Engaging Men as Fathers: Why Do I Always Have to Be the Bad Guy?

An increasing number of batterer intervention programs engage men in a change process by motivating them as fathers. While the research on the efficacy of this motivational approach is not yet robust, anecdotally, programs have reported success with this tactic. According to many program facilitators, when men are challenged about their beliefs regarding gender roles or parenting styles by facilitators and other participants in the group, it can be a galvanizing experience. Groups with a focus on fathering discuss topics such as: men's own experiences with their fathers as children; the impact of violence and abuse on mothers and children and the parent-child relationship; and the role of fathers as nurturers and care-givers.2 As might be expected, these topics often lead to engaged, emotional and passionate conversations from men.

One such program, Advocates for Family Peace, in Virginia, Minnesota, runs a men's nonviolence program. The facilitators of the program often hear men complain that their children run all over their mothers. Men state that because of this, they are compelled to take on the role of disciplinarian, and the effect is that they end up looking like the bad guy.

What follows is an example of a typical dialogue between a facilitator and group participant, and demonstrates how the facilitator challenged the men to re-think that role. This type of conversation has since evolved into a formal exercise around fathering, with very positive results.

Facilitator: "So when you step in with your kids, how do you get them in line?"

Participant: "I have to come down on them hard. I might yell at them and maybe give them a whack if I have to."

Facilitator: "So what happens when Mom tells them to put the toys away?"

Participant: "The kids look at me to see what I am going to do!"

Facilitator: "To me it sounds like your kids have learned that the only times they have to stop doing something or listen is when they think they might get physically punished or threatened by you. When they learn to only respond to you, you're taking Mom's ability to parent away from her. She doesn't have that power to overwhelm them like you do. And she might not want that to be the way kids learn to listen and follow instructions. So, then, when you point an accusing finger at her, and tell her she doesn't know how to parent, it's not really fair, because you are part of the problem. What I want you to do this week is pay attention to her parenting. Don't intervene, just watch how she handles things when you don't step in."

Observing their partners' parenting styles, without intervening, is now a formal assignment in the men's program at Advocates for Family Peace. Comments from men after a week or two of observing their partners' parenting are surprising:

"If you sit back and watch, her and me, we're really on the same page. We want the same things."

"She's really a good parent. The kids do what she says, and not because they're scared. They might not do it straight away but they eventually do what she says. And they don't hate me."

"She's not mad at me either. Everyone's happier and I'm not the one always telling them off. It takes longer, but we're a happier family."

"I notice the kids are starting to just hang out with me. They never used to do that. They used to be scared of me."

Facilitators reported that the initial discussion, assignment, and follow-up discussion is one of the most talked about and engaging topics in their class. It fits into an examination of beliefs about partnership, parenting and how the desire to improve relationships with children can be powerfully motivating.