Strong Fathers Strong Families: A Father’s Day Feature
In honor of Father’s Day, we wanted to highlight a dad who we’re grateful to work with. J. Michael Hall, M.Ed., is the founder of the fatherhood engagement program Strong Fathers Strong Families. Since 2003, this program has been implemented at schools throughout the United States and internationally, reaching over 225,000 dads and half a million kids. In 2019, our Institute was contracted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to develop an evaluation plan for the Strong Fathers program.
Our Institute will be conducting research with a selection of schools who are either planning on implementing Strong Fathers Strong Families programs or who have already implemented programming. Currently, Strong Fathers offers Bring Your Dad to School Days and subject-specific STEM or reading events, in addition to staff trainings, conference workshops, and consulting opportunities.
Last week, we had a Zoom call with Mike to learn a little bit more about the fire behind this project and his reflections on fatherhood, based on his interactions with dads from all over the world.
TXICFW: Can you share a little bit about your background and education?
Mike: I like to joke that I’m a “recovering” school administrator. I was a special education teacher and then a middle school principal by the age of 28. In my spare time, I trained with the former Austin Center for Successful Fathering, which lit my fire both personally and professionally. Back then, I was a young father and a young principle, and I was trying to find the balance between the time I gave my kids at home and my kids at work. After four years as a principal, I realized I really wanted more time with my own kids. From there, I went back to working as a teacher for a year before working at the Center for Successful Fathering full-time for 3 years. When the Center shut down, I had a lot of people in my life who knew how passionate I was about working with fathers and they suggested I start my own organization.
TXICFW: How did you get involved with implementing the Strong Fathers Strong Families program?
Mike: In 2003, the existing father engagement programs painted families as brittle or fragile, and we knew from our own experience that imagery decreased engagement— none of the dads wanted to be perceived that way. We basically named our organization as the antithesis of what we saw, hence the name Strong Fathers Strong Families. Because of my background in education, I knew firsthand that schools need to engage parents, but they often don’t have the time. Our research shows us that if we strengthen fathers, we are also making stronger kids. For this reason, we’ve developed programs conducive to schools in order to help them meet their goals on family engagement, all while working within the structure of the school calendar. We do all of our presenting in a school cafeteria, because that’s what schools everywhere have in common. Typically, we have one person go in and present to 200-300 dads and kids. Last year, we averaged 140 families per event for 70 events. We’ve developed a method that works because it’s built within the context of how a school works.
TXICFW: What do you hope comes out of your partnership with us?
Mike: I hope that this partnership shows that what we do works, but I’m also excited to learn about how we can do better. All of the information we receive from an evaluation plan will inform us as to what to do next. When we talk about new partnerships in other places, I never would have thought about creating a virtual dads’ programs, but we’re having 200-400 Singapore dads join us virtually. We’re learning about timing, how we approach various communities, and how to be mindful of different cultures. Cultural challenges and norms of course have to be handled in a different way. But ultimately, I believe that the heart of a dad is not really all that different from culture to culture, which the ethos of what we try to bring to our work. That is, we’re not teaching dads around the world in a different way. Mostly we are trying to learn how the dads in all of our programs really feel about the work that we’re doing. What is the average participant really enjoying and gaining from this process? We want to know what is working for them and what isn’t.
TXICFW: What is something you want others to know about Strong Fathers Strong Families that might surprise people?
Mike: The biggest surprise that people get with our work is how quickly their doubt shifts to hope. Often, when we go into new schools and explain our methods, the standard response is “This sounds great, but I don’t think it’ll work here.” They’re always blown away by the fact that we’re getting the same results in all the places. When we set up a Bring Your Dad to Work Day and promote it the right way, we’re going to fill a cafeteria with people they’ve never seen before. I think what I want people to know, not just about Strong Fathers but about this work in general, is that there are things possible that may not be from your experience. We see Strong Fathers as a working lab meant to scaffold best practices across the board for father engagement. We’re building a body of knowledge that can inform other efforts besides just the work that we do through our portable and replicable best practices.
TXICFW: We know that fathers play a vital role in their child’s development. However, when we typically talk about father involvement, we often hear about the impact of fatherlessness. That said, can you explain the concept behind father-fullness?
Mike: Saying that the problem of fatherlessness lies in children not having connections with their fathers is like going around trying to convince people that cancer is bad. That concept is obvious, and it operates from a deficit-based perspective. Dads will come to our programming because we are not deficit-based, but rather solution-focused. We are constantly trying to find answers to the problems that impact dads as they work to connect more consistently with their kids.
A lot of fatherhood programs operate more like manhood programs, focusing on employment, addiction, criminal record expungement, or other big challenges. That’s not a fatherhood program, though. What we’ve found through our work is that when dads are connected to their kids, they have more strength and motivation to overcome the barriers in his way. Our goal is to clear the path to get dads to their kids. This allows a dad to get redemption when he sees what’s possible, and from there he’ll move mountains to be a better dad.
TXICFW: What’s your favorite part of being a dad?
Mike: My kids are now 24 and 28, so I still have some influence but I’m losing control [laughs]. Honestly, my favorite part about being a dad is watching them become their better selves. It’s hard as a dad when you see your kids struggle, or when you know that they’re going to have to go through difficult times, in order to get to better. I watch them go through tough times now and it feels the same as it did watching them work through road bumps when they were three. I know they’ll overcome these things, and I also know that by letting them work through that these experiences, they’ll have built a new skill set for whatever the struggle is. Seeing them in their joy, I’ve realized that’s what we’ve been working on and that’s the kid we always hoped to have, but there’s so much hard work that goes into getting there that I can’t do for them. This is this best part and the hardest part of being a dad to me.