Fatherhood in 21st Century Asia: Research, Interventions and Policies

Significant Milestone for Research on Fatherhood in Asia

With rapid economic development, erosion of extended families and changing gender norms, the role of fathers in Asia is changing.  Yet, compared to the burgeoning literature on father involvement in Western societies, there have been limited studies on the evolving roles of fathers in Asia.tree11

Explaining the intent of the conference, convenor Prof Jean Yeung of the Asia Research Institute and Department of Sociology, who has had a keen interest in family issues said, “with societies experiencing challenges such as low marriage and fertility rates, much of the research was focusing on mothers and children.  A very clear missing piece in this puzzle was the role of fathers. How are they doing? What are some of the challenges they are facing? Why do some men decide to become fathers while others don’t? I wanted to bring scholars together who are interested in fatherhood and focus on this”.

The Fatherhood in 21st Century Asia: Research, Interventions and Policies Conference, then, represents a significant milestone, bringing together academics, policy-makers and parents to generate dialogue and share knowledge on fatherhood in the Asian context.

Need for More Information & Understanding of Asian Context

The Conference, organised by the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute and the Dads for Life Movement, was held on 17 and 18 June 2010 at the NUS @ Bukit Timah campus.  Guest-of-Honour Parliamentary Secretary of the Singapore Ministry of National Development Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman opened the conference, highlighting the need for more information and understanding of fatherhood in the Asian context.

He said, “One of the most important things that we have not done enough in our society is to look at the role of men in our family, particularly in their roles as husbands and fathers…We know from international research that when fathers are involved, children, mothers and fathers themselves benefit.  Yet, our own local research shows that fathers are less involved than mothers.”

However, reflecting on his personal experience as a father of two, Dr Mohamad Maliki noted that things were changing in line with evolving norms.  Noting that in the past, “none of the men’s toilet or changing rooms had diaper-changing rooms and I had a hard time changing my son’s diapers when he was very young… Today, we are seeing a lot more such facilities.  This is an example of how a simple facility can help set the right tone and direction for behaviour… The primary message is that diaper-changing is as much a father’s role as it is a mother’s.”

Keynote Address by Prof Marsiglio
Prof Jean Yeung and Prof William Marsiglio address the conference - Photo: The DadsforLife Resource Team
Prof Jean Yeung and Prof William Marsiglio address the conference – Photo: The DadsforLife Resource Team

The conference keynote was delivered by Prof William Marsiglio, from the Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law at the University of Florida. A father of two boys, Prof Marsiglio’s interest in researching fatherhood was sparked off when he worked with national survey data in the United States and subsequently published work on teenage fatherhood during his time as a graduate assistant.

He has since lectured at international conferences and published seven books on fathering, including Men on a Mission: Valuing Youth Work in Our Communities.

Prof Marsiglio set the context for the conference, drawing from his personal experience and research to advocate the need for a broader thinking of fatherhood, and identified opportunities to engage fathers in diverse settings. He highlighted that academics and policy-makers need to be sensitive to the evolving identities of men in the context of relationships with themselves, their partners and children.

Address Fatherhood Issues from an Early Stage

Amongst many other useful insights, Prof Marsiglio also argued for the need to address fatherhood issues from an early stage so that young men will be better prepared to be involved fathers.

This resonated with NTU student and participant Kiang Kai Lun, who viewed the conference as “an enlightening and eye opening experience”. “On a personal level”, he shared, “I was able to gain useful tips and insights on how to become a better father.  As a future father, I am indeed privileged and fortunate to hear expert opinions on fatherhood”.

Five Thematic Panel Discussions

17 papers were presented by representatives from international academic and social institutions  in the five thematic panel discussions entitled ‘Father Involvement in Changing Asia’, ‘Fathering Across Diversity’, ‘Father-Child Relationship and Fathering Styles’, ‘Fatherhood Ideology, Aspirations and Motivations’ and ‘Fatherhood in the Context of Migration’.

The papers addressed the diverse issues pertaining to fatherhood in ten Asian countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. A/P Rukmalie Jayakody, from the Pennsylvania State University, shared her research on the role of fathers in the context of social changes in Vietnam. Beyond the individual researches, though, A/P Jayakody aptly summed up the value of a conference such as this when she commented that the conference provided a  “valuable opportunity to discuss fatherhood from the Asian perspective and to interact and exchange knowledge with other academics, practitioners and policy-makers.”

She added, “It is particularly useful to come and learn from Singapore, which has clearly articulated goals on father involvement.  I look forward to more sharing, particularly on the experience of various Asian countries in implementing actual programmes and policies relating to fatherhood.”

Key Issues Raised at Panel Discussions

Some of the key issues raised during the panel discussions included the gender roles and task division between fathers and mothers in the household, with fathers seeing themselves as primary breadwinners and mothers as caregivers for the children.

Presenters also highlighted that research showed that while fathers wanted to spend more time with their children, they were less involved in care-giving due to work commitments or a lack of emotional engagement.

Participants and panelists also discussed the impact of Confucianism in patriarchal Asian societies on fatherhood and methods to boost fathers’ interest in care-giving and strengthen father-child emotional bonds.

An Asian Network of Academics & Practitioners

In addition to a conference report, the papers will be published in a special academic journal in the near future. In her closing remarks, Prof Yeung commented that the conference surfaced significant issues such as the deep-seated gender roles in Asian societies, the impact of migration and globalisation on fatherhood and families.

“This is just the beginning step… and we will have more focused conference themes and dialogue in future”, she said.  Moving forward, Prof Yeung intends “to form an Asian network of fatherhood, both in research and on programmes” for knowledge-sharing. She also commented that partnerships between academics, policy-makers and social movements such as the Dads for Life movement would be critical in facilitating greater father involvement in care-giving.

Echoing her view, Prof Marsiglio commended the work of the DadsforLife movement. “The way (the Dads for Life movement) has gone about trying to create a network of interests and to identify advocates of father-child relationships, I think they have done a good job so far as to pin-pointing their efforts.”

The Big Picture on Fatherhood

He explained, “Public policy is just one piece of the puzzle. If there isn’t buy-in at the local grassroots level, you can produce all kinds of progressive policies, but if your boss at work is not helping to sustain a father-friendly environment then those policies are not going to have much effect. ”

When asked if he had any parting words for fathers, Prof Marsiglio advised, “time goes quickly and your children will only be small for a short period of time, so if you don’t invest your passion when you have the chance, you will likely regret it later on.  So I would like to encourage fathers of young children to spend a great deal of time doing all the things they can do to create an emotional bond that will sustain over time.”

Walking the talk, Prof Marsiglio headed home immediately after the conference to spend Father’s Day with his family.

Article written by: The Dads for Life Resource Team, which comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 28-04-2011.