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Parenting groups offer 'safe space' for dads

Free, local parenting programs are steering new and experienced fathers to show up for their kids.

EASTHAM—More fathers on Cape Cod and the islands are turning to parenting support groups for peer guidance and strength in numbers.

Social worker Paul Melville coordinates the Cape Cod Fathers and Family Network, a program of Cape Cod Children’s Place. The network is helping dads build nurturing skills which are essential to healthy child-rearing. The father of three is a family support specialist and the director of training at the Family Nurturing Center of Massachusetts

"When we go into a parenting class, men feel inferior," Melville told Morning Edition's Patrick Flanary. "And so by creating safe spaces for men to meet with other men, we make it more accessible."

Patrick Flanary: Why is there a need for dad-focused parent support in our region, and how has that need changed?

Paul Melville: I've been doing parent education for a long time. Early in the process, before I did this professionally, as a dad I noticed that I was often the only male parent at a play-and-learn group, at a parenting-education class, at a fun family activity.

Part of the issue is that society for generations has focused on moms being the primary caregivers of children. The other piece is that men are socialized to want to be right. We like to be knowledgeable, we like to be a resource. And when we go into a parenting class, men feel inferior. And so by creating safe spaces for men to meet with other men, we make it more accessible. It really helps dads, whether they're new dads or more experienced dads, look at primarily how they were fathered, and what pieces of that fathering experience they want to bring into their parenting.

PF: How has the pandemic affected how we parent, especially during the height when parents and kids were together all day, every day, with Zoom classes and working from home?

PM: I'd rather tell you how it's changed service delivery and the support of fathers and parents. We really shifted to a remote model. My monthly support group for dads, Dads' Talk, has been strictly on Zoom for a couple of years now, and it's probably going to stay that way. We miss getting together and breaking bread. It's really nice to have some pizza and salad, and some hugs and handshakes; those are things that I miss. But I have dads on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard who would never be able to come to an evening support group in Harwich, but they can log on to Zoom. We never could have done that pre-pandemic. We didn't even think about offering support groups this way.

PF: What's the best way to apply nurturing methods to help not only my son's development, but my own?

PM: Listening to our children and their needs. Recognizing that behavior is sending a message. Helping them feel loved and feel safe, and telling them we love them. If we're giving them appropriate physical interaction, if we're hugging them and playing with them, then they're going to get those needs met. If those needs aren't getting met, then misbehavior is a great way to communicate.

PF: Are dads encouraged to share their struggle — be it addiction or something else — with their children? Is this something we should be talking about with our kids?

PM: There are people who do this work with those dads more directly and are better qualified to answer the question. I think, yes, in an age-appropriate way. We should not lie to our children about these things. But we also don't want to overburden them or scare them. As our children get older, we know that some of these challenges run in families. And I think it is a good and important heads-up for them.

Beginning Jan. 4, Cape Cod Children’s Place will offer a free, 13-week Nurturing Fathers program on Zoom. Register by calling 508-240-3310.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.