LOUISVILLE -- As Father's Day approached, a group of dads got together in Shawnee Park to play kickball and catch up. The men are part of a Kentucky-based program that teaches them how to better communicate with and care for their kids.

James Bush Jr., 42, is an alumnus of the 4 Your Child program, which launched about four years ago and is led by University of Louisville professor Armon Perry. Bush brought a couple of his kids, including his 21-year-old son Tavion Mitchell, to the park.

He and Mitchell played some kickball with other folks who showed up for the gathering that evening before everyone stopped to snack and chat for a while.

Bush was in the 4 Your Child program's inaugural class and credits the initiative with giving dads like him a space to talk about the challenges they struggle with and hear about better ways of handling those setbacks.

"It's a way of venting and getting knowledge at the same time," he explained.

His son said he's noticed a change in his father since he completed the program a few years ago, noting that Bush is now more up-front if something important is bothering him. "He's a lot better at communicating," Mitchell said of his father.

Perry, an associate professor at U of L's Kent School of Social Work, said the 4 Your Child project is meant to help fathers who want to take a more active role in their children's lives increase their personal capacity to do that.

This isn't a remedial program, Perry stressed. It simply gives men who want to be better fathers some guidance and support.

"We're just stepping in and connecting them with the resources that will allow them to act on their intentions," he said. Participants receive 28 hours of parenting-related education over seven weeks, during which they attend workshops on topics like co-parenting. "We're talking positive communication, we're talking empathy, we're talking conflict resolution skills," he said of the topics the program tackles. "We equip them with additional information around child development so that they can begin to have a much clearer understanding of what they should expect out of their children at different points in their children's lives."

When 4 Your Child launched in 2015, it was envisioned as a five-year program. It operates not only in Louisville but also in Morehead, Owensboro and Paducah, providing support and resources to dads across Kentucky. To date, about 900 fathers have participated.

One of the first things they do is talk to the men about masculinity and help them deconstruct gendered expectations of fatherhood, Perry said. Being a dad is about more than just providing financially for your kids, although that's still important to many men.

"In a more contemporary society, we're asking men to not only be providers but (also) we're asking them to be nurturers and caregivers," he said, and many fathers could use some tips on how best to do that.

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