Dads (fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and foster parents) have a reputation for avoiding parenting classes. My experience as a parent educator, however, belies this stereotyping of men as reluctant starters in learning how to parent. I’ve found the opposite, with fathers attending my courses being enthusiastic advocates of the skills and approach in Parent Effectiveness Training (PET), and writing testimonials on the effect of the course on their lives.
I’ve been teaching PET (and using the skills personally), pretty much continuously since 1996. Between 40 to 100 parents (mixed groups of women and men) attend my courses each year. Of these participants, around 37% have been men. This rate is nearly double the expected attendance of fathers to parenting courses (around 20%)1,2. What’s more, over 90% of the participants complete the entire eight-week (24 hour) course (give or take missing a session with illness or work/family commitments).
Since starting to teach this approach to parenting, I’ve been intrigued by the substantial number of fathers participating. What was it that attracted such a relatively high proportion of Dads to PET, and why did they stay? In 2010 I designed a 10-question on-line survey and sent it to 61 men who had participated in my PET courses from 2008 to 2010. The survey was anonymous, and responses could not be linked with participants. Thirty-two (53%) of the men surveyed responded. 90% of the participants had attended the course more than six months previously. 82% of the men had tertiary degrees or higher.
What is Parent Effectiveness Training?
PET teaches relationship skills, in the form of respectful communication. The course helps parents empathise with their children, and to look beyond the child’s behaviour to their need. In fact, a foundation principle of the course is that ‘children do not misbehave, but behave to meet a need’.
Importantly, participants are asked to avoid using power, which is expressed through punishment (such as time-out) and reward (such as praise or stickers). Instead parents are encouraged to include their children in no-lose conflict resolution. Unlike many other parenting courses, PET takes a ‘relationship’ approach to parenting, rather than a ‘behavioural’ approach.
‘I have completed other ‘parenting’ courses, but they concentrate on discipline and gaining compliance of the children. A generalisation, but I believe discipline is not something men have trouble implementing, so the ‘tools’ taught on other courses are not relevant to most men (fathers). On the other hand, PET improves families by improving relationships. This is an area (again, another generalisation) that men do need help with in their lives’. (Father who completed my Men and PET survey)
Why Did Fathers Attend A PET Course?
The respondents said they wanted to attend a parenting course to improve their parenting skills, and to ‘be on the same page’ as their partners when parenting their children. Some men wanted to avoid their angry reactions to children, or to find a course that matched their personal philosophy. Participants said they wanted to be better Dads, and acknowledged the expectation of an increased role for contemporary fathers in their children’s lives.
A consistent theme was that the men wanted to break the parenting pattern of their own fathers. They wanted a different or better relationship with their children, than they had with their own father.
‘I want to have a loving and respectful relationship with my children now and into the future’
‘The desire was there but not the skills – I was making my father’s mistakes and I knew it was up to me to change.’
‘It would help me to listen to her [child’s] needs as she went through the separation of her parents’.
What Difference Did The Course Make For The Dads?
Better communication, through Active Listening and conflict resolution, was a sustained theme in the feedback from the respondents. They felt they had a better understanding of the other’s (partner or children) perspective or behaviour.
‘My children are much more willing to listen and share their problems with me. I use much less authoritarian force’
‘[I changed my] attitude about a child’s motivation’
What Difference Did The Course Make For The Men’s Families?
Overwhelmingly, the respondents reported more peaceful, calm and cooperative households. They felt they had a better relationship with their children, and greater empathy for, and understanding of, their children’s perspective. Partnered fathers also described a benefit in terms of having a consistent PET parenting approach with their partner.
‘It has brought my wife closer to me. As for the kids, we have this understanding that we never had before – I listen to their problems, and they listen to what I want from them.’
What Skills Did The Respondents Continue to Use Since Completing The Course?
Ninety percent of the survey participants had completed the PET course between 6 months and 30 months previously (with a couple of people having done the course up to 5 years previously). With this in mind, I was impressed with the retention of communication skills. 90% said they continued to use Active Listening as a parenting tool, and 77% found defining ‘Who Owns The Problem’ helpful.
What Did Fathers Find Most Valuable About Attending The PET Course?
The respondents repeatedly commented on how the PET skills and approach enabled them to break the parenting pattern of their own parents (particularly their fathers). They said that the skills had helped them improve their relationship with their children and their partners. They also spoke about the importance of the PET communication skills to their lives in general.
‘It [PET] helps break the paradigm that fathers are supposed to be authoritarian and disciplinarian’
‘That it [being a father] is not about being permissive or strict, and that we don’t have to hide our true emotions from our children’
It was clear that these Dads wanted an alternative to being, or being seen as, authoritarian or the ‘disciplinarian’. Survey participants valued the PET approach, with its emphasis on respectful relationship skills and listening skills, and not using power to gain compliance. They appreciated their calmer households, and feeling closer to their children. Interestingly, respondents retained many of the communication skills taught in P.E.T. – well beyond six months. Fathers emphasised the significance of relationships with their children (and partners).
In my opinion, these survey results support the importance of a course such as PET being available to fathers of all backgrounds and education levels. (Many courses target vulnerable families.)
Parents, no matter their achievements in life, are the children of parents of varying capacities and parenting styles. Many fathers were attracted to PET because they could see the skills breaking the parenting cycle of their heritage. Rather than continue their family’s power-based relationship pattern, they wanted to begin a family history of strong, lasting and respectful relationships between parents and children.
- Stahlschmidt, Mary Jo et al. Recruiting Fathers to Parenting Programs: Advice from Dads and Fatherhood Program Providers. Children and youth services review 35.10 (2013): 1734–1741. PMC. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.
- Lundahl, B. W. et al. A meta-analysis of father involvement in parent training. Research on Social Work Practice, 18(2), 97-106. (2008) Web. 8 April. 2017
Fatherhood Research Bulletin. Occasional publication of the ARACY Fatherhood Research Network, produced by Dr Richard Fletcher of the University of Newcastle. 22 February 2014.
Poster presentation: November, 2010. QEII International Parenting Conference.
‘Getting Fathers To Parenting Groups (without really trying)
© Larissa Dann. 2017. All rights reserved
To read more of Larissa’s blogs visit her website Parent Skills.