Increasing fathers’ engagement in parenting programs

Motivational orientation critical component

Traditionally, programs that aim to change parenting behaviors and prevent child maltreatment have focused on mothers — viewed as nurturers and caregivers — at the expense of fathers.


Historical strategies to lift single mothers out of poverty by having fathers pay child support also have led to uncertainty about underlying motivations to engage fathers in family-focused services.

“There is a certain mistrust surrounding services that target fathers, due to the underlying belief that recruitment is really all about the father paying child support,” says Patricia L. Kohl, PhD, associate professor of social work at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

To increase fathers’ participation in parenting programs, as well as improve father-child interactions, Kohl has collaborated with the Fathers’ Support Center of St. Louis to develop “Engaging Fathers in Positive Parenting,” a program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This program is designed to be used in conjunction with the evidence-based parenting intervention, Triple P — Positive Parenting Program. Triple P was developed more than 30 years ago by Matthew R. Sanders, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at The University of Queensland, Australia.

“We didn’t have to adapt or change the original intervention,” Kohl says. “We added pieces to enhance it. Those enhancements included a motivational orientation strategy and the development of a social support network among the fathers who participated in the parenting program.”

The motivational orientation and social support networking incorporate a strength-based approach, successfully altering the negative perceptions of parenting programs that the fathers had, increasing the overall engagement of fathers in the program.

“The strength-based approach allowed us to build on the strengths of fathers that focus on positive achievements instead of negative past outcomes, with an end goal to help their children reach their full developmental potential,” Kohl says.

“What we learned about recruitment, retention and engagement can be translated to other family interventions,” Kohl says. “It reveals that we can get fathers involved in other children services. In fact, many want to be involved.”

A father’s engagement in a variety of children services contributes to the level of consistency in a father-child relationship, and ultimately can result in better outcomes for children, whether the father is living in the same home or elsewhere.

These efforts to engage fathers in services build upon Kohl’s previous research to understand how parental characteristics influence parenting behaviors and child outcomes.