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Holly Zwerling: The Fatherhood Reading Squad

Holly Zwerling is founder of the Fatherhood Task Force of South Florida, which includes an initiative called the Fatherhood Reading Squad. A marriage and family therapist and clinical social worker, Zwerling has spent thirty years working in parent education and community organization. She has been recognized by the Children’s Trust of Miami for her dedication to increasing the involvement of fathers in children’s lives. Their website is:

Q: Please tell us briefly about the Fatherhood Task Force of South Florida’s Fatherhood Reading Squad.
A: It’s an attempt at encouraging fathers to recognize their importance in reading or telling stories to children regularly.

Q: Why did your organization feel a need to initiate it?
A: Because fathers don’t necessarily see themselves as educators of children; they oftentimes defer that responsibility to their partners. So we thought by calling it the Fatherhood Reading Squad, we could motivate fathers to step forward and learn about their importance to their children’s literacy. And fathers could begin to see themselves as Leaders for Readers.

Q: What messages would this group like to communicate to parents in general, fathers in particular?
A: That everyone in the family is a resource for children to increase their literacy. Each member of the family brings uniqueness to their reading style, their voice and their manner of interacting with children. It would be beneficial if each member of the family could recognize and value the contribution of the other and support their involvement.
There’s not a lot of literature about the positive effects fathers have when they read to children. Our Fatherhood Reading Squad program is trying to accrue evidence that demonstrates this outcome. Children appear to become very elated when fathers come into the classrooms because it’s unique to have male figures present. We will be working with the teachers to assess their findings too.

Q: Do you have any personal stories about how fathers or their children have benefited?
A: A Fathers are attending Fatherhood Reading Squad orientations and meeting other fathers. They feel like they are not a token dad when other fathers are present. They share ideas about how and when to read to children. We are now working with the Center for Excellence in Early Learning and creating more opportunities for fathers to take out books from the library. Children are happy to see the new daddy and me books we purchased for the Center. As a result of the program, fathers are volunteering to read in their children’s classes. We would like to identify businesses that support this program and would enable their employees to take off time to read in their children’s classes. This would be welcomed as a social responsibility pledge that communities make to children.

Q: What’s your best advice to single mothers?
A: Single mothers should try and identify a responsible male figure in their lives, whether father or partner or boyfriend or grandfather, and provide opportunities for their child to interact with him. One mother whose child’s father was absent identified men she knew who were capable of providing her son information he needed, e.g. musicians to help him with his music, and others to take him to sports activities. We want to encourage single mothers to choose responsible people who might enjoy reading with the child or talking to their child as all children benefit from that interaction. Single mothers who communicate with the child’s father should encourage him to develop a relationship with the child – to talk as they walk and get to know each other. Raising a child to feel safe and loved is a team effort, something no one person can do alone. As fathers learn the importance of talking to their children the children will become more interested in talking too, and interested in words.

Q: What are the long-term goals of the Fatherhood Reading Squad?
A: To see more fathers volunteering their time in the classroom, reading at home, recognizing themselves as educators and getting involved with legislation (children’s movements promoting literacy). We’d love to make our group a national program and get funding to do that.

Q: Do you have any special tips for reading?
A: You have to know your child and yourself. Some men are more verbal than others. Some like to act things out. There are many different ways one can teach a child. It’s important to recognize how one’s children learn. Become familiar with a book so you are comfortable sharing it with your child. Find a place where you won’t have interruptions. Too many fathers are tuned into technology and not focusing on their children. When you read to children, you need to focus on their responses, and you can’t do that unless you’re totally absorbed in observing whether they’re listening and learning. Being attentive while reading teaches children about being attentive and respectful. If it is just you and your child you develop a special relationship and develop a strong personal and social bond. Be aware of their facial expressions. Are they curious? Do they understand what you are reading? Also, we like to tell dads that they can write books – can sit down and write about something that happened to them, be creative themselves. They can tell stories if they are not comfortable reading and of course use their imaginations in making things magical for children. Fathers can relive their childhood through reading favorite childhood stories together. The Fatherhood Reading Squad emphasizes the benefits of reading and sharing literacy activities with children, discovering the world of words and images. No special skills are needed – just father’s time, love and an interest in sharing what they know.

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