By Dr. Deborah Bergeron is the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Director of Head Start and Clarence Carter is the ACF Director of the Office of Family Assistance.
On a typical day, Rylan is sitting at a low table, in a little chair and surrounded by his friends. On the table there is a bucket of thick crayons. The teacher gives Rylan and the other children some paper and instructions about the writing assignment for the day.
But today isn’t typical. Now, Rylan is at a high table at home, seated in his father’s lap. He’s holding a skinny pencil to write on a sheet of construction paper. His gaze is intense, focused directly on his work. Rylan’s father peeks over his son’s shoulder, his arm ready to guide his son at any point.
As Directors over the federal Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood program and Office of Head Start, respectively, we recognize the critical role that fathers play in the success of their children, and we are working to incorporate and celebrate those contributions in our programs’ work. Stories about children and fathers in our programs flood our email boxes and reading about these children’s experience is one of our favorite job perks. On this particular day, Father’s Day, Rylan’s story caught our interest.
We know parents are a child’s first and most important teacher. We believe that engaging dads to participate in their infant, toddler or preschooler’s experiences is important for the developmental growth of their children. Since its founding, Head Start and Early Start staff have sought to do this. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of Head Start and Early Head Start centers have closed.
Today many parents, like Rylan’s father, have had to adapt by educating their children in kitchens and living rooms. This is crucial to Rylan’s development and today, it is important to recognize the many fathers across the country who are participating in the lives of children in a new way during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have taken many actions to provide those on the ground the flexibility and support needed to continue to strengthen their relationships, even during this challenging time. Those include numerous administrative flexibilities and innovative ideas to continue to support families.
For instance, while many Head Start sites have closed, all Head Start programs and staff have remained fully funded. This ensures that parents like Rylan’s have needed support—even if that now involves teachers sending learning activities by means of a laptop, phone, or even front-porch drop off--while parents - are required by public health orders to remain safely at home. New funding ($700 million) also means that Head Start programs can remain operational as they continue to work, and to resume services in-person as soon as safely possible. The same applies to the vital services of our fatherhood programs all across the country.
While a number have had to suspend operations, many innovative programs have delivered their services virtually to fathers using this unprecedented moment to encourage and uplift fathers in the essential role they play in the lives of their children.
This experience for all parents, and dads in particular, to engage with their children in a new way is pivotal and important recognize. When life is busy, it’s hard to find time to sit down with children and engage directly with their learning and developmental needs. While COVID-19 has posed many challenges, it has only underscored how critical parents—and on this day, we especially note fathers—are in the lives and development of their children.
We must all take some time this Father’s Day to thank the fathers who are sitting at kitchen tables, with their toddler or preschooler on their lap, participating in the learning process up close. They are actively participating in their children’s growth and playing a major role in a process that is usually facilitated outside the home. Remember to thank all dads who have worked to support their children in a new and special way for months during this time.
Eventually, typical life will resume. Dad will go back to work and Rylan will return to Head Start. I hope Rylan’s dad will always remember the power of this moment, as he’s already playing an important role in his child’s healthy development. When a family comes together to embrace lifelong learning, there is always a road of opportunity ahead.