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."

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Lessons from nature

If you've had a summer of your children constantly demanding food - I'm led to believe the appetite of a teenager can be particularly voracious - then you may or may not like to consider this parenting strategy from the animal kingdom.

Burying beetles occasionally punish young who nag for food by eating those who pester them most, according to Edinburgh University research.
It encourages the larvae to plead more honestly according to how hungry they are and not try to outdo their siblings by pestering their mother for food.
It also helps the mother beetle to maintain a degree of control over how she feeds her squabbling offspring.

Yes, I know it's the wrong kind of beetle.

Dr Clare Andrews, of the University of Edinburgh's school of biological sciences, said: "We already knew that larvae beg more if they have been deprived of food but we had not known whether this is because they are informing their parents how hungry they are or whether they are simply squabbling with each other to get their parents' attention.
"Our study shows that if you're a baby beetle it doesn't pay to pester your mother for food unless you're really hungry.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Too young to be a Dad?

On my holiday I read a very interesting piece from Yvonne Roberts in The Observer magazine. It points out that 'no statistics are kept on the number of "young fathers" – classified as anyone becoming a dad under the age of 24, and often much younger'. There are interesting contributions from Shane Ryan of Working With Men:

Ryan says many of the young men he works with are already marginalised, from ethnic minority groups or less affluent backgrounds; some may have come from families with a history of abuse or mental health issues, or have been in trouble at school. "Once they become dads, too often that pattern of exclusion begins again. They are expected to fail when they have assets and love to offer. Some teenage mothers, support services and grandparents can make it extremely difficult for them to gain a foothold in their children's lives."

There are some really touching contributions from young fathers, and links to other resources. For me, this is the nub of it:

Mark S Kiselica writes in When Boys Become Parents, "For too long our culture has treated boys who become fathers… as detached misfits who are the architects of many of our nation's problems, rather than seeing these youth for who they really are: young men trying to navigate a complex array of difficult life circumstances that place them at a tremendous disadvantage." Investment in high-quality compulsory relationship education in schools and a national holistic service for young parents would benefit children, mums and dads. It would save the taxpayer money in the long run, since absent and neglectful dads also exact a cost, as many of the young fathers interviewed testified about their own childhoods. "They can become the men they want to be," says Shane Ryan.

The issues are also covered in more depth in this article on disadvantaged young fathers-to-be.

Monday, 5 August 2013

'Who lets their eight- to ten-year-old children out alone?'

It's the summer: cue the annual debate about how children should be spending it, and all the nostalgia for long 'Swallows and Amazons' type holidays of unsupervised play. This article in particular caught my eye, from Barbara Ellen in The Guardian.

A report from the Future Foundation says that the average amount for eight- to 10-year-olds playing unsupervised in the summer holidays has fallen from 55 "occasions" in the 1950s and 1960s to 24 now. Cue parental nostalgia for their own unsupervised summer holidays.
I'm amazed by those figures. Who is letting their eight- to 10-year-olds go out alone 24 times during summer? And when would it be convenient to send the social services around?
I had those textbook childhood summers: running around, picking berries, making dens. Think Famous Five, only without the money or the casual racism. All of us went out in the morning and weren't expected back until … well, you just weren't expected back, except when driven home by hunger. Some would call it priceless formative freedom, others outright neglect; it didn't matter because everyone did it.
But that was then and this is now.

That's very much my own recollection of childhood… when we weren't on a family holiday, from an early age I would be out on the estate or further afield and I wasn't expected back in a hurry. Now with my own kids, aged 6 and 9, they tend to be on day trips with my wife or myself (or both), or at the childminders, or at some holiday club or other. They have not yet been out unsupervised.

I know plenty of boys from my nine-year-old's class who do go down the park on their own, and I'm certainly not about to send social services around. But I can't quite put my finger on why I haven't yet afforded my own son that opportunity. I know he must be on the cusp of it, and I know it's not 'increased traffic' or 'stranger danger' that are putting me off.

Maybe if he was pushing for it more himself I would be forced into a decision. But for now he seems more than happy hanging about with us 'old and boring, increasingly superfluous' folks.

Perhaps that's not the point, and that I need to cut the apron strings for his own good. Barbara Ellen concludes:

Whenever people trot out their lists of what children need (security, self-expression, discipline etc), there's never mention of one of the most important – privacy. Basically, there's too much parental ego flying around. Modern parents need to learn that it is not all about them, centre-stage, being great hands-on parents. Sometimes, it is about parents butting out. 

What do you think? At what age and in what circumstances is it best to butt out?

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Improvised weaponry

Listening to the Frank Skinner show on Absolute Radio, I was amused to hear about his Dad's habit of carrying salt in his pocket, to throw in the face of a would-be attacker. Even more amusing was one of the listeners who remembered an eccentric Dad who used to keep a three-year-old egg in his house, claiming it could 'blind an elephant'. Apparently, 'if you ever knocked at his door after 9pm he'd have it in his hand'.

The show's hosts mused that this 'might be a regional Dads thing'. I'm hoping it's just a Dads thing: I'm all for anything which embarrasses the kids.

So have you ever improvised weaponry, to the amusement / embarrassment of your children?

Dad song #10

Dads: don't neglect your other halves, or this is what will happen.

This song was written by Dolly Parton but recorded and released first by Emmylou Harris. Emmylou's own father went missing in action during the Korean War.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Sergeant Major Dad

I haven't posted for a few weeks, mainly because I've been too busy being a Dad to write about it. But I've certainly been reflecting on it, and something has been bothering me.

