First and Foremost It’s About the Children
By Allan Shedlin
Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
I was more disappointed than surprised by my in-flight seatmate’s response to my question. About midway into our flight between Albuquerque and Baltimore, having learned that Amber was a recent graduate with a Master's degree in gender studies, I was eager to get her immediate association to the term DADvocacy. Her response was, “It’s something against women.”
Having coined the term about a year earlier, I’d been field testing it with a variety of people to describe my two decades of work to encourage greater father involvement. Her response echoed what I heard 27 years earlier when I coined the term daddying to describe the convergence of fatherhood and nurturing and to express that a father is not just something you are, but something you do. Back in 1994, many folks admonished, “No self-respecting man would ever use that term, it’s just too soft and wimpy.” Sixteen years later Hallmark came out with a daddying line of Fathers’ Day greeting cards.
Rather than feeling resigned to Amber’s negative association, I became determined to understand why we as a culture paralyze ourselves with knee-jerk polarization on so many social issues. Why is it assumed that if we are for something, we must be against its opposite? Why is it that by working to increase vibrant father involvement, it is assumed to be somehow against mothers? Have we learned so little from the Women’s Movement and its consequent 60 plus years of gender re-alignment?
As March 8th marks International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to make clear that attention to encouraging greater father involvement is first and foremost about children. It’s about recognizing that when parents – mothers and fathers alike – are positively involved in a child’s life, all measures of social well-being improve. This is not rocket science. As Urie Bronfenbrenner, a renowned psychologist and one of the founders of Head Start, noted in 1979, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him/her.” And just imagine the positive impact there could be if there were two or more such adults in a child’s life.
More recently, in January 2021, Dr. Nim Tottenham, a professor in the psychology department at New York City’s Columbia University, cites research that “Parents influence children’s brain development in ways that can sharpen how we think about experiences for a lifetime.”
DADvocacy, as I define it, is characterized by two primary aspects: public/collective and private/individual. Based on my ongoing qualitative research beginning in 1997 with children and youth and continuing with fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers, I have learned that the daddying qualities most desired by kids are precisely the same ones that dads wish to cultivate. As a lifelong educator, my training in child development taught me that these qualities were not only what kids wanted, but what they needed in order to thrive. The most often cited are being there, taking kids as seriously as they take themselves, being a passionate advocate for them, showing love and being affectionate, and providing them with security and protection.
From a public/collective perspective, DADvocacy is a deliberate set of actions and policies to support, encourage, and optimize the opportunities for fathers and father figures to be positively involved in their children’s lives and for children to be positively involved in their fathers’ life. From a private/individual perspective, DADvocacy is the actions that a father takes in support of his children to enable them to reach their fullest potential. It includes a lifelong commitment to their physical, emotional, social, intellectual/creative, and moral/spiritual well-being.
Given all the research that documents the advantages that accrue to children who grow up in two-parent families, DADvocacy can rightly be viewed as encouraging enhanced partnerships between fathers and mothers.
DADvocacy in no way diminishes the importance of mothers; rather it acknowledges and supports the importance of fathers. Moreover, given all the research that documents the advantages that accrue to children who grow up in two-parent families, DADvocacy can rightly be viewed as encouraging enhanced partnerships between fathers and mothers.
Today, one in three American children lives separate from their biological father. These children are more at risk for every social problem faced by youth – and they remain at risk throughout their lives.
If you knew that there was one thing you could do that would reduce school dropouts, drug use among youth, teen pregnancy, crimes and violent acts, jail or prison time, depression and suicides, wouldn’t you do it as quickly and exuberantly as possible?! Research documents that father absence is a factor in 60 to 95 percent of these negative outcomes. If you knew that when fathers are positively involved with children, infants experience better attachments, children develop stronger language and social skills, enjoy school more, get higher grades, participate in more extracurricular activities, are less likely to repeat a grade, while experiencing fewer behavioral problems and delaying sexual activity, wouldn’t that encourage you further? And if you knew that when fathers are positively engaged with their children, the fathers are also enriched by broadened perspectives on issues, situations, and possibilities.
Wouldn’t that be the icing on the cake?
Neither daddying nor mommying takes place in a vacuum. There are a variety of societal and cultural habits, policies, and behaviors that can encourage and/or discourage vibrant father and mother involvement. It behooves us to examine these with an eye toward eliminating those that discourage and supporting those that encourage such involvement.
We have done much in the last six decades to chip away at the glass ceiling that still too many women experience in the workplace – International Women’s Day (and everyday) is a good time to redouble our efforts. It also may be an appropriate time to make a concerted effort to chip away at the glass ceiling that way too many dads experience at home. DADvocacy is a good way to begin that chipping; it’s ultimately for kids, parents and families…it’s not against anybody.
After all, dads matter to kids, kids matter to dads, and families and communities are better off when fathers and children are positively engaged in each other’s lives. Our children deserve it, our society needs it.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, a “bonus” son, five grandchildren, and three “bonus” grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.