.

Having said this, there is something else in this letter about which I feel compelled to comment. It is the sense that motherhood and fatherhood has become "we vs. them."

This is not the first time I have come across this sentiment. I hear it in the heated rhetoric of some fathers' rights groups that seem to take pleasure in pointing out that mothers, as well as fathers, sometimes abuse their children. I also hear it in the heated rhetoric of some radical feminist organizations, such as the National Organization of Women, that see any support for fathers as somehow taking something away from mothers.

But support for fathers and mothers is not a zero sum game. When men are good and decent fathers, this benefits women because being a good father means supporting both the mother and the children, including daughters. Or course, the converse is also true when women are good and decent moms.

The great promise of the burgeoning fatherhood movement is that it will help bridge the widening gap that divides us. The focus of the fatherhood movement should not be on fathers rights vs. mothers rights, or how much money we spend on mothers vs. how much we spend on fathers, but on reconciliation -- reconciliation of fathers with their children, of husbands with their wives, and of people of all ethnic and racial groups with one another.

If this is where the fatherhood movement is heading, count me in. If not, well, I've got plenty of other things I can do with my time.



JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn