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Redesigning family education to accommodate men and fathers

by Eberhard Schaefer, MA

January 17th 2007
last updated January 18th 2007

Two in three German men define themselves as fathers first and breadwinners second, according to a recent study. Men are keen to learn a broad range of caregiver skills and become better fathers. Still, women account for 80 percent of the participants in family education in Germany and 90 percent of the educators are women.

There are both practical and psychological reasons as to why the commitment of German men to the role of father is not translated into participation in family education: Courses are held during working hours, course materials support the perception that family education is exclusively for women , and feelings of fear, guilt and insecurity towards their role as father keep many men from participating.

Family education needs to be redesigned in order to accommodate the needs and wants of men and fathers. This revamp must include curriculum, structure and process; of even greater importance, it must also be designed to reach men and fathers in workplace settings.

This article provides a comprehensive roadmap for conducting such a redesign.

Family Education

“This father-child weekend is a great opportunity for me to spend exclusive time with my daughter.”

Tom (37, married, 1 daughter)

“This whole childrearing thing used to be women’s business. It used to be. Times have really changed –look what we fathers think and want, what we actually do with our children today. I’m so impressed seeing and meeting and sharing with other fathers.”

Ingo (40, separated, 1 son)

Quotes from 2 participants at an activity-weekend for fathers with their children held in Berlin, 2006. See (07-13-2006)

In Germany, as well as elsewhere in the EU, fathers are still a rarely-encountered species when it comes to family education opportunities. However, experience shows that if fathers are addressed and invited as proficient fathers, and if the invitation is extended by father-sensitive male professionals there is a good chance that more fathers will participate in family education, thus promoting good fatherhood.

This article features

1. an exploration of the overall picture of family/parental education for fathers.

2. a definition and analysis of obstructions to paternal integration into the current landscape of family education.

3. a presentation of experiences and practice-based suggestions on how to overcome these obstructions by developing and implementing good programmes for fathers in family-education contexts.

4. a summary of 1-3.

5. references.

1. Fathers in Family Education: Left out for 150 Years

In Central and Western Europe, Parental Education was introduced in the mid-19th century: the time of the industrial revolution; inter-regional migration; and urbanisation. (See for this section, Vogelgesang 2005) Right from these early stages, mothers were the chief targets of parental education, whereas fathers were considered breadwinners and not expected to be involved in childrearing. This stereotype has been carried through to today – although, particularly in 19th and early 20th century working-class families - mothers often had a breadwinner-role as well.

In Germany, the first Mothers’ School (Mütterschule) opened in 1917. This is considered the starting-point for institutionalised family education in Germany. Education programmes at these mothers’ schools focused on home economics, good housekeeping, hygiene, and nutrition. Topics covered also included marriage-, family- and childrearing issues.

In the 1960s, the whole family came into focus. “Mother Education” was renamed “Family Education”. Grandparents and fathers were now also invited. Parent/child-centred programmes were set up.

But in spite of this widening of the family-education concept, hardly any fathers participated in the programmes. This was partly for historical reasons and partly because the whole image of family education remained closely associated with mothers. Besides, professionals in the field were – and still are – predominantly female.

This remained the case even after family education was underpinned by federal law in the early 1990s (“§16 SGB VIII”). This paragraph legally entitles German parents to support and assistance in shouldering their childrearing-responsibilities. Mothers and fathers are considered equally responsible for childrearing and both are addressed as target groups for family education.

The family education-situation in Germany at the beginning of the 21st century is as follows: Nationwide over 80 % of participants in family education are female. 80 – 90 % of professionals in the field are female. (Data from: Kinder- Jugend- und Familienbericht 2003 der Freien Hansestadt Bremen; Schiersmann, 1998, pp. 72-73; 109-117; 121-220)

In Germany, there are three small-scale grassroots organisations working with fathers in a family education-context: (1) Fathers Centre, Berlin (a division of Mannege e.V.,; (2) Vaeter Hamburg; and (3)The Information and Counselling Centre for Men in Frankfurt.

