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Fatherhood course teaches dads to step up as parents

Joe Johnson

The quintessential Leave it to Beaver/Father Knows Best dad who arrives home after work, picks up a newspaper and, on occasion, offers some sage bit of wisdom to his children, is a person of the past.

"Society has changed," parent educator Joe Johnson said. "With two parents working, men need to step up, to be a part of a child's life in all aspects.

"My goal is to give guys an opportunity to learn what a nurturing parent is," he said of the fatherhood skills classes he leads, engaging an "underutilized resource" - Dads - to enhance the life of a child.

Johnson, an environmental services and public health manager at St. Joseph's Area Health Services, comes with credentials - via experience and training.

At the age of 2, Joe and his brother, Charles, 4, became wards of the state, growing up in foster homes, experiencing abuse and neglect.

"I was told as a kid, statistically, I would become a bad person - abusive, violent and suicidal," he said of the environment in which he was raised.

And, for a time, he took that forecast to heart, until his father-in-law "sat me down."

Paradoxically, Joe's wife and high school sweetheart, Amanda, had been raised in a warm, loving environment. Her dad was about to take on a role as a mentor.

"I had a choice," Joe said. "Drown myself in sorrow, or fly anew.

"I always knew I had a purpose," he said. "There was a reason behind what happened to me... God clicked on a light."

Joe would come to see his past experiences as a guide.

Now the father of two is "not afraid to love, or to explore different ways to express love," as son Mekiah and daughter Skylie can attest.

"The job at St. Joseph's was a big change in my life. But the big moment in my life was when I lost my brother," he said. Charles died at 29 from diabetic shock.

"That was the turning point. I made a decision. I saw the job (at St. Joseph's) and the rest is history. It's the best thing that's happened to me."

Earning 'Dad' credentials

Joe would add parenting education assistant - with an emphasis on fathers - to his title at St. Joseph's in 2010.

Community health manager Raeann Mayer, having learned of his "passion to bring change, to make families stronger," suggested training in Sarasota, Fla., via the Nurturing Fathers Program. He's now licensed as a consultant for the program.

"Fathers need to be a part of a child's life," he stresses - " in all aspects."

Being a nurturing father may be learning not to replicate the mistakes of one's father, he said. But the class is not necessarily for a man who's had a bad relationship with his dad.

"The goal is to give guys" - any male involved with a child's upbringing - "the opportunity to learn what a nurturing parent is," he said of the 13-week series of classes initiated this year.

And it comes with benefits.

Studies show father involvement leads to increased cognitive capabilities in kids - higher test scores, for example. Kids gain better problem solving abilities - a willingness to try new endeavors among the benefits. And children whose dads are part of their everyday lives tend to have enhanced social competencies - greater self-esteem and secure attachments.

The earlier fathers become involved in parenting, the better.

"Kids learn from us," he said. "And part of that is being a nurturing spouse."

An impact on tomorrow

The group, Joe said, is inclusive. "We rely on each other. Communication is key."

"Men, in general, don't talk. There's love. But kids need to know how they have impacted their parents' lives," he said.

Joe encourages the men in the group to "bring out their vulnerable side. To be honest, become leaders to a child. That's a gift, an accomplishment.

And he prepares them for the "bumps in the road," which parents may incur.

Positive parent involvement enhances a child's self-image and reduces chances of a teen pregnancy or bullying, as examples.

"Be proud of yourself," he advises his "students" as they depart.

And after class, they head to the basketball courts, to build camaraderie, interacting as a social group.

"We're on earth just one time. And we don't know when it's done. Make the most of every single day and those around you will feel the same," Joe advises.

A father's interaction with his children "has a ripple effect on the future," he said of being a catalyst for generations of dads to come.

"What you teach them today, has an impact on tomorrow."