Dads Make a Difference Advocates Responsible Parenting for Young Teens

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Tweens

Jasmine Lofton, a student at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minn., attends a peer-educator training workshop for Dads Make a Difference. Photo courtesy DMAD

It took four women to create a group focusing on dads.

Dads Make a Difference (DMAD), a Minnesota-based nonprofit that promotes the positive involvement of fathers, also educates youth about responsible parenting.

"Dads Make a Difference started in 1993, as a collective vision of four women who we fondly refer to as the 'Founding Mothers,' " says Jan Hayne, executive director of DMAD since 2006.

The women involved in the group's formation all approached the problems of paternity from different perspectives. Rose Allen was a family educator with the University of Minnesota Extension who was interested in a father's role within the family structure. Kathy Brothen was a middle- and high school health educator with a community clinic who lacked boy-focused curriculum on teen pregnancy prevention. Laura Kadwell worked at the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota and wanted to promote the message that having a dad around is what's best for children. And Judy Wong Kidder, who came from the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, was focused on paternity and child support issues.

Middle schoolers are given the message: "Being a good father is like shaving. No matter how good you shave today, you have to do it again tomorrow." Photo courtesy DMAD

These four women got together 17 years ago and talked about their concerns regarding the lack of fathers as positive role models in the lives of Minnesota kids. They conducted focus groups with ninth and 10th graders to see what the kids knew about paternity issues, to assess their attitudes about fathers and to understand the best way to reach them and other youth. Responses they received ranged from "I love my dad because he comes to all my sports events" to "I've never met my dad so I'm missing out on all the things dads are supposed to do for their kids."

The focus groups helped establish certain guidelines of the program. One of the most significant: Kids need to learn about the importance of fathers and the responsibilities of parenting before they become sexually active, which many kids are determined to be around the ages of 12 to 14.

Another outcome was the strong belief that these middle school-age kids would be more receptive to messages of responsible parenting if those messages came from peer educators -- teens in their own community.

"The middle school kids really look up to the high school kids who come in and teach because they're just a little bit older, they're cool, they listen to the right music, wear the right clothes and know what it's like to be in middle school," Hayne tells ParentDish. " The young people really pay attention to those teens who come in and teach."

DMAD curriculum consists of a four-part lesson plan usually taught over four days. The program is primarily taught in middle school health classes, but is sometimes conducted in local community centers and faith-based venues. Both male and female high school students are encouraged to take the two-day training program to become peer educators, especially as the teaching model is as a male-female pair.

"The curriculum is intended for and taught by both boys and girls because we want the young men to understand the implications of their involvement in teen pregnancy prevention, and that it's important for them to be involved in the lives of their children when they have them," Hayne says. "But we also want girls to have conversations with boys about those things."

Hayne says when forming healthy relationships, it's just as important to talk about the larger quality of life issues -- such as deciding the right time to start a family, how involved both partners will be in raising a child and what the couple wants to accomplish before starting a family -- as it is to discuss housing and finance.

Since it's inception, DMAD has trained nearly 3,000 teens as peer educators and has reached about 68,000 middle schoolers with its curriculum. And some of those original middle schoolers and peer educators are now parents themselves.

Amy Johnson first learned about DMAD in 1996, when she was a high school junior. She says she signed up for the two-day training course as a way to legitimately ditch school for a day (the course is taught on one weekday and one weekend day). But the message of being responsible for her own future hit home.

"Dads Make a Difference made me stop and think about the choices I was making," she tells ParentDish. "The message the program pushes is about really thinking about the consequences and about how what you do today can affect your future. That had a huge impact on me."

Johnson, whose own mom was four months pregnant when she graduated high school, says her mother almost gave her up for adoption more than once and she spent some time in foster care. Johnson says her father was an alcoholic, as well as a drug dealer, and was abusive, primarily from ages 5 to 13, when he was able to secure visitation rights. Johnson says she realized she didn't want that to be her own life trajectory, and that it was within her power to shape her own destiny.

"I want more than that," Johnson says she told herself. "I want an education. I want my career. I want a partner that's going to be there to support me and be a wonderful father to my children -- have the same goals and dreams and values. And I wasn't going to stop until that's what I found. And that's what I achieved."

Now a middle school science teacher, Johnson says she is happily married to a wonderful man and raising their two young children together.

There's a quote on the wall of Amy's seventh grade classroom, which she says encapsulates the message of Dads Make a Difference: "To the world you might be one person but to one person you might be the world."

Related: Cheerleading Pop PSA Makes Us Say, 'Let's Go Dad!'

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.