Fathers learn to be dads

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A Forest Hills-based social services agency has as part of its mission helping men see that fatherhood can be more than a biological condition.

The Fathering Initiative is a 10-year-old program at Forestdale, a nonprofit children's and family services agency in Forest Hills, which strives each year to teach hundreds of non-custodial fathers parenting, behavioral and communication skills. The initiative combines parent education classes, counseling, peer support groups and case management for fathers of all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

"A lot of (immigrant) fathers coming into the program have to learn that you can't always discipline the family like you can back home," said Scott Leach, the Fathering Initiative's director.

Many of the men in the program are referred by social services agencies or the city's Administration for Children's Services, Leach said. The program sees as many as 260 men annually, split into groups of under and over 24-years-old in the 36-week program, but they are encouraged to come until they feel sure of themselves, he said.

"A lot of men come into the program angry because nobody's heard their side of the story," Leach said. "We get them to understand that what happens in my life starts with me and ends with me. It takes about two months. We teach them, get the guys to understand how to communicate with their spouse, how to accept and share responsibility."

The Fathering Initiative also teaches the nitty-gritty of bringing up a child: how to feed, clean and diaper a baby, and what to do in an emergency, such as a choking fit.

But there is also fun stuff.

"We teach quality time. A lot of men don't know how to play with children," and this is another goal, Leach said.

The program aims to teach fathers how to be role models to their children, "especially for men who have daughters," he said.

For many girls, what they look for in a man comes from their father, Leach said. "Their first boyfriend is their father, so they [the men] need to show what a good relationship looks like," he said.

But sons do not get short shrift.

"For their sons, we teach them to model what it means to be a man," Leach said.

That means leaving the children out of spousal conflicts, he said.

"We teach that it's unfair to make the child suffer for your actions," he said. During visitations the men are encouraged to write scripts so they can better spend the time with the children. "You don't talk about mom, you don't zone out, you don't be demanding and you set boundaries."

Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 6:40 pm, October 10, 2011
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