Head Start encourages father involvement

Posted on June 13, 2013

Step inside a typical Dads Night at Carman-Ainsworth Head Start and you’ll find fathers and children digging for bones in a sand pit, or building ceiling-high towers of cardboard boxes.

One night, you might see military vehicles, stock racing cars and a helicopter landing on the program grounds. Another night, you’ll see fathers eating barbecue with their infants in their laps.

The events are a major part of the thriving Men at WORK group, but they’re not the only purpose, said Mike Kildee, Family and Community Support Coordinator. For the last 16 years, he’s watched the events lead to fathers who attend parent meetings, read their program’s weekly reminders and know their child’s teacher and friends.

Through parenting classes and support group meetings, he’s helped fathers understand how to take an active role in their child’s education. That’s important whether they live with their children or not, Kildee said.

Parent engagement is a key component of the Head Start philosophy. For years, Kildee and Head Start leaders throughout the state and nation have worked diligently to make sure that their family engagement efforts includes both mothers and fathers.

Kildee’s program and others like it have helped change the pre-K culture into one that’s inclusive to men and women. They’ve made a conscious effort to hang up pictures of fathers interacting with children and hosting events that cater to men. The Office of Head Start even offers a Fatherhood Initiative Resource Guide to help strengthen the role of fathers in families.

Research has shown that children thrive when both parents take an active role in their lives, Kildee said. Head Start is there for fathers to help offer them some encouragement.

“For a number of dads, all they really need is just to have the confidence and know that they are an equal parenting partner,” Kildee said. “Moms and dads may do things differently, but it’s not that one is more important or better than another. It’s the balance between the two that really is what children need.”

Kildee remembers a time when fathers weren’t usually involved in their children’s education. Even though he had a wonderful father, it was understood that going to PTA meetings and teacher conferences was his mother’s job.

He came to Head Start about 16 years ago, at a time when the nationwide program was pushing for more male involvement. At first, he wasn’t sure how to do this until he attended a regional conference. He met staff from programs that had well-established fatherhood initiatives, and he learned about their Dads Nights.

The idea became an integral part of Men at WORK, or Working On Relationships with Kids, which includes fathers from both Head Start and Early Head Start. In addition to Dads Nights, Carman-Ainsworth fathers could attend parenting classes and support group meetings. Kildee also helped connect other Michigan fatherhood initiatives through what’s now called the Michigan Fatherhood Coalition.

Men at WORK has become so popular with fathers that they wanted to continue the program in the k-12 system, Kildee said. Now, it’s continuing to grow in that venue.

Fathers who are involved in their children’s education set an example that school is important, Kildee said. He advises dads to read to their children and in front of their children to help promote literacy.

Fathers can also model healthy relationships for their children. They teach their sons to treat women with respect, and they teach their daughters what to expect from a male, Kildee said.

Research has proven that this kind of involvement makes a big difference in the lives of children, Kildee said. That’s why it’s a crucial part of the Head Start model.

According to the Office of Head Start website, “strong families are essential to the future of the nation, and both mothers and fathers play essential roles in ensuring the well-being of their children. Changes in the lives of fathers must be supported by the communities in which they live, and communities must know what resources and support are available to help them in this effort.”

Kildee has seen over and over again the difference a community of support can make in a father’s life. He told the story of a single father of a daughter who first came to Men at WORK 14 years ago. His father had passed away, and he didn’t have a father in his life who could give him advice. With the help of the support group, he developed into a wonderful father and has even told his story at fatherhood conferences.

“We can give them the confidence to be the father they choose to be for their children,” Kildee said. “We don’t tell them what kind of father they should be, but we give them the power to choose.”