“The whole premise, and what I tell the men, is to be the best father that they can be,” Horton said.
Participants have taken divergent routes into the program, and not all of them are there by choice. The fathers come from the courts, substance-abuse programs and of their own desire to make a change. Some have been to jail and are on probation, others are facing restraining orders or custody battles.
Fathers as young as 14 and grandfathers learning to be parents to their grandchildren have passed through the program, but most of the men are between 25 and 35. Horton has worked with a homeless man struggling to keep his family together despite his hardship and with a millionaire ordered into the program through divorce court. He flew to Plymouth County in a private plane, Horton said.
There are typically 15 participants per 12-week session. They meet once a week for two hours in space provided by Teen Challenge, a faith-based nonprofit. Classes feature a variety of guest speakers, as well as video- and discussion-based learning.
Horton and the guest speakers volunteer, and he has collected the learning materials himself overtime.
“I don’t use it like a traditional classroom,” Horton said. “It’s a very open structure and the men learn from each other by sharing their experiences.”
Horton been doing this long enough to know that if they complete the program, fathers will come away with a set of tools to help them be better parents. The topics range from the nuts-and-bolts of parenting like child safety, what to do when a baby cries or how to discipline a willful teenager, to listening skills and how to show affection and address a child’s emotions.
There are lessons about substance abuse and how a father’s drinking or drug use affects their children. Others focus on how to navigate the court system, keep up with child-support payments and create the opportunity to play a larger role in their children’s lives.
Horton also drives home the importance of providing financial support, to the best of one’s ability, for his child as well for that of the mother of his child. Some of the tactics are simple yet profound. For men who smoke cigarettes, struggle to pay for their child’s needs, he recommends placing a photo of them inside the pack. That way when they light up, they’re reminded of how that money could be better spent.
“To be honest I thought I was a good dad, and I felt a little resentful when the judge ordered me here,” said Bob Simeone, 49, recalling when he first entered the program six-years-ago.
Since then he has completed the course three times as a participant, and comes back regularly to share his story with other dads.
When he first joined the program, Simeone was going through a separation from the mother of his 2-year-old daughter. The two clashed over visitation and their dealings were soured by mistrust, heated arguments and restraining orders. The fatherhood program helped Simeone change the dynamic in the relationship in a way that has allowed him to play a much more active role in his daughter’s life.
One of the most important and often difficult lessons is how to overcome a contentious relationship with the mother of their child.
“I tell the guys, you don’t have to love them, but you do have to respect them,” Horton said.
For some of the men, their own parents fought bitterly. They may not have learned constructive ways of dealing with their partner. The program tries to teach strategies and techniques to avoid conflict.
If an argument starts, Horton tells them to remove themselves from the situation. He advises that dads “use their feet” and walk away when things get heated. Especially when the children are present. Arguing in front the kids can upset them, but it can also shape behaviors and affect their development, he explained.
Part of the program’s efficacy is that it shows the fathers that they’re not alone and that there are other dads facing the same challenges.
At a recent meeting, the men were asked to describe their relationships with their own fathers in a word or phrase. One man said “messed up,” another “terrible,” still another said he’d had a close loving relationship with his dad. But Horton said all too often the answer is that the relationship was nonexistent.
“Children who grow up without a father have a hole in their soul in his shape,” Horton said.
There is a generational cycle to parenting. Men who grow up without fathers are filled with self-doubt about becoming fathers themselves. The obstacles in their lives might make the challenge of being a dad feel insurmountable. Others grew up with chaotic home lives and want to avoid their parent’s shortcomings, but may not know how.
The Brockton Area Fatherhood Program aims to help dads who are confronting challenges – be it poverty, substance abuse, broken relationships, past crimes or a combination thereof – learn the tools to break that negative generational cycle, and give their children a brighter future.
It doesn’t always work. Horton knows that ultimately the motivation to be good dad comes from within.
“Success in this program is predicated on participant desire to be better fathers,” he said.
Morgan True may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org follow him on twitter @truemorgan_ENT.