Working With Fathers: Lessons Learned

by Glen Palm, Ph.D., CFLE
CFLE Network, Winter 2018

See all articles from this issue

Glen Palm, Ph.D., CFLE

My career path with children and families has spanned 50 years. It began as an undergraduate student at Loyola University in Chicago being assigned to a work-study job in the Child Guidance Clinic. I started out as a sociology major but quickly became intrigued with child development as I watched children coming to the clinic and had the opportunity to observe young children in play therapy. I added psychology as a major and focused on courses related to understanding and working with children. After graduation with a degree in psychology and a minor in sociology, I worked in a new day hospital program at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. I was one of four childcare workers assigned to different age-groups and became part of a multidisciplinary team providing services to children aged 3 to 16 and their families. I worked with children in different settings and programs through the mid-1970s and learned that working with young children was both rewarding and very effective as an early intervention strategy. I searched for a graduate program in child and family studies because of my interest in child development and enrolled as a graduate student in the University of Connecticut in Child Development and Family Studies. I attended my first NCFR conference as a graduate student in Toronto in 1973. My course work at UConn focused on development but also included family courses. I completed a master’s thesis, “Affect Awareness in Young Children.” I was interested in how children developed an understanding of emotions and empathy during the preschool years and developed a program to teach emotional awareness for a small group of children at a Child Guidance Center as part of my thesis research. For a few years, I worked with young children in different day-care programs. I was also trained in Theraplay as a therapeutic intervention with preschool children and parents in Head Start programs in Chicago. Although I enjoyed working with young children, I was beginning to recognize the importance of parents and family life in understanding children.

I moved to Minnesota in 1975 and began teaching toddlers at the University of Minnesota childcare center. After working with children who often were facing developmental or mental health challenges, it was enlightening to interact with typically developing toddlers. I marveled at their emerging language and capacity for learning. I started a new graduate program at the University of Minnesota, Social and Educational Futures, having become interested in child and family life and policy. This graduate program offered new methods for examining policy and its influence on future outcomes. I became involved in a local childcare advocacy group and conducted research on childcare needs implementing future studies methodologies. I was asked by one of my professors, Shirley Moore, to write a prelim paper on fathers and child development. At the same time that I was immersing myself in the literature on fathers (e.g., Lamb, 1976), I was about to become a new father. I was determined to be an “involved father” and had the flexibility as a graduate student working on a thesis to spend time at home with my infant daughter, Mara. I wrote my thesis during naptime; some days were more productive than others.

I was fortunate during this time to begin a part-time job as a parent educator and started a class for dads with young children. My academic preparation in child and family studies helped me to qualify for a “vocational license” in parenting education. The Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) pilot programs were developed in Minnesota in the mid-1970s to provide parent education in six communities. ECFE programs provide parent education and support services to all families with young children (prenatal up to kindergarten age) through local public schools. Program activities included weekly classes for parents and children together, family events, resource libraries, and home visits. I facilitated a father’s group from 1979 to 1983 at the Powderhorn Parenting Project. I was in one of the pilot programs and was able to develop parent education skills on the job while completing my Ph.D. degree. I conducted an ethnographic futures research study on the impact of home computers and cable TV on family life. After completing my degree, I was hired to manage a grant project that was a joint effort between the Head Start program in Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Day Care Association. The goal of the project was to explore existing collaborations and create new linkages between early childhood programs and social service and health care agencies. I worked on a team with two other staff members to research childcare program needs, create a resource manual, and establish linkages between childcare programs and health care and social service agencies through formal and informal agreements. This experience taught me the value of collaboration and the importance of sharing resources.

I moved with my family (my partner and two young children) to St. Cloud, MN, in 1984 to teach in the Child and Family Studies Department at St. Cloud State University (SCSU). My experience working with young children and facilitating parent groups was valuable preparation for teaching undergraduate and graduate students in early childhood and early childhood special education. The ECFE programs were going to scale after the legislature provided for funds for all public schools across the state to begin new programs. I designed a program at SCSU for students to meet new state licensure standards for parent education. I continued my work with fathers by joining the staff at the local ECFE program to teach a class for fathers. The following school year, 1984–1985, I started the Super Saturday program for dads and kids aged 2 to 5 years. The class met two times per month from September through May. I resumed my membership with NCFR and became an active member of the state affiliate. I was able to conduct research on fathers and parent education, engage in parenting program evaluations, and teach special topics classes on fatherhood on a regular basis for the next 30 years as a faculty member at SCSU. I valued my experiences as a parent educator for my ongoing professional development. My immersion into the field of parent education also informed my teaching and research activities.

