Wednesday, 26 March 2014

'When did being a good father become so complicated?'

That's the question posed by Alex Blimes in this rather long and slightly confused piece in The Guardian. I suspect the answer is 'when the broadsheets started paying people by the word to write about it'.

No doubt I risk accusations of pot-kettle-black here, but I don't think being a good father actually is that complicated, mainly because what's needed are the characteristics of a good person in general. You just need to take some time, be loving, set boundaries but have fun, and relax. I recognise that this is an ideal I don't always live up to, but this blog was intended to be more about celebrating the numerous examples I come across of Dads getting it pretty much right, rather than worrying too much about when we don't.

I'm sure Alex and I agree on many things. For example, when he says approvingly of his friend that 'He is not defined solely, or overwhelmingly, or even chiefly, by his child-rearing achievements and expertise', I agree that is desirable. Although retaining a decent chunk of your own identity in the face of the competing demands of work, marriage and fatherhood is not an easy task, it is indeed an important one.

But maybe where we diverge is when Alex writes:

When did being a good father get so complicated? Is there any middle ground, or must one either go full Wet Wipe or be a lazy, incompetent, dinosaur? Is it still possible, as it certainly used to be, to get away with the occasional omelette, some skewwhiff shelves in the spare room and, once in a blue moon, a full day with the kids so your other half can go out?

I know the answer to that last question. It's no, probably not. The expectations of fathers have changed. More is demanded of us.

You can't make an omlette without reading a 3000 word article
about whether or not you're doing it properly
I'm not sure I agree with that. Of course there's still a middle ground, occupied by the vast majority of Dads. And if expectations of Dads have changed, I'm not convinced that pressure comes from the Mums or from Society in general, I think it's largely internal. Perhaps more Dads are realising that no, it's not acceptable to do a half-arsed job when it comes to something as important as raising your own children. Surely that's no bad thing.

No doubt many of us are still wrestling with how to juggle the various aspects of our hectic lives, just as many women are. And no doubt that will lead to endless hand-wringing and troll-baiting in the liberal broadsheets, on radio phone-ins and on blogs like this one. But at the end of the day most Dads I know appreciate they are not and never can be perfect, but that as long as they love their children and show them that through what they say and what they do then they're not going to go far wrong.

The last word should surely go to this great New Yorker piece from a couple of days ago: 'A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit.'

Monday, 24 March 2014

Dad dancing – 'like an apple going brown'

While it's on the BBC iPlayer, you have to listen to the feature on BBC Woman's Hour about 'Dad dancing'. It starts at 12:15.

'They call it Dad Dancing,' says the presenter. 'It's when a man jerks and jiggles to the music and his children shriek at him to stop because it's embarrassing. Dads… seem to feel they are not the greatest dancers, so they hang back or just shuffle a bit.'

This, the presenter goes on, is despite research from Goldsmiths which shows that more men than women can recognise a beat accurately, so men should be better dancers than women. Guest on the show, the wonderful Dr Peter Lovatt, says that 'data tells us that men are born to dance', and as they get older they tend not to because they are self-conscious, they feel they haven't got any motor co-ordination, they feel they don't know what to do.

I wouldn't disagree with that, having been in an audience of hundreds at one of Peter's talk where I was literally the only person not joining in (the rest were students). I'm sure there are, as he says, social and psychological reasons why men don't dance. But I do have a few points to make.

Firstly, although I do tend to have prohibitively dodgy knees when it comes to a conference Ceilidh or some line dancing at a wedding, give me Andy Weatherall in the DJ booth or a 90's indie disco and I may well be tempted out of retirement. As the salsa teacher on Woman's Hour said, 'when they relax after a few classes' – I heard 'glasses'.

Secondly, I'm not so convinced 'Mum Dancing' is that different. 'Show your wrists' anyone?

Thirdly, I had to laugh when Peter came to the possible evolutionary psychology explanation. 'If dancing is part of the human mate selection process, like an apple going brown is meant to put people off eating it, perhaps middle-aged men dancing in this uncoordinated way might be signalling to women that they are not the right people to mate with.'

I don't need dance to send that signal! I'm well aware that I'm now past it... if I was labouring under any illusions they were shattered on a 'Dads night out' in the Peak District a couple of years ago. Freed from parenting duties by our other halves, we had a great pub crawl round Castleton, ending in a lock-in where we found ourselves chatting to some younger women – pretty much as equals, we thought. We would never, of course, have dreamt of performing any mating rituals, but I suspect some of us thought that in a parallel universe it might have been an option. Until, that is, one of the young ladies in question uttered the immortal line 'You know, you've really restored my faith in the older generation.'

So I think most 'Dad dancing' isn't about sending unconscious messages from some primordial past... we know we're the brown apple, and we're celebrating by dancing like nobody's watching. Because nobody is.

