by John Hoffman
A few years ago, as part of a project, I did an unscientific survey of Canadian programs for fathers. One of the most striking results was that the most common type of program for fathers was what I call the Saturday morning Dad and Me drop-in type program. These programs usually run in parent-child drop-in/resource centres, often, but not always, on Saturday mornings. Sometimes there’s little bit of structure – circle time or a short discussion. But mostly it’s just dads and kids hanging out.
In the past I have heard mild criticism of these programs. I’ve heard people say things like, “It’s nice that you’re getting fathers out, but you should be teaching them parenting skills.” Maybe. But, number one, if there’s one kind of Dad program that seems to have staying power, this is it. Number two, parenting skills programs have their place for sure. But, what I’ve heard from program people over the years is that it’s really hard to get dads out to parenting courses. Not only that, a parenting course is usually 6 or 8 weeks long, then it’s over. There are guys who’ve been going to their Saturday morning groups almost every week or a couple of times a month for a couple of years or longer. And they get a lot out of it.
Meet JC. He’s been a regular at the LAMP Community Health Centre’s Tuesday night Dads Time for almost five years. “I started going when our first child was seven-months old,” says the father of two from western Toronto. “My wife had been going to a day-time drop-in and I was wishing there was something like that for fathers.”
Well, turns out there was, and JC’s wife told him about it. He and little Rowan started going to Dad’s Time and they’ve never really stopped. “It was really great to be able to talk with other fathers in the same situation as me,” JC says. “At the beginning we were all a little lost, not quite sure where we fit in. Our wives were at home. They were on high alert and taking care of most things to do with the baby. We all felt like the ‘second-hand’ parent and we weren’t quite sure how to take on our share of baby care or at least help out more.”
As these men hung out, talked about babies and parenting, they shared a few “well, this is what I do to help out,” sort of strategies. As time wore on the conversations got more wide ranging. One thing they often talked about was what do you do when you’re in charge of your baby on your own. Mothers usually learn fairly quickly what sorts of things they can do to keep baby and themselves amused. But dads have less experience so it usually takes them longer to figure out this mundane “what do we do now” aspect of parenting.
“I think we all had little moments of dread sometimes, about what to do with our one-on-one time,” JC recalls. He remembers finding out from one of the dads that a nearby Indigo store had a great play area. “I didn’t know about that and it was great because it gave me another thing to do when I wanted to be out with Rowan.”
With each others’ support, JC and the other guys all gradually got more comfortable with their one-on-one time with their babies, and eventually toddlers. Other topics of conversations started to come up. “One dad would bring up an issue he was dealing with and say something like, ‘I find that really frustrating. I get angry,’” JC recalls. “And another guy would say, ‘Yeah, me too.” The guys didn’t always come up with instant, perfect solutions to these problems, but they felt less alone knowing they weren’t the only one dealing with that issue. That I’m-the-only-one-dealing-with-this feeling adds to the everyday stress of parenting. Having other guys to commiserate and share ideas with reduced that stress. Less stressed fathers are better fathers. I’m pretty sure about that.
The men also shared other useful information – good places to take your kids, and sure, at times the odd parenting strategy. But it was the feeling of support and, frankly, just enjoying being together with kids, that was the big selling point for JC and his friends. To me, this kind of casual sharing of information and experiences is as valuable as any concrete parenting technique you can learn in a structured course.
The other plus was that, as JC’s kids (he now has two boys) got older, the boys started to look forward to Dad’s Time. There was this nice playroom full of toys and other kids to play with. It was an easygoing, low-stress way for JC and his kids to be together.
Of course, if you’re a mother, none of this will be of any surprise. Women have benefitted from these sorts of support and information-sharing Mom networks for years. It’s still a new thing for dads. I sure hope the idea of Dad and Me groups keeps growing. Because it’s a win for dads and kids, and, I might add, moms
If you’ve got young kids, I’d urge you to check out your local family resource center or early years center and see if they have a Dad group. You just might like it a whole lot.