© Blog First Steps, IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division 

by Patricia Jara 

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During a visit in which I accompanied a foreign delegation on a tour of health centers using the Chile Crece Contigo [link in Spanish] operating model, I witnessed a situation that is not all that uncommon. At a pediatrician’s office, a nurse called out, “Would Alfonso Quintanilla’s mom please come over here? I’m going to give you instructions on home care.” A man, Alfonso’s dad, as far as I could tell, appeared from behind the nurse, carrying the child in his arms. He was the one who had attended the appointment with his son, while his wife waited outside with their other two children. The nurse, after performing the child’s check-up with Dad present, decided it was better to give treatment instructions to Mom. Are we really prepared to promote greater involvement by fathers in the tasks of caring for and raising children? We’ve probably come a long way. Based on the belief that health services play an essential role in the developmental trajectory of children, especially during pregnancy and the first years of life, and that the presence of families is critical, dads are becoming increasingly visible at prenatal check-ups, during the delivery, and at the child’s check-ups. As an example, current stats from Chile’s public health system show that women are accompanied during childbirth 80% of the time [link in Spanish]. But this isn’t enough. At daycare centers and nursery schools, the relationship with the family is mostly formed through interaction with the mothers and, in their absence, grandmothers.

Why is it so important to promote the active participation of men in the tasks of child care and parenting?

There are at least three good reasons. First, it has an influence on children’s welfare. Several studies have shown that the presence of an actively-involved father who establishes a positive bond with his son or daughter benefits the child’s development. We talked about this topic in the post “A Father’s Love.” Second, it helps to reverse the gender disparities that exist in terms of division of labor in the home, especially when it comes to child care duties that mostly fall to women. Third, it’s a question of rights. Men should have an equal opportunity to participate in the process of growth and development of their children. This may seem contradictory if you think about the high proportion of single-parent households in which women bear the full brunt of responsibility; however, there are a significant number of everyday situations in which—even when the father is present—the tasks are assigned to or assumed primarily by the mother.

What needs to change?

First, there are cultural aspects that must change. Statements such as “men can’t even change a diaper” or “mother knows best” or “he means well, but he’s so clumsy that I’d rather do it myself” abound in the conversations that take place in many Chilean homes. Second, there are real constraints that hinder active fatherhood. For example, few employers will authorize time off for a male employee to take his child to the doctor or to go to a workshop for parents at the child’s school. Third, it is crucial to foster appropriate attitudes and practices among the staff at daycare centers and health centers in order to create dad-friendly environments and to connect with families and parents on an equal basis, regardless of gender. This is the only way we can get fathers to be more present and to improve the quality of their involvement, not just when it comes to changing diapers, but in all aspects relevant to their children’s development.

Share this article if you think that more dads need to participate in the care of their children.

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