As with all evolutionary psychology though, this should lead to testable predictions. Peter, what of it? Do Dads dance worse than married non-fathers, and worse still than single men of the same age? Do they know they do? Do they in fact dance their worst when their kids are watching, because embarrassing them is fun? Do married men with two kids and a vasectomy dance worse than anyone else? It would be nice to have an excuse that's backed by science…

Friday, 17 January 2014

Dads on holiday

Having just booked my first ever proper, foreign, all-inclusive family holiday, I am very hopeful that the effect on me will be something like this.

Because that's what it's like, isn't it Dads? Before the holiday, you tend to arrive home at midnight, never speak to your family, break everything you touch and generally groan under the weight of your hideous deformities. It's a wonder you don't literally eat those children. But once you get on holiday, you slowly begin to participate in life, culminating with a sequence where your horns fall off (but you still manage to frighten the life out of a hotel maid), you stagger with your last ounce of energy into the sea… and then you emerge as a new man, a hunky fella whose family are happy to jump on, possibly including your wife (all these ads tend to hold out the hope of more sex with your wife).

Even though it's yet more 'Dads, eh? What are they like?' advertising, I'm not annoyed by the ad... I'm more annoyed that it's pretty much true (apart from the sex with your wife bit).

Friday, 6 December 2013

Big lies to tell small children

As we approach Christmas, the topic of lying to your children seems apposite.

Lying to your children is great fun. I'm not talking about 'I'm not your real Dad' type lies... just daft things that one day they will have a little chuckle about and then use on their own children. This is our folklore… if we no longer wrestle bears, we can at least pass on stories and knowledge around petty wind ups from generation to generation.

There are some standard classics. For example, if the ice cream van goes past with the music on, that means it has run out. I'm pretty sure that one featured first in a stand-up routine, and I think it's become something of an urban myth that all Dads in the 1970s used this one. (Incidentally, ice cream vans are a good prompt for lies and humour in general. For example, when my 7-year-old recently saw an ambulance flash past and called out 'You won't sell many ice creams going at that speed!', I knew that my work here was done.)

In fact, you will find books full of great lies to tell small children. Many revolve around food and drink, for example 'Beer makes Daddy clever', guacamole is chopped up lizards, dry roasted peanuts are just normal peanuts that have been nibbled by maggots, or that Twiglets are actually baby giraffe legs. There are also websites: I particularly like 'If you don't eat your dinner, Buzz Lightyear will die'.

There are interesting cross cultural aspects. This infographic shows some interesting national differences... For example, if you don't go to bed in Spain, Portugal or Latin America, a cloaked man with red eyes called El Cuco will eat you.

I'm also interested in whether lying to your kids is gendered... in other words, do Mums do it anywhere near as much or in the same way? Apparently they often lie to other parents, but my guess would be that Mums' lies to their children aren't half as common, persistent or evil as us fellas. I could be wrong, and I would love to hear about research or personal experience on this topic. But I think lying to your children could be seen as a form of risk taking, you're pushing the boundaries and taking the chance that your children will grow up thinking you're a dick at best and completely untrustworthy at worst. Us Dads actively take on the role of 'spiritual guide to the dark side'… 'stick with me, kids, I'll show you how everybody lies so you can be on the lookout for it when it matters'. Maybe that's a bit of a leap from Twiglets being baby giraffe legs, but then I am a psychologist.

I'll try to think of more of my own, but for now I would love to hear yours and I will leave you with the thoughts of Jack Handey:

"One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. 'Oh no,' I said, 'Disneyland burned down.' He cried and cried, but I think that deep down he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting late."

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Dad song #11

Today's Dad song is 'Father and son' by Cat Stevens.

It's a well-known song, with many cover versions over the years that don't compare to the original (step forward Ronan Keating, who should never be allowed to record another cover after changing the lyrics to Fairytale of New York). Perhaps less well-known is that it was originally written about a father pleading with his son not to join the Russian Revolution.

In its broader interpretation, the lyrics can apply to pretty much any Dad not understanding their child's desire to break away and form a new life. I thought of it this week on seeing Tom Daley's YouTube video where he announced he is dating another man. My heart goes out to the lad, and I wondered – as Tom acknowledges, many people will be thinking this – what his Dad would have said?

Unfortunately we'll never know, but from the outside they seemed to have a really strong and loving relationship. Despite the mixed reaction he has received from some family members, I suspect that as he says his Dad would have simply said 'As long as you're happy, I'm happy'. That would be the 'Dad Pride' way, and I'm sure most Dads can identify with that.

Any Dads that are more resistant might react along the lines of the words in Cat Stevens' song:

It's not time to make a change,
Just relax, take it easy.
You're still young, that's your fault,
There's so much you have to know.
Find a girl, settle down,
If you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy.

But if they do, they can expect the son's reposte:

How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It's always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

As ever, listening and learning from your child – and not treating every interaction as a chance to teach them a life lesson – has to be the key to good parenting.

Incidentally, Tom Daley's video also reminded me of this story from earlier in the year. As the quote at the bottom says, "The fact that it has been shared by so many sadly means that this kind of acceptance is both too rare and deeply craved by LGBT people so used to being rejected by families."

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A moving issue

Hi all, apologies for the lack of recent blogging activity. Let's just say I've been having a rough time… but the upside is that I have been seeing a lot of my boys and – however much of a cliche it is – realising what's really important.

