Father knows best, on Tuesdays
A rough-fingered dad gently turned the bunny-festooned pages of a baby book for his two-year-old, while a shirt-and-tie dad poked his head into a miniature castle where his three-year-old found a magic place. They were learning bonding, fellowship and the effects of pizza and sugar on small children.
Over the past six years, Dads' Playgroup, one of a variety of Early Childhood Programs offered to the Martha's Vineyard community by Martha's Vineyard Community Services, has become a success. The program meets on Tuesday nights at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and draws 12 to 18 dads and as many as 20 children each week. They crowd into the cheery early childhood development room at the high school between 5 and 7 pm. But the numbers are not the story.
Photos by M.C. Wallo
"It's pretty powerful to have kids and dads see lots of dads interacting with their kids," volunteer coordinator Clark Myers said last week, while watching toddler Teagan Myers explore the blocks in the large, brightly decorated room.
It is clear that this is not your father's parenting model: children being seen but not heard. This model features kids being actively experienced and nurtured by their fathers.
Mr. Myers succeeded Edgartown's Drew Kelly, who initiated the program six years ago. "It's gotten really successful, probably as a result of a mini baby boom a while back," Mr. Myers said. "Fortunately, we live in a community which values and promotes a program like this - and moms just love it," he added.
To a man, the dads reported they feel completely supported, encouraged by spouses and significant others to participate. Several noted this two-hour slice of parenting has taught them how much energy and focus childcare requires and are happy to provide a break for mom.
The late Helen Maley established Martha's Vineyard's Early Childhood Program (ECP) in 1972. ECP supports the growth and development of children up to six years old and their families by providing such critical services as parenting education, childcare, parent/child activities, and individualized family support services. ECP programs reportedly reach 1,100 families a year.
Eamon Solway and his daughter, Lyla, three, are relative newcomers. "This is great. This is only our third time and Lyla's already expecting to come," Mr. Solway said. "We get a little time in the morning, but this has become our time together. She gets to see kids from under a year to four or five years old. I think it's good she can experience kids of different ages, levels and skills."
West Tisbury landscaper John Hoff has been an enthusiastic participant for several years. "I feel like it's a chance to give Heather [his wife] a break, and I hear that from the other guys," he said. "For me, I'd never had this intense one-on-one with my kids. Hey, I learned to change diapers in this room," he said laughing, and keeping an eye on Margaret, three, and Elizabeth, 18 months.
In addition to bonding with children and giving their mothers a break, the men enjoy learning from other dads, building friendships based on a shared experience, and networking with other Islanders.
A veteran of more than four years, Mr. Myers has observed the benefits. "I think the fathers learn more than the kids do. A lot of first-time dads come and they have a chance to learn from their peers," he said.
"This is my second year. I didn't know about Dads and Toddlers until my wife alerted me to it," said Oak Bluffs police officer Damien Harris. "I am pretty involved in my kids' lives but it's good to see how they interact with other kids and with the toys and the learning," he said as he watched 11-month-old Jacoby work on the concept of square pegs and round holes. His sister Amity, three, was drawing nearby with a group of friends. "Raising kids today is a very challenging job. I hear guys in here talking and asking questions of each other. It's a good network for dads and pretty entertaining."
Pizza time, the highlight of the evening, galvanized 17 little ones to arrange themselves quickly and efficiently around long miniature-sized tables. They knew the drill, and waited for their dads to distribute pizza slices and paper cups filled with juice. When it came to remembering the necessity of napkins, Mr. Harris came to the rescue.
Spills are minimal and mini-crises few. The dads deal with them well.
"Honey, if you want another slice, just ask me, don't take your brother's, okay?" counseled one dad. "Give him a hug and tell him you're sorry, okay?" Seconds later the siblings were again side-by-side, munching happily.
All the fathers have become aware of the effect of sugar on the behavior of small children; it's called Oreo time. "The pizza is good but the Oreos are better," Mr. Solway admitted. "The whole room changes when that sugar kicks in," he grinned.
The participating fathers seemed happy to have strength in numbers. "If you need a bathroom break, you just look up and point where you're going, and you get a nod - like, "I got it covered," Mr. Hoff said. "We pitch in. If a kid falls or something, you go to him or her - doesn't matter whose kid its is. It's good to have an extra pair of eyes."
Martha's Vineyard Community Services Early Childhood Programs, 508-693-7900.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.