It’s a great time to be a father!
For most of recent history, raising children has been the primary responsibility of women. In the last 30 years a new world has opened up for men to play more significant roles in bringing up the next generation. As more fathers became involved in raising our children, men realized what mothers have always known: children are amazing! Involved fathers report higher overall satisfaction in their own lives, not to mention the myriad benefits that an involved father brings to his children.
Unfortunately, many families are not partaking in this cornucopia of benefits. According to the U.S. Census of 2009, 45 percent of African American children aged 6 to 11 grow up in single-parent homes predominately led by mothers. The rate is 17 percent in Latino families, 14 percent for white families, and 7 percent for Asian families. Those numbers represent pain and shame for millions of boys and girls, men and women. I’ve sat with emotionally armored urban men—adults with their own families—who cried hard and for a long time when given some quiet time to reflect on the loss of their own fathers.
In order to lower incidences of father absence, to decrease the pain in homes across the country, to help fathers stay connected with their families—and aware of the joy and the pain that being a parent entails—in order to take on these and other family-building initiatives, we must change the way we support men as parents. We must create relaxed, enjoyable educational environments that encourage men to become and remain fathers and dads, especially in communities where father absence is greatest. Groups of men gathered together in a structured format with the express purpose of supporting one another to become more involved, loving fathers is an idea whose time has come. I wrote the new book Facilitating Fathers’ Groups: 22 Keys to Group Mastery (P&S Press, Boston 2014) to explain how—with the help of a high-quality fathering curriculum—to take that notion from idea to reality. (The one I use most often is Mark Perlman’s The Nurturing Father’s Program).
Considerable social science research demonstrates how fathers can help improve outcomes for children when they are involved responsibly and compassionately with their family. Increases in self-esteem, better behavior, improved academics, participation in athletics and, of course, income, have all been attributed to having a father present. There’s less science involved in the how of getting a dad to that place where being responsible and compassionate is the norm. In my book, I cite examples of men who modified their behavior both because of their own sense of a higher purpose, as well as at the urging of their coparent and children.
I recall the mom who encouraged her husband to attend one of the 13-session programs I facilitate. After the graduation ceremony she came up to me and said, “I don’t know what you did, but he changed. He spends more time with the kids. He helps me around the house more. He’s just easier to be around. Thank you.”
The amazing thing about our private conversation is I knew from sitting in the group with her husband and eight other men that doing these additional things around the house was not, in his view, separate from his self-interest. He wanted to do the extra tasks because he wanted to be a good father and husband. It was simply that when he and his wife started arguing about the family, tensions got high, positions became rigid, and egos got involved. Having a group of men around him—other fathers—he could discuss the same issues without the intense charge when he and his wife were arguing. A fathers’ group allowed him to see the dynamic from a higher perspective.
When I first started facilitating groups for fathers in 1999, many people in human services told me flat out: men won’t come to these groups. Support groups focused on parenting education had been growing in popularity for a couple of decades, but “parenting” really meant support groups focused on mothering education. I had worked with fathers one-to-one for years to become more engaged as a parent and had done some of my own personal growth work in groups, so I knew men would enjoy this kind of experience if offered to them in a welcoming manner.
Over the past decade and a half what I’ve been blessed to see for myself (along with scores of other facilitators), is that 10 to 15 men at a time will voluntarily agree to start a group, and only two or three drop out. I’m convinced that most men who are fathers, or father figures, will participate in a well-run group when given the opportunity. And the changes that then take place in that father’s family are profound.
I wrote this book to both deepen and elevate the discussion about facilitating groups for men. With the large number of absent fathers, community violence, family drama, substance use, and other symptoms of personal pain in men, I am enthusiastic about spreading a message that allows men to alleviate their pain and achieve a level of healing in a setting that’s more comfortable for most men than individual therapy. Individual psychotherapy for men, especially for men of color, is not usually high on our priority list. However, working in a group with other men takes away some of the stigma of “asking for help” or admitting “something is wrong with me” and universalizes the need for human beings, female or male, to connect with one another in a supportive environment.
When I realized I wanted to capture the magic and miracles of a well-run fathers’ group in a book to inspire and guide people to duplicate the practice on their own, I struggled with how to format it. There were so many layers and angles that I would have to cover, and the thought of addressing the process in straight linear fashion seemed not only daunting, but somehow inaccurate. Then one day after I finished meditating the thought hit me: use the 22 Major Arcana from the Tarot Deck! As a young man I had used the 78 cards of the Tarot as a personal discovery tool and found them uncannily accurate in terms of understanding situations and phenomena that were happening in my life. Eventually, my intuition grew strong enough that I had a sense of what the Tarot cards would tell me before I used them, and thus my motivation to use the cards waned.
I very rarely pulled out either of the decks I still owned, but it was immediately obvious to me that the 22 characters in the primary Tarot story would be perfect to hang my exploration of group dynamics on (there are another 56 characters who play a supporting role for the 78 cards overall). The 22 characters represent archetypes that are largely universal, but I modernized some and shaped them to better reflect the needs of a group facilitator. Those 22 chapters became scaffolding that I could reasonably build my book around.
It is my hope this book will make it easier to create spaces that honor the masculine in family life. By encouraging men to be more involved, to be nurturing fathers, we can build stronger families and communities. As I wrote at the beginning, it’s a great time to be a father and it’s a great time for there to be more facilitators of fathering groups. Facilitating Fathers’ Groups: 22 Keys to Group Mastery will hopefully open the door for more men to participate in one of the best experiences on the planet: fathering.
Haji Shearer is director of the Fatherhood Initiative at The Children’s Trust in Boston, where he leads campaigns to increase father involvement. A member of the national advisory board of Voice Male, his writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, among other places. Facilitating Fathers’ Groups is his first book.