For more participation from dads, meet them on their level.

by Tim Sullivan


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.


# Robert Pedersen 2008-10-04 11:59
You are correct. Dads are different, especially now more than ever. Dads are increasingly breaking stereotypes and are becoming more involved with their children's lives and education. Excellent article.
# Kia from Pennsylvania 2008-10-07 18:25
We had our first PTO Meeting yesterday and I am very happy to say that we did have a father. He was soo full of information and ideas and I must admit it was quite refreshing to have a male perspective. I think he will be the leader of the pack. because once other members had seen him they said they were going to tell their husbands to come as well.
# Debra A. Ritz 2008-10-07 19:12
I am the President of our local Elementary School PTA and I find it amazing that we (mothers and female members of our PTA) have to make special arrangements to get the Dads involved. I can understand that years ago fathers may not have had time since they were the primary, possibly the only, breadwinner but in today's day and age where most mothers have to work outside of the home as well, why aren't the Dad's involved on the same level as the mothers. You will see mothers at the sporting events and they don't do anything special to attract them to those types of things....Mothers are just there because our kids are involved. In any event, I am proud to say that we have a Dad on our Executive Board for the first time in our history. Hopefully other Dads will see that the PTA is not just for mothers anymore and never should have been. We are parents, whether male or female and should be involved equally with these matters that concern our children.
# Jill DeLaHunt 2008-10-07 19:56
Please do not evolve!!! We women love you just the way you are !! We recently had a playground clean up day at our school. It was the third I have attended but the first where fathers were present. At the first two the kids played on the equipment and the moms periodically yelled at them to help. At this most recent one the kids really helped out. The dads were just more effective at getting the kids involved. It is always nicer when the dads are around. Their approach is refreshing and they always get so much accomplished. ]
# Meda Arbour 2008-10-08 15:16
I'm proud to say that our Vice President is male, and at this week's meeting, he volunteered to be the designated contact person for the new Green Club at our middle school. Several of our members are male as well, and even though they don't attend meetings, we can count on them for other activities. Our Mustangs (mascot) need a few good cowboys.
# Michael 2008-12-15 16:00
I'm a dad and was president of our PTO for 3 years, and have been involved on and off the board for 7 years. Dads don't need to have special arrangements anymore and other type of person at your school. As an organization your board has a obligation to find a way to communicate and encourage involvement with all audiences (not just men vs women) but also married families, families with single parents, those with disabilities, the school staff and teachers. If you don't make an effort to make all these people part of your group (men or women), you'll find your group quickly becoming a small group, stuck in it's ways, and likely called a clique more than a parent group. Your involvement issues are bigger than just not men being involved if you are lacking involvement.

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