June 14, 2019

By Kay Knox

Dads Make a Difference

About the time I started at WithinReach, Governor Gary Locke created the Commission on Early Learning, with the goal of making sure every child in Washington was ready to learn when they started school.

That was more than 20 years ago, when we were known as Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Washington. We were invited to the early conversations about the Commission, with other thought leaders, due to our work with moms, kids and families. Also attending these meetings was internationally renowned infant mental health researcher and University of Washington professor, Dr. Kathryn Barnard. She was a fierce advocate for the health and well-being of infants and young children, and a big fan of WithinReach.

At one of the meetings, the group began to discuss what a critical resource WithinReach was for families in Washington. Dr. Barnard agreed, but added: “I love everything you do, but I don’t like your name, because it leaves out dads and they are critical to healthy child development and healthy families. From now on I’m going to call you Healthy Families.” I was a little shocked by her spontaneous decision to rename our organization, but I was also really interested in her passion about the important role dads play in the lives of children. Our name ‘Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies’ certainly didn’t do anything to recognize or include dads, and in fact, was one of the reasons we changed our name to WithinReach a few years later.

Her comments made me think more about how we did or didn’t include dads, and men in general, in our work. When I joined the organization we were nearly an all women staff and Board. Clearly, we were missing an important piece of the family health puzzle – dads!

The positive impact dads have is clear. A recent article in Fatherly describes how kids with engaged dads are less likely to drop out of school and to avoid risky behaviors, and are more likely to have high-paying jobs and positive, healthy relationships when they grow up. We know that early child development happens through a process referred to as ‘serve and return’ – an interactive process of infants ‘serving’ up engagement and parents ‘responding’ with a reciprocal reaction. This hilarious video of an infant and his dad having a full conversation is one of the best examples of serve and return I’ve seen and highlights an amazing dad in action.

As we approach Father’s Day, I am pleased to report that we are engaging more actively with dads in our work. Twenty percent of our staff are men, while 6 out of our 13 current Board members are men, and nearly all are dads. I am especially impressed by the dads on our Board, who care not only about their own families, but about the well-being of all Washington families. Their insight, energy and perspective as dads help grow the direction and impact of our work each year.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads in our state!