Boston — For tonight's homework, all fathers will have conversations with their children. Fathers will face their children squarely, maintain eye contact while they listen to them, and then record their feelings about what was said.
An easy assignment? Probably so for those who talk regularly and freely with their children. But for many of the men who recently took part in a parent education program for fathers at Boston University, it was a challenging task that had a profound and lasting effect on their relationships with their families.
''If nothing else, the fact that they had to sit down at least once a week and do something with their children was, for many fathers, a big change,'' says BU professor Ronald F. Levant.
Dr. Levant is one of the directors of a ground-breaking new course now being developed at Boston University. ''A Parent Education Program for Fathers of School-Aged Children'' aims to fill the gap that currently exists in parenting courses for men.
''I'm only aware of two kinds of efforts to help educate fathers for child care,'' says Dr. Levant. ''There are numerous childbirth education classes that focus on care-taking in infancy, and at the other end of the age spectrum there's a course being developed at Pennsylvania State University that's concerned with fathers and their late adolescent sons. But there's nothing in the middle for fathers of kids aged 6 to 12 except our program.''
Many age-old stereotypes of men still hold true for many of today's fathers, according to Dr. Levant. ''They're thought to be deficient in the expressive realm because they're not socialized to talk about their own feelings or to deal with children's feelings,'' he explains. ''It's not something that's encouraged or valued by society.''
Given those preconceptions, Dr. Levant and his colleagues set out to develop a parent education course that would focus specificially on helping fathers learn communication skills. ''We wanted to show men how to listen to the feelings behind their children's behavior and how to express their own feelings rather than facts or statements.''
The eleven fathers selected for the trial course were generally well educated and held mostly professional positions. Weekly evening classes began with a discussion of the skills to be learned, followed by videotaped presentations of good and bad examples, role playing among the fathers, and more videotaping of the fathers. The fathers also were assigned regular homework, both written and practical.
''Generally, the homework involved thinking through what ideas we were trying to teach, discriminating between good and bad responses, and then creating their own good responses,'' Dr. Levant explains. ''The part that was unique was that we had them go home and work with their kids - do their homework by spending time with their kids.''
In some assignments, fathers were told to listen carefully to conversations they had with their children and then try to capture the essence of what the youngsters were saying by summing up with a phrase like ''It sounds to me like...'' If they were on target, their children could be expected to respond with a ''Right!'' On the other hand, a ''Well, sort of...'' indicated that the father needed to listen more carefully.
Hypothetical situations also were presented to the fathers: How would you respond if you came home to find the lawn raked even though you hadn't mentioned it to your child? How would you respond if your child chose friends that you thought would have a bad influence on him?
Pre- and post-testing of the fathers showed that all of them had improved significantly in their communication skills. Wives responded enthusiastically to the program, and many children happily told the researchers that ''My dad spends time with me now.''
As their research continues, Dr. Levant and his colleagues will be offering the parent education course to groups of single fathers, grandfathers, and teen-age fathers. Once the workbook has been polished, they expect to begin training others to use the materials.
Dr. Levant, who was intimately involved in rearing his own daughter, attributes the growing interest in ''fatherhood'' programs to the success of the women's movement in the US. ''Men as well as women got shortchanged in the traditional role system,'' he notes. ''When men were excluded for child-care, it wasn't very satisfying. After all, we have needs for the kind of contact that family life provides, and we stand to benefit a great deal from the changes that have been initiated by the women's movement.''