Q&A: What Young Fathers Need

A young father holds his baby.

Mark Kiselica began working with teen parents, including young fathers, in 1980. Since then, teen birth rates have fallen to historic lows. At the same time, many attitudes toward teen moms have evolved and new programs for them have arisen. But Kiselica, who is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, says teen dads are still misunderstood and underserved by social service providers.

We recently recapped Kiselica’s article on the topic (written with his son, Andrew), featured last year along with several responses in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity. We followed up with Mark Kiselica to learn more about how he’d like to see researchers and social service providers address the issues teen dads face.

NCFY: Your article discussed the bias against young dads and the fact that many programs for them focus on negative aspects of young fatherhood. Do you think things are changing at all?

Mark Kiselica: They’re changing slowly but not as positively as I had hoped. When I first became interested in this [topic], there was very little going on to try and help these young men. Since then, there have been waves of intervention projects, and some of them have been evaluated. We’ve learned a lot about the characteristics of these young men, their needs, and effective ways to help them. Nevertheless, it’s still difficult to find young father programs.

My experience is that whenever I talk to people about this, there are usually two reactions. The first is, “That’s fascinating. Young fathers, you never hear about them.”

The second reaction is, “Oh, you must meet some really lousy guys.” There’s still these strong stereotypical assumptions about these young men.

Relative to how young mothers are viewed and the services that exist for them, there’s still a lack of compassion, understanding, and effective outreach programs for young fathers.

NCFY: As a whole, your article and the commentary on it are saying two seemingly contradictory things: On the one hand, teen dads need different sorts of programming and support than teen moms do. On the other hand, dads are parents too and need to be treated similarly to moms. Can you talk about those two points?

Kiselica: I appreciate the question, and I don’t view them as contradictory. Part of the reason young men don’t get services is because fatherhood is not viewed as [being] as important as motherhood when it comes to teen parents. We have to change the way we look at these guys. We have to understand that they are parents. We have to understand that the services that are provided to young men who tend to become young fathers overlap but have to be distinct from what is needed for young mothers.

Both are dealing with the same challenges. Becoming a parent. Developing parenting skills. Figuring out how their role as a parent interacts with their educational and career goals.

With young fathers, it’s been demonstrated that if you start off with just parenting training, you’re not going to get them to come. For them the most serious issue tends to be, “How can I be a provider? How can I get a job?”

[Young fathers] tend to have a variety of adjustment difficulties that complicate their lives already, and young fatherhood can complicate their lives further. They need help with those things that may have contributed to them becoming young fathers. They tend to be guys who’ve had academic difficulties. They tend to be overrepresented among guys who’ve been delinquent or into gang activity or substance abuse. They tend to be victims of physical and sexual abuse as boys. To have psychiatric illness. They need multifaceted interventions that respond to their most pressing needs. For one guy, it may be that he needs help getting a driver’s license so he can get a job and get up on his feet. For another, it may be legal problems.

NCFY: What would you like to see happen next in research on teen dads?

Kiselica: It would be helpful to explore young men who are successful, what is it that has helped them to succeed in spite of difficulties. And I think we need to understand better young men and women who deliberately become pregnant. There are subpopulations of teen parents who will say they didn’t deliberately want to get pregnant, yet they’ll also say they knew how to prevent pregnancy and didn’t take steps. Their mindset is, “My life chances are not that strong, and becoming a parent is one way that I can exert my influence on the world.”

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