photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Helping Young Fathers "Man Up"

As families are busy planning annual Father’s Day barbecues and selecting yet another tie or tool for Dad, there is one group of fathers for whom this holiday is anything but a picnic–teenage boys who are now fathers of an infant or young child.

Ccusa father baby table_cropped

A new report by Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development, estimates that as many as 900,000 young men between the ages of 12 and 16 in 1996 became fathers before their 20th birthday.  Two-thirds of them fathered their first child when they were 18 or 19 years old. Most of the mothers were also 19 or younger.  Needless to say, few are equipped with parenting skills when their child is born. What are the prospects of these ‘children of children’?

Research compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services shows that when both parents are actively and positively engaged in their children’s lives, children are more likely to lead healthy, productive lives.

Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior compared to children who have uninvolved fathers.  Committed and responsible fathering during infancy and early childhood contributes to emotional security, curiosity, and math and verbal skills.

However, as the Justice Department observes, many of these teens have a history of deviant behavior that may involve membership in gangs, drug abuse, petty crimes or worse, and time served in prison.  Most have no employable skills.  But fathering a child as a teenager has even more far-reaching consequences for the father, the child, and society.

Most family support programs have been designed to assist single and teenage mothers, though, out of a long-held belief that the mother-child bond was of primary importance.  But recognizing the unique influence a father can have on his children’s lives, Catholic Charities agencies and other child welfare organizations have begun “fatherhood programs” to strengthen paternal involvement in their child’s life.

Here’s an example. In Brooklyn, a 20-year-old father–let’s call him Thomas–was in a relationship with the mother of his child when she gave birth. But shortly afterwards, the parents had an explosive blow-up and split. Brooklyn Family Services issued an order of protection that prohibited Thomas from seeing his son. To have any hope of regaining parental privileges, he was ordered him to attend parenting and anger management classes and soon entered Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens’ “Man Up” program.

Officially called the Man Up- Fatherhood Program, participating fathers aged 16-24 learn to reconnect and strengthen their bond with their children.  By attending a series of courses to develop their parenting skills, they learn to focus on the wellbeing of their child, gain the skills needed to support their families financially, and serve as a “role model” in their children’s lives.

In addition to anger management classes, Thomas, an unemployed high school graduate, receives one-on-one job search coaching. He was taught about the importance of resumes and worked with one of the staff to prepare his. He also learned how to dress to appear more professional and practiced interviewing techniques. He’s now looking for a job and has regained limited visitation rights to spend time and play with his child. As difficult as it is for someone of his age, he is learning to be less focused on his own needs. Now the father of a young child, he’s learning that it’s “all about your son.”

Being a committed parent, a father, is a demanding role under the best circumstances.  Young fathers like Thomas face an even more challenging road ahead of them. This is my hope: that with the support of their families, communities, friends, teachers and mentors, these young fathers will one day be the center of their own Father’s Day rituals, perhaps even receiving an ugly tie, lovingly given.

What are your ideas for strengthening the father-child bond? Post them in the Comments section below or join the conversation on our Facebook page.