Breaking free from the ‘Man Box’: How the Caring Dads programme helps break the cycle of abuse

18th June 2023




Written by

Bryony Rogers

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Stephanie Lee, Caring Dads Co-ordinator at Hampton Trust

When we celebrate Fathers’ Day, we do so to honour the father figures in our lives: our dads, grandads, uncles, honorary uncles and godfathers. We give them gifts and cards and spend some quality time with them, and we thank them for being great dads who look after us, laugh with us, watch out for us, tell the best jokes, do fun things with us, have our backs, and teach us about life.

Our dads are our most important male role models. They hold a unique position as the primary figures we encounter early in life, leaving an indelible imprint on our development, the way we see and approach the world, and in particular the way we see and approach men and women when we’re teens and adults. When fathers are positive role models, they greatly contribute to our growth into kind, compassionate and confident adults. However, when they fall into the constraints of the Man Box, it can hinder healthy relationships and perpetuate harmful behaviours.

In the 1980s, social justice educator Paul Kivel introduced the concept of the ‘Act like a man box’, which was later expanded upon by Tony Porter into the globally recognised Man Box. This paradigm illustrates the traditional societal expectations of what it means to be a man: Within the Man Box, men are expected to be strong, successful, powerful, dominating, fearless, in control, and emotionless. Within the Man Box, women are viewed as objects, as the property of men, and as having less value than men. As Tony Porter says, “the teachings of the Man Box allow violence against women and girls to persist”.

This is where the Caring Dads programme comes in. Caring Dads was developed in Canada in 2001 based on the premise that violence against women and violence against children are intricately intertwined, and that these two issues both can and should be addressed together. It is a programme designed for fathers who have been abusive in their relationships and who recognise that they are accountable for their actions and can understand and acknowledge the impact their actions have had on their children. Its core aim is to help fathers build positive and healthy relationships with their children and become positive role models.

Central to the Caring Dads programme is the process of challenging and redefining masculinity. By exploring a version of themselves that exists beyond the confines of the Man Box, fathers can embrace gentleness, vulnerability and compassion when interacting with their children. That alternative version allows sons to cry instead of telling them to toughen up, and it fosters respect for the child’s mother, recognising her significance in the child’s life.

The Caring Dads programme acknowledges the challenges faced by fathers who have been conditioned to reject vulnerability and express any emotion other than anger. It empowers them to unravel the impact of their own upbringing and adopt new, healthier approaches to parenting. By breaking free from the harmful beliefs ingrained in the Man Box, modelling accountability and demonstrating the ability to change, these fathers can become powerful agents of transformation in their children’s lives – helping them develop into compassionate adults and thereby ultimately breaking the cycle of abuse.