Men On A Mission
Tony Sharp provides an update on the Who Let The Dads Out? Initiative.
The battles are still being fought, snipers are still taking shots on the fringes, but surely the war is effectively over. In 21st-century Britain, men now know that it’s good to be seen caring for their infant child, that sporting a papoose in the style of Daniel Craig is as OK as emerging, bronzed and buff, from an azure sea.
Of course, die-hards remain, along with the odd self-publicist, who will always hark back to more gender-specific roles. But our world is changing, and fathers and father figures could change with it, to navigate the confusing landscape of how to parent a child and how to stay together as family. It can be scary, but it can be an exciting roller coaster of a ride too.
The Who Let The Dads Out? movement is part of this changing landscape, and is led by Mark Chester and myself, but with the support of many volunteers and partners. We are ‘men on a mission’, working as a catalyst for change, but also adapting our own vision, attitudes and ways of working. In this article I’ll explain what Who Let The Dads Out? is, how it all began and where it is now heading.
The story starts 15 years ago in Hoole, a small suburb of the city of Chester in north-west England. And it starts with a church responding to a perceived need in the local community it serves, like so many other acts of human kindness. In this case, mothers at the parent and toddler group were concerned by the lack of engagement by their partners in the parenting of their newborn and infant children. This was threatening to break families apart right at that time when they are at their most vulnerable.1
The response was to create a time and place where fathers (and father figures) could come, meet other men, and experience spending a bit of quality time with their children. And amazingly they came: some 20 dads plus assorted infants on that first occasion in March 2003. Many had no idea why they were there, just that their partners told them they were going and dutifully they came. And the experiment continued, moving from a one-off to a monthly Saturday morning session, replete with strong filter coffee and bacon butties (and, of course, copies of Sorted) to sustain the men as they heroically bore their childcare responsibilities for a couple of hours.
What could two hours a month really expect to achieve? One possible answer may be found in some verses within the Bible. The prophet Malachi (see Malachi 4:6) talks of “[turning] the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (ESV). Read back in the book of Malachi and it becomes clear that this action is God’s approach to addressing problems of family break-ups. Fast forward 400 years and the angel Gabriel appears to foretell the birth of John the Baptist, declaring that he too will ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children … to make ready for the Lord a people prepared’ (Luke 1:17, ESV). If such a gathering of fathers and father figures strengthens the bond between them and their children, then maybe if can also strengthen families, and perhaps create opportunities for faith to be passed down through the generations?
But rather than solely rely on one interpretation of a few words written more than 2,000 years ago, let’s test this further against the latest research. Research such as that reported by The Guardian newspaper in September, highlighting that fathers who took sole charge of their babies for periods before they turned one were as much as 40 per cent less likely to subsequently break up with their partners.2
In a nutshell, Who Let The Dads Out? hopes to turn the hearts of fathers and children to one another so as to strengthen families.
But what started as one church’s project with a catchy title has grown into an initiative to encourage others to consider what it might look like to reach out to fathers in their communities; to be intentional and specific. While our aim is to support families by supporting fathers specifically, the realisation of this aim is achieved by inspiring and equipping church leaders, workers and volunteers to think about the opportunities, the benefits and the social need into which support can be offered. And let’s be clear, a Saturday morning group for fathers, father figures and infant children is just one way that organisations might respond.
How successful are we being in our mission? That’s such a good question, and one that is not easily answered. But to give it a go, let me describe three ways in which we might measure success.
1.Diversity of ideas – as we aspire to share best practice, here are some examples we can highlight:
The name that churches give their mission is itself a testament to the diversity of ideas – I imagine you can guess which of the home nations lays claim to ‘Boys, Bairns and Blether’, or the preferred viewing of the guys who set up ‘Men Behaving Dadly’.
The number of permutations of age range for the children that groups seek to accommodate is truly staggering and reflects a desire to support fathers through all stages of their parenting journey.
As one would hope, churches are hugely compassionate, and this is reflected in how they respond to the diverse needs of families in the communities they serve. There are groups specifically designed to support fathers caring for children with special needs, groups paying special attention to supporting single dads, and our experience is that all groups are welcoming to families of any faith or none.
