Although there is increasing evidence to support the influence of fathers in child development, very little is known about the effectiveness of programs that have been created to help men, especially those from low-income households, to become better dads. However, Assistant Professor Paul Lanier hopes to soon expand that knowledge.
Lanier is among a group of researchers recently tapped by the newly launched Fatherhood Research and Practice Network—a collaborative project between Temple University and Denver’s Center for Policy Research—to evaluate fatherhood programs in North Carolina, Maryland, Illinois and Ohio. The evaluation projects were selected from an initial group of 71 proposals and are being funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Lanier and research partner Wayne Action Group for Economic Solvency (WAGES), were awarded a $100,000 grant to test the impact of Circle of Parents, a peer-support group program offered across the country and across the state, including in Goldsboro, the study site. Although each program operates slightly differently, all aim to provide parents with resources, services and social support to help them better engage with their children and to minimize risk for child abuse and neglect.
Over the years, Circle of Parents in Goldsboro, which targets fathers of children in Head Start and Early Head Start services, has shown plenty of anecdotal success, though the program has never been rigorously evaluated, Lanier said.
“So when you talk to people around the state, they really love this model, but there just isn’t a lot of evidence for it,” he added.
The UNC-WAGES project will include a randomized control trial involving 200 fathers. Lanier said the project team is interested in learning more about the social support of fathers, including who they turn to for nonjudgmental advice on parenting and if they have individuals in their lives who regularly offer parenting encouragement or show appreciation for their efforts as fathers. Such supportive networks and connections are vital for helping to promote positive parenting, Lanier said.
“We’re really focusing on emotional support because parenting is difficult and stressful,” he said. “Kids don’t come with a manual. You learn from other people how to deal with a crying baby or how to play with a child to stimulate brain development. What we want to know is if these fathers have peers who can normalize that experience and support them through their challenges and does this help keep their stress levels down so that they can parent in a positive, productive manner.
“It’s really about promoting protective factors and although we may not want to admit it, social-emotional support is a big protective factor for fathers.”
Addressing such issues are important, Lanier said, given that the literature has shown that most men want to be good fathers but often are not involved in their children’s lives because they feel isolated and because they lack good role models.
“So the idea here is if you can support them with the knowledge and skills for how to be a father and normalize for them how to talk to their peers about being a father, then that can equip them with what they need to be a good parent,” he said.