Fathers want to be involved, but they aren't necessarily going to respond to traditional parent group roles. A dads' club can give them a low-pressure way to take the first steps.

by Joy Underhill


When psychologist Jeff Jones went to his child’s school to volunteer in the mid-1990s, he looked around during meetings and saw a lot of similar faces—female faces. Where are the dads? he asked himself. And how come they aren’t more involved?

Feeling out of place as the only man in the room and seeking answers to those questions, he decided to do something to help other dads be more comfortable with school involvement. So Jones took matters in hand and started a dads’ club. The men came in droves, and what began as an experiment in Solana Beach, Calif., has since spread to more than 20 schools regionally and 2,000 volunteers.

Back to the Beginning

Despite the immediate interest by dads in general, it wasn’t until a few years later that the idea got a boost. Fred Carson, the current project coordinator for an organization called the Dads’ Club in the San Diego area, met Jones for the first time in 2000 and immediately saw the potential benefits of expanding the concept.

“I was impressed with Jeff’s ability to draw dads to school and wanted to know how we could duplicate this in low-performing schools,” Carson recalls. “We received a grant to target 28 largely Hispanic schools and began dads’ clubs in four of them.”

Carson worked with Melissa Whipple, the parent academic liaison coordinator for the San Diego Unified School District. (PALs are certified teachers who work with families to support greater parent involvement in the city’s schools.) Whipple had heard Jones speak at a workshop for starting dads’ clubs. “The first meeting was all women,” she says, “but that didn’t discourage us. Talking to moms was the first step toward communicating how important male involvement is in demonstrating a commitment to academics.” This is particularly true in underserved schools where few, if any, male role models interact with children.

The dads’ clubs were a hit from the start. Many men at the targeted schools felt they had little to offer because they weren’t well-educated themselves. Additionally, in some cultures school involvement isn’t encouraged.

“We emphasized that men have something unique to share and that the very act of showing up supports educational efforts,” Carson says. “We also make sure to welcome any male role models who are involved with a child, such as uncles, older brothers, grandfathers, coaches, and stepfathers.”

Dads Make a Difference

With so many volunteer opportunities at schools, it may seem pointless to create a separate organization specifically for men. In some cases, moms might even feel resentful and ask why they can’t form a similar club for themselves. But having a distinct dads’ group provides valuable benefits.

“It has to do with one-on-one time with children,” Carson explains. “Fathers who come to read to the kids, do playground duty, that sort of thing, show the child that dads value their education.”

According to research by the U.S. Department of Education, students with involved dads also have higher rates of academic success, fewer problems with truancy, suspensions, and expulsions, increased self-esteem and self-confidence, and better child-father relationships.

Dads’ clubs are meant to complement parent groups, not compete with them. Creating a dads’ club isn’t a sign that moms aren’t pulling their own weight; instead, it’s an opportunity for fathers to have focused time with their children, something they may not be able to do that often in everyday life. And in many ways, developing a committed network of involved fathers is its own reward: Being involved with a child’s academic life can act as a springboard to more involvement in parenting overall.

Plans of Action

In the San Diego school district, dads’ club activities are usually held once a month, before or after work. “We alternate a fun event with a scholastic one, with a planning meeting in between,” says Gina Montijo, parent academic liaison at Edison Elementary in San Diego.

One way these groups kick off a planning meeting is to discuss a statistic about the value of men in a child’s academic life. “What we have found is that the dads in dads’ clubs become more involved in other ways as well,” Montijo notes. “At our ‘Family Fridays,’ we devote one hour at the start of the day for reading with a parent. In the beginning, it was all moms, but now about a third of the participants are dads.”

Dads’ club events in the San Diego area aren’t so different from those of a typical parent group. Some of the most successful of them include:

  • Reading With Dad: An hour of father-child reading can be a special time. Serve punch and cookies, cozy up with a good book, and raffle off a prize for fun. Teach reading strategies and invite men to sign up for future dads’ club events.
  • Father-Daughter Dance: Hire a DJ and provide a meal. Ask moms to help with food setup and have upper-grade boys wait on fathers and daughters. Try to line up a local photographer to create keepsakes.
  • Family Health Forum: Dads’ clubs can sponsor information-sharing and discussions about health issues of interest to the school population in a forum open to everyone. The San Diego-area clubs focus on health issues for Latinos; sessions are held in Spanish.
  • Family Communication Classes: Held for men and women, they cover common parenting issues and how to deal with them. “We hired a family psychologist to teach the class and train the school staff,” Carson says. One popular topic addressed disagreements about discipline.
  • Art, Science, Writing, or Math With Dad: Although these events are similar to activities held by parent groups, in this case the events focus solely on fathers and children. “Dads like to be hands-on,” Carson notes, “and we encourage that at these events.”
  • Mother’s Day Breakfast: Dads sponsor this event to treat Mom on her special day and give her a morning off from cooking. Schedule a father-child craft night in advance to create something from the heart.

Other events have been planned around community service projects, antiviolence programs, family board games, author visits, or discussions with financial experts about college funding.

“What’s surprising is how dads begin to open up about their own childhoods as they become more involved with a son or daughter,” Montijo says. “Our dads’ club held an arts-and-crafts night with a kite-building activity. We found that the dads ignored our plans and began building kites as they had done when they were kids. It was wonderful to see the room filled with children—of all ages.”

Steps for Starting a Dads’ Club

Meet with the principal to explain the dads’ club concept and define your school’s needs and projects.

Invite community leaders and families to an informational meeting to form a dads’ club.

Get Together
Hold a meeting. To make it run smoothly:

  • Assign a note-taker.
  • Discuss the idea and purpose of a dads’ club.
  • Identify interests and obtain commitments.
  • Pass out sign-up and contact information sheets.
  • Provide take-home articles and brochures about parent involvement and your group.
  • Schedule the next meeting.

Meet Regularly
Hold monthly planning meetings for dads’ club events. A breakfast meeting works well for many working fathers.

Identify potential dads’ club leaders.

Make It a Day
Schedule an annual “dads day” where you present the dads’ club concept to newcomers and ask for volunteer commitments.

Getting Past Resistance From Mom

One roadblock to forming a dads’ club might come from mothers who want to know why dads can’t just join the parent group—or why women can’t form a moms’ club. To foster a friendly environment:

  • Explain that dads’ clubs are designed to complement your work, not compete with it.
  • Make sure that your members understand that a dads’ club isn’t a sign that moms aren’t doing enough.
  • Emphasize that dads’ clubs are a way for fathers to have one-on-one time with their kids, something that may be in short supply in everyday life.
  • Plan a special Mother’s Day luncheon where fathers serve “dads’ club” sandwiches.
  • Invite moms to a dads’ club event so they can understand better how it works.
  • Stress the advantages of having both parents involved in kids’ academic lives, beginning with more self-confidence.
  • Accept help from moms in the planning stages, even if the events will be run by men.
  • Welcome moms who want to be part of the dads’ club.

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