It has been a great learning experience to teach a culturally diverse group of fathers who are eager to learn how to become better fathers and create and repair relationships with their children and partners.

As I reflect on my work with fathers there are five activities that shaped my parent and family educator practice. I have been able to conduct research on fathers, teach college classes on parenting education and fatherhood, write about my work with fathers, practice parent and family education in a variety of settings, and advocate for fathers and families through various professional organizations. Under the auspices of the Minnesota Council on Family Relations (MNCFR), I worked with a small group of colleagues to create a “Males in Families” section that organized two NCFR pre-conferences on fatherhood. Each of these activities has been important to my role as a parent and family education practitioner. I will focus on my practice and writings about working with fathers as the most relevant to CFLEs.

I received my first parent education licensure in Minnesota in 1978 and have continued to hold a valid state teaching license as a parent educator since then. I officially became a CFLE in 2000. This helped me to expand my thinking and practice to include family life education beyond parenting. During this time, I have had the opportunity to work in a number of institutional settings with the ECFE programs in public schools as both a foundation and a hub to connect with other programs. Each connection has brought new insights and strengthened my appreciation for collaboration. My primary role as full-time faculty member in a child and family studies department provided a platform for engaging in research and writing about practice that enhanced my teaching and supervising parent education student teachers. I had the responsibility to supervise a couple hundred student teachers and visit numerous ECFE programs around Minnesota during my years at SCSU.

My initial work with fathers from 1978 to 1995 included facilitating parent education groups with fathers in ECFE programs. I did research on fathers and their interests in parent education and began conducting program evaluations. I had the opportunity to share my work with fathers by writing a regular column in Family Information Services beginning in the 1990s. I worked with colleagues in Minnesota (Minnesota Fatherhood Alliance) to write a book, Working With Fathers: Methods and Perspectives, in 1992. I began conducting evaluation research for Even Start Family Literacy programs in different communities in Minnesota in 1991 and continued through 2010. This was my introduction to two-generation programs, which I believe are the most successful model that I have encountered for helping families out of poverty. Family members typically spend at least 12 hours a week in adult basic education/English as a second language classes, parent education, parent–child interaction, and early childhood education. This experience taught me about the critical role of staff in developing effective programs. Each community was unique, and I was able to observe staff and program development and document outcomes. I also served as an advocate for father’s involvement in these programs and expanded opportunities for fathers.

In 1994, I attended a national conference on fatherhood in Nashville, TN, that expanded my view on the diverse needs of fathers. This led to my participation with the newly formed National Center on Fathers and Families (NCOFF) and the National Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families (NPNFF). I formed new connections with fatherhood colleagues from across the country. This experience was also the impetus for creating the Dad’s Project in St. Cloud and working with three male colleagues in Early Childhood Family Education in St. Cloud to expand our programming for fathers. We had been offering our Super Saturday program for fathers of 2- to 5-year-olds on Saturday mornings for more than 10 years and were ready to create new programs to serve more fathers in our community. We started a program for fathers of infants in collaboration with the local hospital. I worked with a male nurse at the hospital to offer sessions for new dads. This led to the development of materials for new fathers that evolved into the Daddy Book (2015). We offered home visits to fathers in the community who had needs for individual parent education. We worked in collaboration with the city park district and other groups in our area to create an annual Celebration of Fatherhood on the Saturday before Father’s Day. The event (now in its 23 year) features food, father–child art and craft activities, entertainment, fishing and paddleboating, free to all fathers and families in the community.

I began to work with the local prison to create a parenting class for inmates who are fathers. I conducted a needs assessment study with fathers through focus groups and individual interviews to inform and shape the development of a parenting class. I have continued to offer this class twice a year for the past 22 years. The curriculum is now 14 weeks long and has continued to evolve as I have discovered new resources to integrate into the class. It has been a great learning experience to teach a culturally diverse group of fathers who are eager to learn how to become better fathers and create and repair relationships with their children and partners. Fathers can choose to read a book to their child. I record them reading and then burn a DVD to send to their children, along with a copy of the book. I feel privileged to experience the caring, emotional side of these men as they talk to and read to their children. Most people never get to see this side of incarcerated parents.

