A dozen smiling toddlers bang drums, ring bells and smack wooden blocks. It’s part of a monthly outing for children and their fathers, and today they are learning the joys of percussion.
“It’s just dads getting together to have fun with children,” says Jerome Marquez, his daughter peering out from behind his legs.
In August, the Kansas Children's Service League hired Marquez as its first full-time Fatherhood Coordinator. He helps run Dads of Douglas County, a program that aims to get fathers more involved in their children’s lives. Marquez advises all types of dads, from those who have been married for years to the newly divorced. Any father or male caregiver in the county can seek Marquez’s services for free.
Marquez gives seminars on diaper changing and fields phone calls from dads seeking advice. Some dads just need tips on how to install a car seat or what to prepare for a holiday meal. Others face more difficult challenges. Marquez advises teen dads and makes monthly visits to the Douglas County Jail.
“We don’t talk about why they are there,” he says of the incarcerated fathers. “We just talk about their children. They like to talk about them.”
As a family support worker, Marquez is a man working in a field traditionally dominated by women. His co-workers say he helps make things more relatable for male clients.
“He is a dad, and he knows what it’s like,” said Jenn Preston, Healthy Families supervisor with the KCSL. She has taken Marquez along on home visits to families as a way to make fathers feel more comfortable.
“That’s going to engage and make it more real (for other men), other than us just saying ‘we’re father-friendly,’” Preston said.
Marquez encounters many men who want to be involved in their children’s lives but simply don’t know how. Many new fathers worry about the months of diaper changing and sleepless nights ahead.
“Sometimes they think it’s going to be a horrible experience. It’s a challenge, obviously. But it’s a process,” Marquez said.
A father’s instinct
There are pages of statistics detailing how fathers, and their absences, affect children. Children without a father in the home are five times more likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to suffer from neglect. Children who do live with a father are more likely to get better grades and less likely to be involved with drugs or crime later in life. But statistics do not tell the story of the simple things fathers do.
Men tend to be the ones playfully tossing children up into the air, who are willing to let go of the bike when the training wheels come off, and let their children learn they can accomplish things on their own. Those things build confidence.
“We always talk about mom instinct, but there is a dad instinct, too,” Preston said. “You don’t have all the answers, but trust your instinct.”
Men even tend to hold babies differently. Rather than cradle them to the chest, as women do, they are more likely to hold babies at a distance, looking into their faces. Neither way is better. They are just different.
“Children need to have a variety of stimulation in their lives,” Preston said. “Dads give that.”
Marquez said the point of his program is to show fathers how they can do the best they can for their children.
“If we work and help our children to be good citizens, if we teach them good values and morals, they can make the difference,” he said.
Tips for new fathers
Get involved in your child’s health. During your child’s visit to the doctor, ask questions and learn the treatment plan. Many doctors tend to assume mothers will be the caretaker, so it is up to fathers to take an active role. “It is our responsibility as well because we are partners,” Marquez said.
Help mom out. Men should be involved in feeding infants, even if it’s just to provide moral support to their partners. “Dad should support Mom, getting her water, giving her a massage or something so she can feel more comfortable,” Marquez said.
Take care of yourself. Bad things can happen when parents lose their cool, and a good portion of parental injuries to children are not intentional. If your baby is crying and you feel yourself becoming frustrated, put the baby down in a safe place, leave the room and cool off for a few minutes.
For more information on the program, contact Marquez at 785-856-3373, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Reporter Aaron Couch can be reached at 832-7217. Follow him at Twitter.com/aaroncouch.