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Healthy Fatherhood is Shifting Social Norms Toward Equality

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By Cindy Bielke

In the days leading up to Father’s Day, the results of two studies about gender equality were released. One reported by CNN 1 shared that one-third of German men believe violence against women is justified.  The 2023 Gender Social Norms Index2, revealed that 9 out of 10 men and women have a bias against women.

Shifting social norms to change entrenched beliefs about women as less-than or somehow deserving of mistreatment is work for all of us to take on. Fathers, especially, have a role to play modeling healthy approaches to masculinity, including practicing gender equality.

Jon Heath, co-founder and co-facilitator of Pathways to Family Peace, a Global Rights for Women’s direct service program, works with men who use abuse in personal relationships. In his work, men learning to see wives and children as individuals is a profound concept. It begins with using their partners first names in class, instead of “the wife” or “my old lady.” Bringing the voice of the survivor into every class and making space for critical thinking, lies at the heart of the work Jon does with men who have been abusive in family situations.

The men, most of whom are ordered by judges to participate in Pathways to Family Peace’s’ innovative domestic violence intervention program, spend 90 minutes weekly for 27 weeks learning to think differently about their partners, children and themselves. Through conversation, journaling, video presentations and hearing about the experiences of others, men begin to consider—often for the first time in their lives—how their abuse has harmed the ones they love. And they are taught to see themselves clearly too, without shame.

“There’s a perception that you’re either good or bad,” Jon explains, “but people are much more complicated than that. One-dimensional monsters can’t change, human beings can.”

Jon has experienced the power of change with his own dad, who had acted abusively toward his mother during Jon’s childhood. When Jon visited his parents as an adult, shortly after the birth of his baby daughter, his father started to use abusive language. Jon calmly told him it was not acceptable. Over time, his father changed in order to stay in relationship with his son and granddaughter. Eventually, his father apologized. Jon explains that when fathers assume accountability for abuse, their children are freed to forgive. They may begin to remember good things and, if time permits, create new, healthy family memories.

With Father’s Day on the horizon, it seemed only right to end my conversation with Jon by asking what he believes is the most powerful thing men can do right now to be healthy fathers. His answer is surprisingly simple:

Be curious!


1 https://www.cnn.com/2023/06/11/europe/germany-violence-against-women-study-intl/index.html

2 https://hdr.undp.org/system/files/documents/hdp-document/gsni202302pdf.pdf


“Curious fathers have a belief that they don’t know everything yet. Having the belief as a father that I am still learning and that my child is also my teacher, produces actions of respect and curiosity. Marshall Rosenberg taught that cruel dehumanizing judgment and curiosity cannot co-exist,” Jon explains.

“So, if I am a curious father, I will not be a cruel and dehumanizing judge of a father. My actions will show up as wanting to listen to my child’s questions and observations about their world. My actions will be showing up as a co-parent or co-facilitator of my child’s journey into adulthood, and the belief that my child will have as many valuable lessons to teach me as I will be teaching to them will get reinforced over and over.

“Lastly, a curious father will facilitate a trusting dialogue with their child instead of delivering lectures, and for the child, this will become a liberating protection from the constant trickle of dehumanizing beliefs the world tries to attach to children on their way to adulthood.”


Cindy Bielke is a writer and business communications professional. She lives in St. Paul with her husband, Steve, and their dog, Pippin.