Task force works to promote fathers' role in child raising

Since September, a special task force at the respected Bank Street College of Education in New York has been looking ''for ways to increase the options for men to be involved in child raising,'' the project's director, James A. Levine, says. Looking at institutions rather than individuals, Mr. Levine says the project aims to find ways for education, law, health services, social services, religion, and employers to support the role of fatherhood.

This large task is made all the more unmanageable by a lack of what he calls ''good data'' on fatherhood in this country. ''There are a lot of myths about fatherhood that we're trying to dispel,'' Levine says. ''Somebody always brings up that study 'proving' that fathers only spend 33 seconds per day with their kids, and then somebody else will say, 'We've come a long way in a short time, things are very different now.' Changes have been made,'' he maintains, ''but society changes slowly.''

It was the desire to spotlight and promote those small changes that got Levine started on this project. ''I wrote a book in 1976 called 'Who Will Raise the Children?' which looked at men in nontraditional roles - househusbands, single fathers, men who worked part-time to help with child care,'' he explains. ''The book generated lots of letters from men saying, What about the rest of us?''

Levine has found a belief among some fathers that the options for fatherhood do not exist outside such radical steps. ''They feel that they have to wait until society as a whole changes before they can get involved. We're trying to find the small steps in between the traditional, noninvolved father and the full-time daddy.''

To do this, the project started last fall to identify programs for fathers across the country. So far, they've turned up around 400 programs. ''But about half of these are father's rights organizations, working for things like joint custody and visiting rights for their kids,'' he says.

The project members plan to start visiting some of these programs this spring , and are ''very much interested in hearing of others.''

At the same time, the task force is reviewing the academic literature on fatherhood to determine what has been covered so far. They are trying to discover what social scientists really know about what ''involvement or noninvolvement of fathers does to children, mothers, and fathers themselves.'' Although the search is not yet complete, Levine says that already ''there are some problems with the data we have.'' He wishes the project had ''the time and money to do a valid study on our own.''

The project is also planning to study what appears to be the ultimate in government-encouraged father involvement -- the parental insurance program in Sweden, which offers up to nine months' leave after the birth of a child to either parent at 90 percent of the pre-birth salary. The project will be looking into who has taken advantage of the eight-year-old, social-security-based policy , and what effects it has had on the families involved.

This sort of information should be useful to the handful of American employers -- including Bank Street College -- that have begun offering paternity leave. Disseminating it and other information on fatherhood-type projects is the third component of the task force's work.

''We seem to have become the focal point for, well, I don't want to say it's a movement, but something's evolving out there,'' Levine says. His office is flooded with calls from everyone from the Campfire Girls, wanting advice on how to set up infant-care courses for boys and girls, to the Sisterhood for Single Black Mothers in Brooklyn, wanting help in starting a group for single black fathers.

The Fatherhood Project is also starting its own experimental groups. One, called For Fathers Only, is a weekend course for fathers and tots starting this April. Another is aimed at boys and based on the Collegiate School's model for teaching youngsters infant care: ''Oh Boy, Babies!''

The results of these experiments, Levine hopes, will help other organizations looking for ways to set up fatherhood programs. These, plus the studies the task force is undertaking, should be available at the end of their two-year, foundation-funded project in 1983.

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