The depth of engagement with families often extends beyond the initial contact established with fathers through a monthly group, and might include social events, parenting programmes, sporting endeavours, discussion groups, fundraising events and one-to-one mentoring/support.
2. What do the numbers tell us – how many families are impacted?
We currently have over 270 registered groups in the UK across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, plus overseas church groups registered in New Zealand, Australia, USA, South Africa, Denmark and Ireland.
Around 30 volunteers represent Who Let The Dads Out? in different regions of the UK.
Over 9,000 dads, father figures and children get involved every month.
100,000 bacon or breakfast butties are consumed every year at Who Let The Dads Out? Groups.
Around 50 per cent of dads report that they have a better relationship with their children through attending a group, and feel better supported to be a dad or father figure as a result.
Thousands of copies of the Who Let The Dads Out Soul Man? resource have been distributed to military chaplains and are being used with the serving personnel in our armed forces.
- Tales to tell – and here are some of the stories behind the numbers, in people’s own words
“In August my wife and I separated. She moved out of London with my son, a two-hour drive away, making it impossible to take him to the places we used to visit together. After a number of visits to the zoo and other outings, I was aware that we hadn’t had enough ‘normal’ time together, just playing trains and hanging out. I started to take him to different Who Let The Dads Out? groups each time I had a Saturday with him and they gave us that space I was looking for. Since November I have had him every other weekend. We visit a group for a morning together before driving home during his nap. Each group we’ve visited has given us a warm welcome. These groups have made a big difference to our time together.”
“I love the fact that family is given a lot of emphasis in Christian life. As well as the church family, which provides great love and support, I’ve tried to focus on changes I can make to my family at home. I used to think I was very patient and unselfish but I’ve realised that I was sometimes being selfish with my time. Therefore, I’ve made sure I put my family before me wherever possible and give my boys especially as much time and focus I can. This has led to those relationships becoming even closer and more rewarding for all of us. I would like to end by giving praise to Who Let The Dads Out?. It was this that got me into a church and started me on the path to faith.”
“It is the volunteers that make Who Let The Dads Out? such a special, safe and rewarding place to come. I have made good friends here and although I am not a regular church attendee on Sunday, this church and Who Let The Dads Out? are very much at the heart of us as a family – for family, community and friendship.”
“We baptised our first Who Let The Dads Out? dad on Sunday, it was brilliant. If you run a group, be encouraged, God is at work in the hearts of men.”
As our society encourages fathers to be fully involved in the lives of their children from day one, and increasingly provides the specific and targeted support that fathers (and likewise mothers) need, then are we approaching the completion of our particular mission? This is a question we routinely ask ourselves.
Our current view is “not yet”. We must conclude that it’s still a small fraction of the UK Church (let alone worldwide) that is able to implement or support a ministry to fathers. It’s in this context that Who Let The Dads Out? has recently been incorporated into Care for the Family. Care for the Family’s aim is to promote strong family relationships and to help those who face family difficulties, and is motivated by Christian compassion, with resources and support available to everyone, of any faith or none. Hopefully the synergy between us is self-evident.
Within Care for the Family we expect that the core elements that we offer will continue to be developed, and that our reach will be extended. For example, we are excited that we can further increase our involvement with the Playtime network which supports parent and toddler groups throughout the UK. We hear many stories of how our directory helps new families to find a group close to them that dads and father figures can connect into, and also of it helping families to settle into a new area after a move. We will continue to share the ideas, resources, stories and best practice that we gather from our groups and partner organisations. And we are looking to expand our volunteer team who are committed to supporting those local to them.
- One in three couples split up within three years of their first child being born, according to a research study by parenting website Netmums and reported by The Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2012.
- Guardian article reporting on Does Fathers’ Involvement in Childcare and Housework Affect Couples’ Relationship Stability? Helen Norman, Mark Elliot, Colette Fagan, University of Manchester, published in Social Science Quarterly, 2018.