Why men’s caregiving matters for young children: lessons from the MenCare campaign

By Gary Barker
Read the full article in Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Early Childhood Matters.

A Vietnamese man smiles while holding his young daughter in his arms.

After years of focusing overwhelmingly on the mother–child dyad, child development as a field has ‘discovered’ fathers. Gary Barker explains how the MenCare campaign is leading research into why and how to engage fathers, and advocating for changes in public policy and practice in the early childhood arena.

What role do fathers play in child development? Do children need them? Do fathers play a unique role in generating the conditions children need to grow and thrive? In recent years a number of major and longitudinal studies have been conducted on the role of fathers, and they reached the overwhelming conclusion that fathers matter greatly for children, and that children matter greatly for fathers.

Specifically, research affirms that:

  1. fathers matter for child development in more ways than we have historically considered, meaning they matter for diverse areas of a child’s life, from emotional to intellectual;
  2. fathers matter over the life cycle of the child and adolescent, and not just in the early years of life;
  3. fathers matter differently for boys and girls in some settings;
  4. fathers hold an important caregiving and developmental role, both directly for their children and indirectly as part of a caregiving ‘team’;
  5. men themselves change in diverse ways, biologically and psychologically, when they take on caregiving roles.

In short, fathers influence child development, and children influence fathers’ development and life trajectory.

In spite of this spurt in research, the early child development field has been slow to turn these findings into programmes and policies, with some notable exceptions. A few important pioneer parent training programmes began to reach out to fathers, and a few countries – notably in Scandinavia – began to take fathers seriously in parental leave policies. But fathers were still usually an afterthought in the field of early child development.

Inspired by conclusions from a 2005 global summit on fatherhood, organised by the Fatherhood Institute and supported by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Equimundo and partner organisations launched the MenCare campaign in 2011. Its goal was to create a global advocacy platform and provide a resource base of evidence-based programming – programming that can and should be taken to scale.

Indeed, rather than a one-off intervention or pilot impact evaluation, the campaign set off with the goal of engaging the public sector. A cornerstone of the campaign has been carrying out targeted advocacy with ministries of health, ministries of education and ministries of child development on the need to involve fathers, and providing ready-to-implement programme tools to do so. These tools are collected in Program P (‘P’ for paternidade, paternidad and paternité), now used in more than ten countries and officially adopted by ministries of health or governments in Indonesia, Rwanda, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere. The programme includes activities and recommendations for training public sector staff who interact with families, recommendations for targeted policy advocacy, and parent and father training activities drawn from the ‘best of’ evidence-based parent training.

Continue reading in Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Early Childhood Matters (also available in Spanish).