2. Obstructions to paternal integration into the current landscape of family education


From both an internal and external gender-perspective the overall picture of family education is an anachronistic one in at least two respects:

(1) If family-education legislation describes fathers and mothers as equally responsible for childrearing, something should be done to bring fathers into the picture;

(2) Moreover, sociological and psychological research found that this would accommodate the wishes and needs of many contemporary men/fathers. One 1999 study found that more than two-thirds of German men define themselves primarily as childrearers and the accompanying figures of their children. Only secondarily do they consider themselves breadwinners (Fthenakis, 1999/2002). Leading German family researcher Wassilios E. Fthenakis called this a ”revolutionary shift in the self-definition of fathers” (2006, p. X).

The main obstacle to paternal participation in family education programmes is the perception of an all-female, woman-to-woman-oriented setting. This is due both to the actual his/herstory and perceived practice.

Case Study: Munich Protestant Family Education Centre
For several years in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Family Education Centre of the Protestant Church in Munich (Evangelische Familienbildungsstätte München) had a 50:50 male/female staff (which was unique for family education institutions in Germany). Special programmes for fathers were set up as well as the classical ”mixed”/gender-neutral settings. Within this setting a 30 % male participation-rate was achieved. When the staff had to be reduced due financial cutbacks two out of three male staff-members left the family education centre. Subsequently male participation declined to ca. 10-15% (reported by Frank Striegler, staff member, Munich Protestant Family Education Centre).

This case example is intended to illustrate the hypothesis that an increase in the number of gender/father-sensitive male staff at family education institutions would lead to an increase in the number of male participants.

Further reasons for fathers not to participate include:

Programmes tend to be held on weekdays during the day– when most fathers are at work.

Lack of information
Fathers are not informed of these opportunities as a result of the (anticipated or perceived) female-led discourse in information/media-presentation: Frequently fathers are not invited, or do not feel invited.

A leaflet published in 2005 presenting general information about family education in Berlin, Germany displays a mother-child-only photograph on the front cover.

Fear of female programme instructors
Many fathers anticipate feeling uncomfortable with female instructors: They expect to have to justify the – anticipated - “bad” performance of fathers in general. They are afraid of being considered representative of “bad” i.e. absent and work-oriented fathers.
Fear of being confronted with feelings of guilt: Many fathers carry a lot of guilt about having insufficient time for their children. They expect to be confronted with these feelings in (female-led) family education programmes.

Many fathers feel insecure in handling and/or coping with their children. They do not want to be “exposed” as unqualified dads.

(These last 3 points are problems relating to psychological transference. Source: Gonser/ Helbrecht-Jordan 1994)

3. Getting Fathers Involved: How to Overcome the Obstacles of Traditional Family Education

Target Groups
• Expectant fathers: This particular target group can be reached through antenatal services. (read more on this issue)
• Fathers with their children
• Fathers without their children
• Professionals (M/F) working in parental/family education and related fields
• Decision-makers in professional and related political areas
• The Media

Where to Reach Fathers
Family education for fathers may be performed anywhere families (should) receive support. This varies greatly from country to country due to vastly differing welfare-systems.

Possible settings for family education:

- Parental Courses
- Maternity Clinics
- Hospitals/Health Care Centres
- Antenatal Classes. See this article for more about this paramount opportunity to catch fathers-to-be.
- Childcare Facilities/Kindergartens
- Parental Counselling Centres
- Schools
- Adult Education Organisations
- Community Centres
- Labour Union Educational Centres
- At the workplace.

What Fathers Want
German studies have revealed what fathers primarily want from family education (Gonser/Helbrecht-Jordan 1994; Baisch 2003). According to this research, fathers want:

- Support in developing and maintaining a good relationship with their child or children
- Including how-tos for teaching their children well and, for small children, advice on handling babies and toddlers
- Advice on activities with children
- To meet other fathers with their children for joint activities and sharing time and everyday experiences
- Support for getting involved in family life
- Advice and clarification on balancing family life and work
- “Reflecting on the male gender-role” was not at the top of the list; nor was “heightening awareness”. This indicates that fathers do not want to be questioned along psychological/ psychotherapeutic lines.

When planning programmes for fathers these wishes should be taken into account. (Fathers’ needs and wishes may of course vary in different countries and/or socio-cultural environments.)

Approaching Fathers: How to Address and Invite Them
- Use a resource-oriented approach. What is this?
- Fathers carry a history – do not hesitate to take up traditional role-orientations: You can rest assured that the participants will transform them. For example: “exploring and explaining the world”, crafts and outdoor-activities. For many fathers, being a good father means giving children technical skills and/or sharing adventurous activities. It makes sense to approach fathers in this way. Children enjoy these kinds of activities. They strengthen father-child relationships. These fairly traditional father-child activities are also a way of bringing fathers together.
- Experience has shown that after these activities, there will be serious discussions amongst the fathers about what is like to be a father today. The fathers prepare dinner and read their children bedtime-stories.
- Any minute spent together is a good minute. Most fathers state that they do want to spend more time with their children. Do not tell them that they spend too little time with their kids. Help them to find ways to spend more time together. Provide programmes/opportunities for father/child time. E.g. weekends or (short) holiday trips. If a father will participate in 1 or 2 father-child-weekend activities per year this is a measure of considerable success. Since time is in short supply, fathers will say they want to spend the remaining weekends with the whole family – and they are right to do so.
- In leaflets and similar media, it can be useful to use traditional male language from the business world, which sounds familiar to fathers. Words such as “training”, “time management”, “coaching”, etc., make sense to them.

- Don’t Wait for Fathers to Come to You. Go to Them.
Seek out fathers at a family picnic with the local church. Surprise them with father-oriented activities: e.g. interview them about their wants and needs. Get their addresses/phone numbers and invite them to a father’s meeting. Arrange a barbecue (Participants will barbecue!) as a setting for discussion, etc.

- Example: One head of a London Elementary School initiated a fathers’ group to talk about supporting children at school: The fathers suggested meeting in a pub. That’s fine. (See film in resource section)

Convincing Colleagues, Institutions and the Community

Communicating about Work with Fathers
Point out advantages and positive outcomes of father-child programmes.
For example:


Father-Child-Programmes provide fathers with the opportunity to
- be or learn to be better fathers for their children
- be fully responsible for their children
- foster responsibility in practical caring
- strengthen both father-child and child-father relationships
- promote communication about fathering amongst fathers
- make good fatherhood self-evident
- clarify and highlight aspects of fatherhood that may not already be self-evident
- share experiences of fathering and of the typical tensions between work and family life
- brainstorm ways of coping with problems and active problem-solving regarding children
- provide mutual assistance and encouragement for developing good fatherhood practices

In your institution, highlight the topic “involving fathers with their children” etc. for a programme period e.g. a semester. This will draw public and media attention to the issue of “getting fathers involved”.

- Produce leaflets and other media explaining why you want to start working with fathers. This is not self-explanatory.
- If at all possible, dedicate a website to your programmes.
- Point out the advantages: working with fathers benefits not just fathers and their children, but mothers/female partners as well: Most women prefer (male) partners who are good fathers in the sense of being able to care for their children and who actually perform child care.
- When father and child(ren) are away participating in father-child weekend activities, it provides the mother with a welcome opportunity for personal time.
- This will contribute to couple and family satisfaction.
- Try to provide illustrations / find suitable photographs, etc. for your media.

Find qualified staff, preferably males who have reflected on their male gender-role to some extent. Programmes for fathers need to be led by men who are fathers: Personal experience is highly significant to participants. Non-fathers will find it difficult to be taken seriously: “Does this guy even know what he is talking about?”


When developing programmes, contact relevant adjacent institutions. Network with as many colleagues and neighbouring institutions as possible.

Get the Media Involved

The media are always interested in reporting new and interesting developments, especially at the local and regional level. Working with fathers will be news almost everywhere and, of course, interesting. In general, promotion and public communication of father programmes is crucial to success. Don’t underestimate it.

Consider Evaluation

If there is an educational institution offering, say, social/educational courses in your city, try to get interested teachers and/or students involved in a small or medium-size evaluation research project. Evaluating outcomes will enable the improvement of programmes and legitimize further work with fathers.

Use Documentation as Part of your Communication
Think about documenting your programmes. For example, photos might be taken at a father-child activity-weekend and subsequently presented at an exhibition. For the opening event, you might invite fathers and their families, colleagues from similar organisations and the media. All this communication work will help communicate the intention of working with fathers to a wider audience.

Be Patient. Implementing Work with Fathers Takes Time

In traditional family education institutions, it often takes 2 years of preparation - including communication and lobbying - to get programmes for fathers off the ground.
Prepare your fathers-programme well. Give it half a year to develop. Take the time and energy to communicate and discuss the issue inside your organisation. Don’t give up too quickly.

4. Summary

The structure of family education will change in the course of integrating men and fathers. First, family education with fathers will need many more male professionals. Second, family education will be conducted – at least in part - at places and times that are not yet common in this context: The biggest challenge for family education with fathers lies in reaching the target group in the workplace. Thirdly, with fathers more involved, family education will cover new topics/issues. The work-family balance, or communicating the tension between family and work is probably the biggest issue for modern fathers.

Other places for getting work with fathers started could be childcare facilities and schools. These are obvious places for contemporary new approaches in family education. The ongoing development of family education presents great opportunities to involve more fathers in family education courses and programmes.
The timing is perfect for reaching out to fathers with family education courses and programmes. As research and everyday experience shows, a growing number of men/fathers wish to spend more time with their children. They want to be “good fathers” in the sense of building and maintaining close, nurturing and caring relationships with their children. This is the time to reach out to fathers wherever they are.

Skilled fathers who are closely attached to their children will contribute to more satisfying and stable spousal/couple-relationships. Partners, children and families as a whole will be happier with more involved fathers. Children will grow up with the satisfying support of two actively involved and caring parents.

This is the case for supporting fathers in family education.

5. References

Baisch, Volker (2003); Väterbildung an Hamburger Elternschulen und Familienbildungsstätten (Father education in Hamburg family education institutions); working paper

Familienbildung in Europa (Family Education in Europe); Documents from an international conference, Berlin, 5-6 May, 1999. (ISSN 1435-8654).

Ute Gonser / Ingrid Helbrecht-Jordan (1994): “…Vater sein dagegen sehr” Wege zur erweiterten Familienorientierung von Männern. (Ways to enhance mens´ involvement in family life) Bielefeld

Kinder- Jugend- und Familienbericht 2003 der Freien Hansestadt Bremen: Familienbildung in Bremen (Report on children, young people and families in the federal state of Bremen) Der Senat in Zusammenarbeit mit dem Institut für Entwicklungsplanung und Strukturforschung Hannover. (07- 12-2006)

Rudolf Pettinger/ Heribert Rollik (2005)
Familienbildung als Angebot der Jugendhilfe
Rechtliche Grundlagen - familiale Problemlagen - Innovationen
Arbeit mit Vätern in der Familienbildung (work with fathers in family education),
pp. 112-120 (7-14-2006)

Schiersmann, Christiane; Heinz-Ulrich Thiel, Kirsten Fuchs, Eva Pfizenmaier (1998) Innovationen in Einrichtungen der Familienbildung. Eine bundesweite empirische Institutionenanalyse (Innovation in family education institutions, a nationwide empirical anylysis of institutions) Opladen, pp. 72-73; 109-117; 121-220

Petra Vogelgesang (2005): Was ist Familienbildung? Vortrag beim Fachtag am 10.11.2005 „Familien bilden – Standortbestimmung und Vernetzung im Bezirk Lichtenberg (What does Family Education mean?) Lecture presented at conference “Educating Families in the Lichtenberg City District of Berlin”, Nov.10, 2005




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