The seven Core Learnings are at the heart of NCOFF's agenda for research, practice, and policy analysis and serve as a framework for the field of fathers and families. They represent the knowledge and experience of practitioners who confront complex problems facing fathers and families and are consistent with research across multiple disciplines. They offer an important lens through which policymakers might learn more about the implications and impact of legislation and policy decisions on the lives of large numbers of fathers, mothers, children, and families. They capture salient issues experienced and felt deeply by many fathers and families-those who are financially secure as well as those who are the most vulnerable to poverty and hardship.
The Core Learnings were identified immediately prior to NCOFF's inception by frontline practitioners in a series of survey and focus group activities conducted by the Philadelphia Children's Network and NCOFF. Each learning was first formulated as a hypothesis drawn from practitioners' experiences and then tested against published research and policy studies. As each hypothesis was borne out in the literature, it became a Core Learning. NCOFF developed a library of information for each learning, which together constitute the FatherLit Research Database and include over 8,500 citations, annotations, and abstracts of research available in written and electronic form.
- Fathers care-- even if that caring is not shown in conventional ways.
- Father presence matters -- in terms of economic well-being, social support, and child development
- Joblessness is a major impediment to family formation and father involvement
- Systemic Barriers -- Existing approaches to public benefits, child support enforcement and paternity establishment operate to create obstacles and disincentives to father involvement. The disincentives are sufficiently compelling as to have prompted the emergence of a phenomenon dubbed "underground fathers"--men who acknowledge paternity and are involved in the lives of their children but who refuse to participate as fathers in the formal systems.
- Co-parenting-- A growing number of young fathers and mothers need additional support to develop the vital skills needed to share parenting responsibilities.
- Role Transitions -- The transition from biological father to committed parent has significant development implications for young fathers.
- Intergenerational Learning -- The behaviors of young parents, both fathers and mothers, are influenced significantly by intergenerational beliefs and practices within their families of origin.
Fathers care — even if that caring is not always shown in conventional ways.
That fathers care is documented in a variety of reports and studies (e.g., Achatz and MacAllum, 1994; Bowman, 1990; Lamb, et al., 1982). Father caring may assume many different forms — from emotional commitment to children's development to hands-on support in the home and responsibility for child care. The research in the area is constrained, however, by a narrow focus on fathers in middle-class, well-educated, white, intact families. Of the more than 250 studies on father caring described in the NCOFF database, less than 20 examine the role of non-white fathers and few refer to unwed fathers. Our understanding of the possibilities for father caring is limited by the newness of the field (which is less than 20 years old) and the exclusion of different populations of minorities, the poor, and the young from much of the literature.
* What are the ways that fathers demonstrate that they care? What are examples of father attachment and support?
* What are the personal, familial, and social complexities to fathers caring? To what degree do these complexities revolve around social and developmental needs of young fathers or the problems encountered in making role transitions?
Father presence matters — in terms of economic well-being, social support, and child development.
Research on father presence is scant, one exception being Smith and Morgan's (1994) study on the impact of father presence on adolescent girls' delay of sexual activity. Rather, the importance of father presence typically is inferred or generalized from research on the effects of father absence and information gleaned from practitioner reports. (Center for the Study of Social Policy and the Philadelphia Children's Network, 1994). Studies on father absence, similar to other research on families, focus primarily on adjustment to divorce. The enduring effects of living in a single-parent, female-headed household are unclear, although a variety of negative outcomes for children are associated with father absence (e.g., poor school performance, low self-esteem, early sexual activity, and economic deprivation). Most studies offer little empirical evidence, and what exists is inconsistent in regard to the quality of life for children and their mothers or the long-term effect of single parenting.
* What does it matter that a father is in the home — to a child's emotional, social, and cognitive development? From the child's point of view, what difference does it make to live with or have access to one parent only?
* How does father absence affect family well-being? For example, how does father absence contribute to poverty in families?
Joblessness is a major impediment to family formation and father involvement.
Work and the income associated with it are valued in most communities. Two decades ago, Goodwin found that people in all ethnic groups in American society, across social classes, seemingly value work for similar reasons, including feelings of self-worth, survival needs, and support of children and families. When the normal venues to obtain work are unavailable or inaccessible, many fathers — particularly young fathers with few skills and few years of schooling — either avoid the responsibility of supporting their children or often turn to informal economies (e.g., unrecorded and untaxed work such as car washing, home-based instrument repair, and the drug trade) to provide the necessary income. Based on anecdotal evidence, we have reason to believe that many young fathers served by father-focused programs engage at some time in informal work activities; based on our own intuitive sense and research such as Goodwin's study, we suggest that their involvement may be related, in part, to their need to support families and establish credibility within their households and with their children. This seems particularly applicable to young fathers who engage in no other illegal activity.
* What is the relationship between father involvement and joblessness, particularly among African American fathers and other fathers of color? How does joblessness and limited access to well-paying employment affect family formation choices and patterns, parenting activities, and decisions to marry?
* What types of policies are necessary to respond to unemployment among young fathers, particularly African American fathers and other fathers of color?
