Open Heart Practice: Reconnecting Children with their Fathers

by David Epston & Wally McKenzie, New Zealand

This original program, developed in New Zealand by David Epston and Wally McKenzie, focuses on reconnecting children with their fathers, particularly in instances of separation and divorce.

An Open Heart Practice

In the Open Heart program, young people get a sense of who their parents are and the sort of relationships they can expect, rather than what they might dream about. Two potential outcomes become possible:

  • reconnection, on terms determined by young people and their fathers – not having to be mediated by mothers
  • reconciliation to what might be experienced as something lacking in the child-father relationship, allowing children to consider possibilities for happiness other than those that may derive from culturally-driven beliefs about relationships.

This practice can also set mothers free from the burden of unfair and unreasonable expectations surrounding facilitating viable father-child relationships.

One way to engage fathers is for the therapist to write letters inviting them to join with their children and the therapist in conversations about fathering. Children provide advice as to whether this is a good option, and are involved in the drafting of the letter, often letting Dad know that “it is really hard to talk to parents about things sometimes,” and assuring him that “Mum won’t be there.”

Discussions with fathers provide an opportunity for them to notice fathering practices they engage in, such as “minimal fathering,” “random or unpredictable fathering,” “hot and cold fathering,” and other practices that they and their children may experience as unsatisfactory. Fathers can then consciously choose a fathering practice that is more responsive to their children’s needs and concerns.

Interviews with fathers led to several different possibilities that allowed them to begin to question some of their thinking and actions:

  • a distinction between “covering up” and “making up,” trying to pay attention to what in fact is happening; otherwise “covering up” grief and despair can lead to “making up” a dream father;
  • employing a personal moral frame of reference rather than psychological or legal frames, thus contrasting the “morality of severance” with the “morality of fatherhood;”
  • considering “living wills,” attending to what parents “bequeath” to their children as an endless process that begins at birth.

Listen to Audio Interview

–from Wally and David–

“We noticed the poignancy, directness, and painful sincerity, offered by young people in the Open Heart program. We considered this “openheartedness” very risky and contrived as many safeguards as possible to respect such sincerity. Although we realized this process could lead to connection in ways that were deeper and richer than any previous father – child connection, that was not always the outcome.”

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