What role do fathers play in cultivating empathy in their children?

We need to have empathy for fathers as they “Dadprove” and connect with families.

Photo: My children holding a copy of my book on “Dadprovement” — Credit: Patrick Riccards.

When it comes to parents and their kids’ schools, dads often leave the involvement to the moms. In some communities, it is literally a cause for celebration (complete with a party) when a father volunteers in his child’s class. Teachers are so used to dealing with the moms in the equation that, when I once asked if I could be added to the class parent email list, I was told it wasn’t necessary since my wife was already on the list.

But we all know that our kids benefit when we are better engaged. Last year, a study in Psychological Science found that daughters aspire to greater professional goals when they see their fathers doing tasks such as washing the dishes.

Think about that. A young girl has a better chance of becoming a CEO or governor of even president if she sees her dad at the sink, scrubbing away at the remnants of dinner. If that’s true, imagine the possibilities for all of those girls (and boys) who see their dads volunteering in their schools or visiting the classroom, right alongside all of the moms they come to expect.

Why is this important?

Our decades-old view of fathers and fatherhood makes it quite difficult to be empathetic toward a new model of fatherhood, one where dads can truly put their families first.

This is an important topic that I wrote about in my award-winning book, “Dadprovement”, and it is one that I continue to speak about publicly to groups across the country. “Dadprovement” is a phrase I use to describe how fathers can be more active, involved parts of their family structure (particularly beyond just being the expected bread winner).

Nowhere is this more important than it is in education. Too often, we leave educational decisions to the mother in the relationship, thinking it isn’t part of a father’s job. In reality, we shouldn’t just show empathy to those fathers looking to get involved, we shouldn’t just be praising those who choose that path, but we should be demanding it from all fathers. Fathers must be more involved in their kids’ education, beyond helping with homework at night. That’s what involvement really looks like. At its very heart, it is a simple, common-sense idea. And it boils down to five basic tips.

Know their teachers. Get beyond the standard parent/teacher night or once-a-year conference and actually get to know the teachers. Email them when you have questions. Ask what you can do to help. Enquire about the teacher’s philosophy. Listen. This about understanding the teachers, and doing so well beyond your child and your child’s performance. After the parent, a teacher is the most influential person in your son or daughter’s life. You should get to know that partner in development.

Know their friends. Learn who your kids are spending time with. Ask who they sit with at school or who they play with at recess. Follow up to see if the friend continues to cause problems in class or forgot his lunch again or doesn’t want to play with the group. When you start with these questions (and this role) young, it makes it easier to ask these questions when your child is in high school.

Spend time at the school. Ask the teacher if you can come into the classroom, whether it be to volunteer or just to observe. Know the principal. Get to know the school routines. Make sure your child sees you in his or her school and sees you taking an interest (walking around with your head in your phone doesn’t count, and you’ll find that most public schools have lousy cell/wireless service anyway).

Prioritize your family. Yes, we all hear this. And we know that it is easier said than done. But there is something to routines and rules. There is a reason we all talk about the value in having a family dinner every night, where all electronics (even dad’s phone) are banned from the table. There’s a reason why you’ll remember the first goal your daughter scored or your son’s first merit badge, and you’ll forget you gave up that afternoon of golf or a little quiet time. Those daughters with dish-washing dads are not only noting the absence of gender roles, but they are seeing their fathers active in the family.

Know you can have it all. I’m sorry, but we have been sold a bill of goods when we are told that we need to prioritize work for the good of the family. And the mothers of our children are similarly fooling themselves with this notion of “leaning in” and seeking to be more like men and focused on their careers.

We can have it all. We just have to have a clear sense of what “all” means.

Is it easy to be both successful at work and involved in the family? Of course not. It means choices. And challenges. And failures. But when we are clear about our priorities and about what it takes to get there, it is possible. And no one should tell us that we can’t have it all, that we have to sacrifice our family role for our work demands, or that anyone has a secret formula for family success without trial, error. Try again.

Sure, I recognize that fathers are likely some of the last people we believe should be the recipients of our empathy. But we should agree that all fathers are on a path toward “Dadprovement”. Each day, we should seek ways to be better fathers, better husbands and better men.

We know we will get a lot wrong along the way. But we also know that the journey — and our just trying — is what our families will remember and what will ultimately define us.

As Frank Sinatra sang, fathers need to do it their way. It is different for all of us, myself included. But it is possible. Dad development is possible. And it is worth the effort.

Bio: Patrick Riccards is the Chief Communications and Strategy Officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in Princeton, N.J. He also writes the Eduflack.com blog and is the author of Dadprovement (Turning Stone Press, 2014). Patrick is also an Ashoka Empathy Ambassador. He is on Twitter@Eduflack. This blog has been published as a part of the #StartEmpathy series, an ongoing campaign by Ashoka for the Think it Up! initiative.

Changemaker Education

A publication series on Changemaking by Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative

Patrick Riccards

Written by

Father; education comms and advocacy pro; author of Eduflack blog; author of award-winning Dadprovement book; education agitator

Changemaker Education

A publication series on Changemaking by Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative