In South Carolina at Vital Connections of the Midlands Early Head Start center, fathers are front and center.
“Too many times, we see mothers receiving all of the communication and information about their children and ways they can support these critical developmental years,” says Jerome Thompson, fatherhood specialist for Share Head Start/Early Head Start and the South Carolina State Head Start Association. “This lack of sharing information ultimately leads to a lack of education and, therefore, involvement. We have become so maternally focused, we take for granted when a dad is there.”
Research shows that children who grow up with an involved father as well as an involved mother receive significant benefits, including stronger cognitive and motor skills; elevated levels of physical and mental health; decreased behavioral issues or acts of violence; better problem-solving skills; and more confidence, curiosity, and empathy, sensitivity, and self-control. As they grow, children with involved fathers are also more likely to stay in school, excel, and go on to college.
But according to 2020 U.S. Census data, one in four children in America lives in a home where their father does not reside, and the number of children who live with their mother only has doubled over the last 50 years.
“It goes way way back,” says Mr. Thompson. And the reasons why, he says, are complex.
As part of his work with the South Carolina Vital Connections of the Midlands Early Head Start program, Mr. John Browne has made sure that fathers are front-and-center when it comes to child development and support. From its inception in 1965, Head Start prioritized father involvement. While a key pillar of the program has always been to provide income-eligible households learning and development services for children from birth through age five, such as high-quality child care, job training is also a key support for mothers and fathers.
“If we hope to help dads connect with their children, we need to make sure that they are able to successfully support themselves and their families,” says Mr. Browne. “If they’re unable to pay child support, they’re not going to be there with their children, they’ll be in jail.”
Incarceration and diminishing job training opportunities are two systemic barriers that lead to generational low levels of father involvement, acknowledge Mr. Thompson and Mr. Browne. The job training Early Head Start provides to fathers and families is a key to breaking the cycle of mother-centered child development and getting fathers more involved.
“I had a dad come to our programs,” describes Mr. Browne. “He had five children and was working odd jobs. He knew that he needed something more sustainable and substantial if he was going to not just provide for his family, but support his children’s development.”
Working with this father, Vital Connections was able to help him secure his truck driving certification, offering him a more steady, reliable income that he and his family could depend upon.
“When we do this type of work and uplift our fathers, we’re doing more than just giving families a leg up,” says Mr. Browne. “We’re actually breaking cycles of poverty.”
Too often, fathers are overwhelmed with supporting their families and trying to put food on the table that they are unable to take on additional responsibilities, such as course trainings, job interviews, or studying for classes. For example, in South Carolina, where the minimum hourly wage is $7.25 per hour, a single adult with two children living in the Charleston-North Charleston Metro area would need to make $37.96 per hour to support their family. This discrepancy between hourly wages and a family sustaining wage has been a significant barrier toward father involvement, and a gap that Early Head Start has been working to close.
“When you make the sacrifice and do the training, you see more opportunities,” says Mr. Browne.
By identifying job training opportunities, bringing in speakers, and helping fathers advance their careers, they are working to break generational cycles of poverty. Another key component to getting fathers more involved has been to meet them where they are.
“I had a dad tell me when I first started doing this, ‘There’s too much paper.’ So we’ve gotten very savvy about emails and texts,” says John Browne, MA, executive director/Early Head Start director of Vital Connections.
And through regular newsletters featuring support and resources, regular meetings, and purposeful outreach, Vital Connections has seen a significant increase in the participation of their Early Head Start fathers.
“Fathers are parents as well,” says Mr. Thompson. “We can’t forget the critical role they play in their children’s lives, and we need to support them so that they can be there.”