By Melissa Kok
WHERE have all the fathers gone?
In schools, at least, they are hardly a presence, even though many activities are meant to engage both mum and dad.
Fathers make up less than 30 per cent of the turnout at activities such as parent-child school camps or parent-teacher associations.
Their participation is especially low in parent support groups and parent volunteer programmes - the turnout of dads does not even hit 30 per cent.
The low scores for fathers were revealed in a survey of schools by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) last year.
Principals, vice-principals and heads of department in 218 primary and secondary schools were asked to give their perceptions of the benefits of fathers' participation in schools, and identify challenges in engaging them.
Educators who responded said fathers tended to be busy with their jobs, and some mothers preferred not to involve their husbands in school activities.
Also, fathers were often hesitant to find themselves surrounded by women, which is often the case for parent-related activities in schools.
But those polled felt there are many benefits when fathers are actively involved in their children's school lives.
Children with involved dads exhibit more positive attitudes towards school, do better in class, and have fewer discipline problems, among other things.
Yesterday, a new programme to reach out to fathers, Fathers@Schools, was launched by Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan. So far, 55 primary and secondary schools have signed up.
Participating schools receive up to $2,000 annually to set up support groups for fathers and encourage father-focused activities, such as camps with their children and sports events.
Unity Primary School, for example, is considering setting up a new group for fathers who can act as role models for children with absent dads.
Non-participating schools will be invited to sharing sessions so they can find out more about the initiative and decide whether to join in. Eventually, the programme will also go to kindergartens and preschools.
Dr Balakrishnan also announced the launch of a new website to encourage father-child bonding (www.dadsforlife.sg).
Users who log on to the website will find easy-to-read research and parenting articles, and will be able to discuss father-related issues on an online forum and gain practical tips on fatherhood.
Dads for Life, a national movement launched last November under the National Family Council, aims to get more fathers involved in their children's lives.
Speaking at the event at North View Primary School, Dr Balakrishnan said it was important for fathers to be involved in their children's lives as they contribute uniquely to child development.
A father of four himself, he said dads should be more involved in school activities with their children, as that is where children spend a large part of their time.
'Our children are young only once, and if we miss these formative periods in their lives, we can never rewind time and never go back,' he said.
'We need to do our bit as fathers, for a variety of reasons: First, our children need us; second, our wives want us to do so; and third and most importantly, we do it for our own sakes.'
One father who believes in being actively involved is Mr Husain Ratlamwala, 52, whose daughter Munira Husain Khamali, nine, the youngest of three sisters, attends North View Primary.
The quality and safety officer said the biggest benefit of spending more time together at school activities is the strong bond he has developed with his daughter.
'She knows I'm there for her, and the feeling is priceless,' he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.