I’ve been working for the Head Start program for over ten years. I think Head Start is awesome for many reasons. Before I get started on my rant, I want to state that everything in this article reflects my personal opinion and is not reflective of any Head Start program that I have worked for in the past, or work for now.
So, what is Head Start? Head Start provides a comprehensive preschool experience for children living in poverty and those with diagnosed special needs. Head Start teaches families about the importance of preventative health care, encourages families to be actively engaged in their children’s education, and mandates that parents are part of the governing body.
But there is one thing about the program I don’t like. It was first called the Father Involvement Initiative, but now it’s being called Improving Father Engagement in Head Start.
Why does this particular initiative bother me so much? I will explain. But before I do, I want to acknowledge that I think fathers, as well as mothers, are very important in their children’s lives. I fully support men being actively engaged in their children’s lives and education. However, after working with families in poverty for years, I know that families are diverse, and that making broad assumptions that “one size fits all” is just not very realistic.
Here are the other reasons why I have beef with the whole father engagement thing.
1) The Father Engagement Initiative is based on the premise that all kids have fathers that can be actively involved.
In all my years with Head Start, I’ve met many fathers who are actively involved without a program telling them to be. These dads fill out the application, complete the enrollment paperwork, and are present at home visits and school conferences. They attend Parent Center Meetings. They do these things because they want to, not because they have to.
But then there are families where the fathers are not present. This may be due to a lack of moral character on his part, conflict in the parents' relationship, or something more structural, such as being incarcerated. And there are lesbian families who are raising children without the traditional “dad.”
There are fathers who would very much like to be actively involved, but cannot because they’ve been deported, or haven’t been able to immigrate to this country with the rest of the family.
And there are fathers who are not involved because they are deceased.
If you are a mother, grandmother, or auntie left raising the child in a family where the father cannot or chooses not to be involved, you are already going to feel badly about that, without having the added pressure of a Father Engagement Coordinator coming to ask you why daddy’s not around.
If you are the preschool-aged child in such a family, you are going to feel even worse that you don’t have a dad when the other kids get to have their Daddy and Me playdate, or Make and Take, or whatever it’s called. The Head Start Father Engagement Birth to Five Programming Guide says “Every child should have 'Daddy Days' that create lasting memories they can draw from if they decide to become parents one day.”
Not all children have families where fathers can be, or want to be, actively involved.
2) The Father Engagement Initiative is based on gender assumptions and stereotypes.
Perhaps the heart of my discontent with this whole thing is the reliance on outdated gender norms and assumptions.
The Head Start Father Engagement Birth to Five Programming Guide says that fathers play differently with their children than mothers do, that they encourage more risk taking, and because men and women parent differently, that is why men need to be involved.
My response to this is that yeah, there may be some gender differences in the way men and women tend to parent, but I would argue that these are fluid and that the variance within individual parenting styles is greater than any gender differences. For example, when I was parenting in a two-parent relationship, I had more of the male attributes than my male counterpart did.
And even if a program embraces everything stereotypically male about a parent role, it is not going to make a deadbeat dad suddenly get his act together and start pulling his weight.
As diverse family structures continue to grow, it is not uncommon anymore for a child to be created without any “father” at all. Or perhaps there are two fathers and no mother.
The Father Engagement Initiative says “…everyone has a role to play in prioritizing fathers.” But what about when there isn’t one? Or what about when he was violent or traumatizing to the child's mother or family? What then?
3) The language of the Father Engagement is exclusive rather than inclusive.
One of the things I like most about Head Start is when terms like Family Engagement are used. "Family" is an inclusive term that describes the people who are raising the child, whether it be one parent, two parents, grandparents, foster parents, adoptive parents, or fictive kin. By singling out fathers, the act in and of itself excludes families where one is not present, and also implies that something is missing in such cases.
Head Start should stick with the Family Engagement language. I do not think men need special initiatives to benefit from the Head Start experience for the children.
4) It assumes that all fathers are good for all kids.
Over all of my years spent working in social service, I have met children who came from families where fathers molested their children, beat them, beat their mothers, and even brutally murdered a mother in front of her children.
While the Father Engagement Programming Guide mentions that extra care and caution should be taken in cases of domestic violence, it’s little more than a side comment. Parental conflict is not something that an educational program needs to get in the middle of, really.
The fact is, not all fathers, like not all mothers, are good for kids. It is harsh and sad, but true.
5) It minimizes the negative role of parental conflict.
A key component of Head Start is the mandate to enroll the neediest of the needy, the poorest of the poor. I used to tell families who were applying that “Head Start is the one place where it’s going to be to your advantage to have a lot of issues.”
The enrollment policies assign more points to older children. They give more points if the child has special needs. And more if the parent is single. Still more if there is a death or divorce. The list goes on. The families who are enrolled in Head Start are going to be amongst the neediest, and dealing with many issues, which include the absence of one or more biological parent. These families are facing multiple barriers to financial security.
Telling a mother who has been raising a child who was conceived as a result of a rape in a refugee camp that there needs to be some effort to involve the father is ridiculous and damaging, and will not be beneficial to her or her child.
I personally know a number of single fathers who are raising children after the moms abandoned the kids, or because the moms had addictions. These men are doing the best they can with what they have. Just like single moms do, when the dad can’t be involved.
I think promoting healthy family identity and development is best done by supporting and encouraging whatever family structure happens to be raising the child, not by focusing on a missing element, whether it be male or female.
6) It does not acknowledge the full range of family diversity.
If you’ve ever been a part of a non-traditional family, you know what it’s like to feel different and ostracized without having a government program reinforce it. As someone who has worked with disadvantaged families for years, I have firsthand seen many individuals, men and women, who are dedicated to doing the best for their kids despite the challenges they are facing.
I want each child and family to feel whole and complete as they are, not broken for what they’re not.
I think there is a place for men to learn and grow as fathers. I’ve heard some dads say they felt judged for being involved with their kids. But the truth is I’ve felt judged for being a tattooed, young, single mom. There is a lot of judgment, unfortunately, of parents who fall outside of the traditional norm. I think we as a culture need to let go of that, and move to a more supportive, inclusive framework.
Kezia Willingham is a former Head Start parent and current Head Start Health Coordinator who is quite fond of the Head Start program. You can follow her @KeziaWillingham.