Existing approaches to public benefits, child support enforcement, and paternity establishment operate to create obstacles and disincentives to father involvement. The disincentives are sufficiently compelling as to have prompted the emergence of a phenomenon dubbed "underground fathers" — men who acknowledge paternity and are involved in the lives of their children but who refuse to participate as fathers in the formal systems.
Among many young fathers and the mothers of their children, systemic approaches to paternity establishment and child support enforcement activities are met with distrust and associated with punitive, rather than supportive, effects. This distrust is supported by the experiences of many young parents, particularly those in low-income houses and families of color. The first contact between the institution and absent parent is often through a phone message or letter and, if that is ignored, a visit from the sheriff's office, an unwelcome sight in many communities (Wattenberg, 1993; Sullivan, 1993). The requirement that the absent father appear in court is likely to deter many young men whose primary association with such courts is arrest, conviction, or imprisonment (Danziger, Kastner, and Nickel, 1993). Perhaps the greatest disincentive to paternity establishment, other than distrust and discomfort with a system perceived as unhelpful, is the amount of court costs associated with the process (e.g., processing and application fees). These costs are seen often as a further financial burden that not only inhibits fathers from declaring paternity but also deters women from initiating the process. These punitive associations and bureaucratic fragmentation can reinforce pre-existing client attitudes regarding paternity establishment.
* How do current and proposed initiatives, e.g., welfare reform, affect father involvement and support? How complex are the systemic barriers to father involvement, e.g., at local and state levels?
* What are the specific policy changes necessary to ensure father engagement and to support young parents' commitment to the welfare of their children? What is the nature of systemic barriers encountered by programs and fathers in providing support to their children, and what approaches do they use to override or minimize the impact of the barriers?
A growing number of young fathers and mothers need additional support to develop the vital skills to share the responsibility for parenting.
The issues facing young fathers and mothers in co-parenting programs are in many cases vastly different; young fathers and mothers differ in personal goals, parenting responsibilities, and expectations of the other parent. However, from anecdotal evidence and documentation of PCN's Co-Parenting program, we have reason to believe that issues faced by young fathers and mothers often are similar (e.g., the social barriers and racial discrimination they encounter, levels of self-esteem, family constellations, and intergenerational family structures). A significant part of NCOFF's work will examine co-parenting and sources of fragility and resiliency within young single-parent families. NCOFF's work is implicated in the reality that disproportionate numbers of children are growing up in fragile families and need to have access to two parents committed to sharing the responsibilities of child care and support. The importance of co-parenting and the concept of fragile families — young families with few educational, social, and economic resources — are supported by the literature and our knowledge and experience with programs that serve young fathers, e.g., PCN's Responsive Fathers and Co-Parenting Programs, which are NCOFF's primary local source of learnings about the needs of young parents.
* What is the quantity and quality of social support available within families of origin, and how do these families influence the parenting behaviors of young fathers and their participation in co-parenting efforts?
* What are the effective models of program support, including innovative approaches, practices, techniques, and strategies, and what are the outcomes of program participation for parents and children? What techniques used to promote co-parenting services among divorced and separating couples can be applied successfully to fragile families?
The transition from biological father to committed parent has significant developmental implications for young fathers.
Role transition is the process of changing from one set of expected behaviors in a social system to another (Allen and Van de Vliert, 1984). Over the course of our lives, all of us try on or enact a variety of social roles. Role transitions include age stages and are denoted by the completion of expectations associated with a particular period and movement into the next: e.g., school entry, high school graduation, marriage, and childbearing and parenting. People are expected to behave in certain ways based on the roles into which they have made a transition. Our work with young fathers — the majority of whom are from low-income homes and all of whom are African American — and suggestions from the literature indicate that this transition is often incomplete and problematic for disproportionate numbers of young fathers. The apparent inconsistencies in their support and inattention to personal and family issues often reflect their inability to make the abrupt transition to adult roles and to the sense of responsibility required to be responsive parents.
* What is the impact of young fatherhood on the behaviors and attitudes of young fathers, e.g., the need to complete high school, improve literacy, and obtain employment? That is, how does the presence of a baby and family change or affect the behaviors of young fathers?
* What is the nature of support to young men and women making the transition to parenthood?
The behaviors of young parents, both fathers and mothers, are influenced significantly by intergenerational beliefs and practices within families of origin.
Research on family development suggests that across economic levels, families may serve as sources of strength or promoters of conflict — as both framers of the experiences of the young parents, powerful forces in the young parents' decision to participate in co-parenting efforts, and sources of "family cultures," i.e., behaviors, cultural beliefs, life experiences, and self-regulatory practices that are transmitted from one generation to the next (Gadsden, in press). Parent roles, family functioning, and family structure all may be affected by family culture, and family cultures are affected by factors such as chronic poverty and inequity. From anecdotal evidence in our work with young parents across different cultural and ethnic groups, we are reminded that families wield a great deal of influence over young parents; yet many families often do not have the resources or desire to assist the young men in changing behaviors.
* How do some fragile families "make it" and why do others not, i.e., what strengths characterize these families and what social supports are available to them? What hardships work against their resiliency?
* What are the beliefs and practices that exist within families, and how are these beliefs, practices, and the values associated with them transmitted?