Supporting Father Involvement

Supporting Father Involvement

Interventions to improve parenting quality have been missing three crucial components: (1) Fathers (parenting classes are attended mostly by mothers); (2) The quality of the relationship between the parents; and (3) Assessments of child outcomes (though the justification for interventions to strengthen parent-child relationships is the promotion of children’s well-being).

We now know that: fathers play a crucial role in children’s development; parents’ relationship satisfaction declines in the childrearing years; and unresolved conflict between the parents is a serious risk for children’s behavior problems. We propose that effective parenting is not simply about the mother-child or father-child relationships but involves the parents’ mental health, the quality of their relationship as a couple, the repetition of 3-generational relationship patterns, and the supports that parents have to cope with the stressors in their lives.

We have been evaluating a couples group intervention in which 4-6 couples meet in groups led by clinically-trained male-female co-leaders over 16 weeks to focus on their challenges in these aspects of family life. We tested this approach in studies in different California locales, using random assignment to intervention or no-intervention groups: Becoming a Family for men and women making the transition to parenthood, Schoolchildren and their Families for parents of children making the transition to elementary school, and Supporting Father Involvement for low-income Mexican American, African American, and European American parents of young children in 5 mostly rural California counties. The results reveal consistently that attending the couples groups increases father involvement in the care of their children, prevents the typical decline of couple relationship satisfaction during the childrearing years, increases household income, and lowers the incidence of children’s acting out and depressed problematic behaviors.

The Supporting Father Involvement project, conducted in collaboration with Marsha Kline Pruett and Kyle Pruett, is the first randomized, controlled clinical trial focused on father involvement in low- to middle-income families. Over 9 years in 3 phases, almost 900 families participated in (1) a one-time 3-hour informational meeting for a group of couples; (2) a group for fathers that met for 16 weeks (32 hrs); OR a group for couples that met for 16 weeks (32 hrs) – all with the same leaders and curriculum. Parents who participated in the one-time informational meeting showed no positive changes and some negative changes over 18 months as individuals, couples, and parents, and they described increases in acting out, aggressive or withdrawn, depressed behaviors in their children. Those who participated in the longer fathers-only or couples groups showed significant positive changes over 18 months - increased father involvement, and no increases in their children’s problematic behaviors - but parents assigned to the fathers-only groups showed declining satisfaction as a couple, whereas couples group participants’ satisfaction remained stable. In the third study phase, half of the 300 families had already come to the attention of Child Protective Services because of concerns about domestic violence, child abuse or neglect: the intervention led to positive results for them as well. The couples groups with clinically skilled leaders are effective with families from a range of ethnic backgrounds, income levels, and levels of risk. Further replications of Supporting Father Involvement are being conducted in a government-funded project in the United Kingdom, and a foundation-funded project in Alberta, Canada. In both Canada and the UK, the preliminary results show that a couples/co-parenting group approach to parenting interventions shows a great deal of promise.


Carolyn Cowan is Professor of Psychology, Emerita at UC Berkeley, where she is co-director of 3 longitudinal preventive intervention projects: Becoming a Family, Schoolchildren and Their Families, and Supporting Father Involvement. She consults widely on the development and evaluation of interventions for parents. Dr. Cowan is co-editor of Fatherhood today: Men’s changing role in the family (Wiley, 1988) and The family context of parenting in the child’s adaptation to school (Erlbaum, 2005), and co-author with Phil Cowan of When partners become parents: The big life change for couples (Erlbaum, 2000). Carolyn was a founding member of the Council on Contemporary Families.

Philip A. Cowan is Professor of Psychology, Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, where he served as Director of the Clinical Psychology Program and the Institute of Human Development. In addition to authoring numerous scientific articles, he is the author of Piaget with Feeling (Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1978), co-author of When partners become parents: The big life change for couples (Erlbaum, 2000), and co-editor of four books and monographs, including Family Transitions (Erlbaum, 1990) and The family context of parenting in the child’s adaptation to school (Erlbaum, 2005). Phil was a founding member of the Council on Contemporary Families.