Involving dads in social work practice

Karen Bateson explains the importance of engaging dads in social work practice and shares tips on how to improve the way we work with them

Adult holding a babyLast year, the Dad Network ran a #dadsforchange campaign highlighting the frustration that many dads face in not being able to access baby changing facilities in many of the UK’s top high street restaurant chains and retailers. The campaign was often met with shock, not about this gender discrimination against men but about the fact that dads actually want to change nappies.

Yes, of course dads want to change their children’s nappies and that’s not all they want to do. They also want to take their children to baby and toddler groups, be present at antenatal appointments, do the school run and generally be respected for their important role in their children’s and families’ lives.

But the Dad Network’s campaign showed how easily dads can still become side-lined. In a social work context we need to make sure that we aren’t excluding them from the work we’re doing with families.

In this blog, I will be discussing the importance of working with dads and sharing some simple ways to ensure they are included in practice whenever possible.

The benefits of working more closely with dads 

For busy health and social care professionals, working with dads can sometimes seem like a nice luxury at best or a demand too far at worst. This is despite increasing evidence that working with dads can improve outcomes for families in both the short and long term and ultimately reduce the amount of support families need from services.

Research shows that having an engaged and caring dad is great for kids and great for mums too. Having an interested and loving father around is related to children having better social skills, educational outcomes and mental health (Allen and Daly, 2007).

Women are more likely to continue breastfeeding, stop smoking and are less likely to experience mental health problems where their partner is engaged and supportive (Fatherhood Institute, 2014).

Many fathers want to be included and involved in all aspects of their children’s life including appointments with professionals. For example, they may be aware they lack information about pregnancy, babies and want help to develop their parenting skills.

Overcoming the barriers to meaningful engagement with fathers may require a policy change not least in terms of staffing capacity.

As health and social care professionals, how do we work more closely with dads?

Here's a reminder of some of the simple ways we can improve our practice with dads every day:

1. Openly invite dads into the work

Research published in 2015 showed that young fathers who had themselves been on the edges of education, society and the criminal justice system found becoming a dad a moment of deep personal reflection and transition (Ferguson and Gates, 2015).

Many of these dads spoke of the desire to provide for their child and make their child proud of them. They admitted to feeling unprepared for fatherhood and really valued having professional support in their role as a father, particularly early on.

So when you arrange your work with families make sure you know dad’s name and how to contact him, explicitly invite him to the work, seek him out, ask what he needs and give him an equal space. 

2. Ask about dad

If dad is present at your contact with the family include him equally in the conversation. If he’s absent, ask about him anyway.

Everyone has a mental space for their father, even young children. If dad is absent or has died the family’s feelings about him could still be highly relevant to your work.

3. Write to dad

Make sure your written materials and letters to families reflect your encouragement and respect for dad’s equal role in his children’s lives.

In correspondence a simple phrase such as “you are all invited to…” can increase the number of dads who attend appointments.

4. Leave your contact details specifically for dad

He may not be around when you’re seeing a child or mum but he’s still a really important part of the child’s world and has a big impact on a child’s wellbeing and happiness. So let him know you’re contactable.

5. Challenge everyday examples of things being all about mums

Be inclusive of all parents including fathers and same sex parents:

  • Have positive imagery of fathers in your venues.
  • Don’t call your playgroup “Mums and Tots”.
  • Use evaluation questionnaires for dads as well as mums.

6. Reflect on your own experience of family

Your own experiences of fathers and men may have influenced the way you relate to fathers in your work.

Keep preconceived ideas about risk in perspective and gender stereotypes in check. Use supervision and discussions with trusted team colleagues to reflect on your practice.

Further support

When working with families, always keep in mind the large contribution fathers can make to positive child outcomes. The Fatherhood Institute offers a range of evidence updates and resources. Our final evaluation of our All Babies Count: The Dad Project offers lots of insights and tips for working with fathers during pregnancy and their baby’s first year. 

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  1. Allen, S. and Daly, K (2007) The effects of father involvement: an updated research summary of the evidence (PDF). Guelph: Father Involvement Research Alliance (FIRA).

  2. Fatherhood Institute (2014) FI Research Summary: Supportive fathers, healthy mothers (PDF) [Marlborough]: Fatherhood institute.