Whatever happens we are stronger than ever as a family, but as a Dad I'm having to deal with the impact of uncertainty on my two sons, aged 9 and 7. This came to a head last night with my 9-year-old in floods of tears at 10pm over the possibility that we might have to move away from the area. 'I'm scared', he kept repeating… 'I love Leicester' (somebody's got to), 'I don't want to leave'.

There's not much I can say in response other than whatever happens we'll be strong. But it got me thinking: what research is there out there concerning the impact of moving on children: psychologically, socially, and in health terms?

Anecdotally, everyone I speak to says that for children home is where their parents are, and they will quickly adjust and even completely forget their old neighbourhood. They make new friends, join new clubs, life goes on. But does the empirical evidence back up this rosy account?

There seems little doubt that the impact on children is as varied as their personalities. One study finds, unsurprisingly, that the social impact is greater on the introverted or neurotic child. Other research considers age at the time of the move: this study suggests that moving house more than twice during the first two years of life is associated with greater internalising problems (actions directed towards the self, such as depression and anxiety) at age nine years. There was no association between increased residential mobility in other time periods and internalising behaviour, or mobility in any period and externalising behaviour (such as aggression towards others). There was no effect of lifetime number of moves, or of an upwardly or downwardly mobile housing trajectory. However, continuously renting a house was associated with an increased externalising behaviour score. 
Home is where your parents are?

Other research suggests moving could be particularly stressful for adolescent girls, I would presume due to the intensity of the friendship bonds at that time. Perhaps this effect is lessening as it becomes easier to keep in touch… my guess would be that the vast majority of childhood friends lose touch completely within two years, however easy it would be in technological terms to maintain the relationship. 

Some research, for example this study, considers unusual health effects, finding that moving house is associated with the subsequent development in childhood asthma, possibly due to exposure to new allergens or stress. I'm fine with that as my eldest is already allergic to everything, and my youngest is altogether more robust.

The Daily Mail, very much a 'glass half empty' kind of publication, suggests that moving regularly in childhood is linked to dying younger. The NHS Choices website has a much more reasoned take on what I think is the same research, concluding that a higher risk of poor health outcomes is associated with frequent moves in childhood, but that the only significant association related to illegal drug use and that the reasons for the move (e.g. financial problems or seeking a better job) are clearly important.
Then I came across a study linking frequent moves to an increase in attempted suicide, and I thought I'd stop looking! But it's important to emphasise that's frequent moves rather than a single change. And I suspect that it's difficult to research the impact of moving on children as there tend to be so many other factors involved: often a marriage break-up, a change in income status etc etc, so it's not just about the effect of a new neighbourhood, school and friends (which in itself is quite a lot of factors). 

There's a fair amount of advice out there, most of it emphasising communication and some kind of bridge between the two homes. But as ever, it's useful to back up the data and existing advice with personal experience, so I would love to hear of any more research but also the thoughts and experiences of my readers on this topic. 

In particular, I would like to hear from Dads. Some academics suggest that moving is more stressful for women, but what are the particular considerations for men? How do other Dads out there juggle the responsibilities of (often) being the main breadwinner (therefore going where the work is) with a strong wish for stability for their children (therefore staying put)? I imagine this can lead to personal compromise… but then that's what being 'we' rather than 'I' is often about. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A load of bollocks?

Could there be a link between the size of a father's testicles and how active he is in bringing up his children?

A new study reported by the BBC has found that men with smaller testicles were more likely to be involved with nappy changing, feeding and bath time.

Researchers at Emory University in the States studied 70 men who had children between the ages of one and two. The research is based on evolutionary theory about trade-offs between investing time and effort in mating, or putting that energy into raising children. Larger testicles, linked to the hormone testosterone, are thought to suggest greater commitment to creating more children over raising them. In the animal kingdom, it's the males with the biggest nuts who tend to mate with the most partners.

In the study, men at the smaller end of the spectrum were more likely, according to interviews with the man and the mother, to be more active in parenting duties. Presumably those with balls like spacehoppers just shoot their load and are barely seen for dust.

The researchers also found differences in brain scans of fathers looking at images of their child, linked to testicle size. Those with smaller testicles tended to have a greater response in the reward area of the brain.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects is that MRI scans showed a three-fold difference between the volumes of the smallest and largest testicles in the group. Three fold!! And if you're a Dad, they could be shrinking: researcher Dr Rilling said "We know that testosterone levels go down when men become involved fathers." Further studies, analysing the size before and after becoming a father, are needed.

I suspect this is just the latest study in a long line of research comparing markers of testosterone with personality and behaviour. For example, I would have thought there has been research on 'digit ratio' and fatherhood. There are likely to be lots of other factors involved, and it's hard to imagine the study having much practical impact, other than lots of men today comparing the size of their bollocks while swapping stories about how involved they are with their kids. As Dr James Rilling told the BBC: "It tells us some men are more naturally inclined to care-giving than others, but I don't think that excuses other men. It just might require more effort for some than others."