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Lost boys in fathercare

New family values are leading child-care experts across Europe to rethink the role of men in the nursery I believe that today's fathers take the best out of their children. They play and talk with them, while I must clean the house. "

This comment from an Italian mother illustrates the pitfalls of sharing family responsibilities. Men are often happy to take part in the more satisfying aspects of child care - reading bedtime stories, going for walks and taking their children to activities. But when it comes to the ironing they vanish. At least these are the findings of projects at the Pen Green combined nursery centre in Corby and the regional government of Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, whose aim has been to involve fathers more in the nurseries their young children attend. They are recorded in a 39-page report, entitled Fathers, Nurseries and Child Care published by the European Commission network on child care, an organisation set up in 1986.

The European Union has a long-standing commitment to encouraging men to take greater responsibility for their children. There is a Council of Ministers recommendation on the subject. The European Commission network takes it further. "We have taken the view that we need to connect equal opportunities with the interests of children and families," says Peter Moss, researcher at the Thomas Coram research unit in London and network co-ordinator.

At Corby's Pen Green Centre, providing care and education for under-fives, the desire to involve fathers grew from its philosophy of encouraging families to take control of their lives. In the early stages of the centre's life few fathers become involved. It was thought this was because the centre was seen as a service for women and children, and women were expected to be the primary carers of children.

An action plan was drawn up to raise awareness about some of the tricky issues involved in an area where women predominate and men are bashful about coming forward. The centre used groups of parents to examine the ways in which women keep men out. Videos were taken of female staff welcoming mothers and fathers in the morning as they dropped off their children. Staff showed more empathy to the mothers. The videos showed how they were behaving and helped them do something about it.

In its soul-searching the centre also explored staff training on gender and set about making the environment more "men-friendly". For example, photographs of fathers with their children were stuck on the walls and fathers were visited in their homes to be asked how they would like to use Pen Green. Fathers received letters inviting them to attend meetings and adverts were posted specifically for male workers.

The second phase of the work during the 1990s has looked in more depth at why fathers find it hard to come together in groups, how fathers and male workers play with children in the centre and at how fathers see their role. This was followed by more staff training and the setting up of groups led by men and women. Pen Green also has a men's group for fathers with children at the centre whose purpose is to overcome feelings of isolation and to offer support.

The centre believes that children need to be looked after by both male and female workers, partly because many children live in single-parent families, in which they have little contact with a man. Initially some of the women workers feared the men would take over the management and threaten the female camaraderie, but their concerns have been overcome.

By contrast the project in Emilia-Romagna has been top-down, introduced by the left-leaning regional government for whom increased participation by fathers in child care was a political objective. Twenty staff were trained for group work with parents, and parent groups were established in towns all over the region.

In both Corby and Emilia-Romagna, women still shoulder most of the domestic tasks. Problems centre on the quantity and quality of men's involvement. Mothers want change, but are anxious, fearful even, about the prospect. Fathers also want to take more responsibility for looking after their children, but have no role models to guide them.

* Fathers, Nurseries andChild Care, free from Peter Moss, Thomas Coram Research Unit,27 Woburn Square,London WC1H 0AA.Send large addressed envelopewith a 75p stamp

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