If men are from Mars and women from Venus in their relationships, then dads are from Pluto and moms are from Saturn when it comes to school involvement.
We’re different, it’s true; recognizing and reacting to those differences is the key to getting more dads actively involved with your PTO or PTA. If you’re simply writing “Dads welcome” on meeting announcements, that’s not going to do the trick. (Harsh truth: Few folks love typical PTO meetings, but dads really, really dislike them.)
Let me tackle a few complaints in advance. Yes, this article will be filled with generalizations, and I know there are exceptions to nearly every one. In fact, as president of the HSA at my kids’ school, I’m an exception myself. And yes, we dads should be more evolved than we are. That’s a topic for a different magazine. If these opinions offend, I apologize. But I still think they can help you build your dad involvement.
My first bit of advice if you really want to attract dads is to use any name besides “PTO” or “PTA.” The group can still be technically part of your PTO, but make the name completely separate. Right or wrong, “PTO” and the like have become equated with “Moms Club,” and that’s a killer when it comes to getting dads on board.
Dads don’t attend wedding showers, but we sometimes go to engagement parties. If we do attend a shower, we have to tell our buddies we hated it. Somewhere in our shallow souls, these things matter. So call this new committee the Dads Club or—as one nonprofit suggests—the DOGS (Dads of Great Students) or the Men’s League. Just make sure it sounds like a group especially for fathers. And then let the dads shape that committee as they like. The first change you’ll see is much shorter meetings, often dictated by the time of a big game. You’ll probably also see a lot less of the niceties and small talk that are often essential to good PTO meetings but do add to their length.
My second bit of advice: Especially at the beginning, give the guys a very specific project with a very specific end goal. Play up to our need to feel like conquering heroes. Build that shed. Raise $5,000 for the new science lab. These are the kinds of thing we can get competitive about now that our dreams of NFL stardom have come crashing down. Soft goals like “Let’s build involvement and make a great community at our school” aren’t really the right approach for engaging dads.
Once you’ve set the hook with some of these short-term approaches, the real key for long-term success is to change your overall group and your school to make involvement cool for all. Don’t abandon the new name or stop giving dads these project-based goals, but do identify and recruit—from among the many fathers who will pitch in—a few who really seem to be into this new involvement thing and get them connected with the broader PTO, too.
You want to build bridges between your group, dads, and your school. If attending PTO meetings regularly is the only way to be a big part of your PTO and dads really dislike your meetings, then you have a dad problem. And the dads aren’t going to be the ones to change. They aren’t going to suddenly like meetings because they built a shed. How can your group change (subtly) to effectively involve all types? (This is good advice for reaching out to other unique groups, too, such as parents new to the school and immigrant families.)
Just as getting more parents to attend spaghetti suppers is the first step to eventually having more parents willing to cook at those spaghetti suppers, getting more dads helping in small ways is the first step to getting more of them into leadership positions with your PTO.
It will happen gradually, but it starts with recognizing that the same habits that work for attracting moms often turn away dads. We know we should be more secure and patient and accommodating, but the kids might be grown before we get around to evolving there. Rather than waiting for us to come out of our caves, you might want to see whether we can do some good work while still grunting and scratching. We actually can; we’ve had lots of practice at that particular brand of multitasking.