I feel privileged to experience the caring, emotional side of these men as they talk to and read to their children. Most people never get to see this side of incarcerated parents.

The Dad’s Project also designed Dads and Kids Night Out classes that were marketed to low-income fathers from programs like Head Start. Our group collaborated with the Minnesota Humanities Center to create an early literacy initiative called Dads & Kids Book club for children aged 2 to 6. We met once a week for 6 weeks and created a set of activities around a specific children’s book that featured fathers. It was great fun and each family took a copy of the featured book home to become part of their own library.

My CFLE background and interest in expanding parent education to incorporate family education has led to designing classes for parents on co-parenting issues and skills. I worked with my partner to design parenting classes for couples offered on evenings or all day Saturday, including activities with the children. A child abuse and prevention grant allowed us to then create two classes: one for parents living together (Parenting Together), and another for parents living apart called Shared Parenting. The research of Phillip and Carolyn Cowan (e.g., Cowan, Cowan, Pruett, Pruett, & Wong, 2009) has greatly influenced my thinking about working with fathers alone versus working with mothers and fathers together. It is more challenging to get both mothers and fathers to come to family education classes together, but it is worth the effort. The Cowans conducted a training on Supporting Father Involvement to our community, and 45 practitioners participated in the training. I have incorporated parts of this curriculum into my class for incarcerated fathers and have increased the emphasis on the mother–father relationship as essential to improving father–child relationships.

During the past 10 years, I have been engaged in learning about infant mental health (IMH) through the creation of Greater St. Cloud Area Thrive, a joint university and community initiative funded by grants from a variety of sources. This included developing a professional learning community that engaged different academic departments at SCSU, the local community college, and area practitioners to learn together about infant and early childhood mental health. The purpose for faculty has been to embed IMH content into courses and to promote and model collaboration among disciplines and practitioners.

During the past 5 years Thrive has focused on creating greater understanding of new immigrant families in our community, and I have started to examine the unique needs of fathers from the different immigrant groups. Within the context of a parent education class about fathers, I worked with two groups of immigrant fathers to create children’s picture books based on their stories about growing up. The book project provided the fathers an opportunity to reflect on their own lives and share their values and stories with their children. At the end of the project, the fathers had created a professional-looking children’s picture book of their story to share with their family. We have begun to share these stories of immigrant fathers with early childhood programs in our community.

I have reflected on my experiences as a parent and family educator over 40 years and want to share the most important lessons that I have gleaned through my work with fathers. An enduring lesson is that fathers continue to be an untapped and underutilized resource (Pruett, 2000) in parent and family education. There are no simple answers or foolproof strategies for engaging and working with fathers. Men live in diverse family, cultural, and community contexts that must be considered in creating effective curricula and successful programs. This insight has led me to the conclusion that a continuum of services for fathers and families is necessary to address the diverse needs ranging from universal access to parent and family education to address typical stresses and transitions in family life, to targeted and more intensive services to meet specific needs based on the risk factors that families face. Early in my career, it was clear that both education and intervention at early stages of childhood and family development are most impactful and cost-effective. These lessons suggest that our work in parent and family education should be strategic and targeted to address specific needs with services that match the level of needs of fathers and families. The timing, dosage, and intensity of services that we provide to parents and families are important to consider for increasing program efficacy.

Glen Palm, Ph.D., CFLE, is a Professor Emeritus at St. Cloud State University. He continues to work with fathers in his community, including his work at the correctional facility at St. Cloud. He volunteers for many organizations: Minnesota Fathers and Families Network, Greater St. Cloud Area Thrive, National Parenting Education Network, Minnesota Council on Family Relations, and Elders for Infants. He has just completed a book with his colleague Deb Campbell Parent Education: Working With Parents in Groups and Individually (2017).


Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., & Wong, J. J. (2009). Promoting fathers’ engagement with children: Preventive interventions for low-income families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 663–679.

Lamb, M. E. (Ed.). (1976). The role of the father in child development. New York, NY: Wiley

Minnesota Fatherhood Alliance. (1992). Working with fathers: Methods and perspectives. Stillwater, MN: nu ink.

Minnesota Fathers and Families Network. (2015). The daddy book: A workbook to guide new fathers through the important stages of infant development. Forest Lake, MN: St. Cloud Early Childhood Family Education Program.

Pruett, K. (2000). Fatherneed. New York, NY: The Free Press.