My wife went away for a few days, and I had the boys to myself. When I see Mums on the school run at times like this, they tend to ask 'How's it going?', with a worried look on their face. I tend to reply, rather too enthusiastically, 'Brilliant!' Because the honest truth is that I find lone parenting absolutely fine, and in some ways easier than sharing the duties. I like to do things my way, and I'm confident I'm doing a good job. We do things, stuff gets done, she comes back, everybody's happy.

But there is one aspect of my parenting that I suspect might be different when she's not around. She sometimes says I can slip into 'Sergeant Major mode', i.e. things need to be done, they need to be done my way and they need to be done NOW. I think I might do this even more in her absence.

Take one example, which has been bugging me. My six-year-old had been chucking his bottle of squash around at his gym competition, and after we drove on to a festival down the road I realised we no longer had it. When I asked him where it was, he didn't display the necessary level of concern regarding its whereabouts. I blew my top, and marched us all a few hundred yards down the road in the searing heat to go and reclaim the bottle, barking at him to keep up.

I was hard on him, but deliberately so. I thought I was teaching him a lesson: that I work hard to ensure that he has 'things', and that he has no right to be so offhand about them. This was something that he seemed to be increasingly prone to, and I felt I needed to nip that growing sense of entitlement in the bud, to teach him that 'Mum and Dad will sort it' is not always the answer. Take responsibility.

I still think that's right, but on the other hand it was a £1 bottle and we could have all done without the walk back and the black cloud descending.

Are you a Sergeant Major Dad?

Then last week I was at a conference in Stockholm, and I met a lawyer from the US. We got chatting about fatherhood, and I recorded what he had to say. When we parted I realised to my horror that it hadn't recorded. If you're out there, I'm really sorry not to give you due credit and to do justice to your insightful and eloquent comments.

The gist of what he said was that he enjoyed being a Dad more when he stopped treating every interaction with his children as an opportunity to teach them a lesson, to build their character. In fact, he realised that he needed to learn from them. They are the future, literally, and they know far more about what to wear, how to act etc than we do.

He gave me the example of receiving a late night phone call from a girlfriend of one of his sons. He launched into the typical Dad diatribe, do you know what time it is, etc etc, and then slowly realised that this girl was, in a very responsible manner, asking him to come and pick his son up because he had had too much to drink. 'Here she was doing the grown up thing, being responsible, and I would have got in the way.'

But don't they sometimes need to learn those lessons, I asked? 'Life does a pretty good job of teaching them', he replied. 'If you do it, do they just learn that they do that thing and Dad gets mad?'

Relax, he said, and learn from them.

As I say, this guy had much more wisdom to impart than I can. I'm sorry I didn't get his name, but I'm going to learn from him and relax.

P.S. Another thing about the bottle incident… I felt really bad about it. Do other Dads out there think that a sense of guilt is a decent indication that your parenting has gone awry? Or is it not as simple as that?

P.P.S. Actually, thinking about the bottle incident even more… maybe I felt particularly guilty because deep down I knew I couldn't be 100% sure that it wasn't me that put the bottle down somewhere. All in all, the whole kerfuffle was definitely not worth the effort.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Drawing Dad

Much as I want to avoid this blog becoming an online fridge door, I just had to share this father's day portrait of me by my 6-year-old.

At least I think it's me: it could be Alistair Darling line dancing.

It made me reflect on the fact that children the world over have been drawing pictures of their Dads for thousands of years. They are often difficult to interpret, but none the less enjoyable for that.

Then today, via PsychScientists, I came across these nine hundred year old drawings from a 7-year-old Russian boy called Onfim, including this one of him with his Dad. Amazing stuff. They look very proud of their toast racks.

The image suggests to me that children have been proud of sharing activities with their Dads for centuries… long may that continue.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Happy Fathers' Day!

I hope you are getting something out of my blog. If not, there are loads of others out there – check out this list of the top 50 Dad blogs.

I am scheduling this post in advance as I will be off doing Father's Day things: specifically, gatecrashing the party of one of my sons' friends, because they're going to watch Man of Steel and I very much fancy some of that! This does of course mean my other son is left out for most of the day. But Man of Steel!!

I leave you with some Johnny Cash, which just feels appropriate to me on Father's Day. Get the family round, sing bass, job done.

And remember to ask your kids today: 'Am I the Dad you need me to be?'

Friday, 14 June 2013

Helpful fathers undermine their wives

Over at Psychology Today there's a special collection on 'The Power of Fathers'. This includes an interesting piece on how involved fathers diminish mothers' self-confidence.

Even though they still spent almost three times as much time care giving as their husbands, the mothers' self-competence ratings dropped--essentially "the more time their husbands spent engaged in skillful care giving, the lower the self-competence of mothers sank."

That's certainly not my experience: as ever, I would be interested to hear the views of others.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Making parenting 'a guy thing'

Last week I blogged about parenting and risk. Good friend, excellent Dad and moover / groover Dr Paul Redford got in touch with some excellent related resources, including the must-buy for Father's Day '50 dangerous things (you should let your children do)', and relevant articles.

In particular, he pointed me to this piece in the Wall Street Journal. It says:

'… the pop-culture image of the inept dad who wouldn't know a diaper genie from a garbage disposal has begun to fade. In his place, research shows, is emerging a new model of at-home fatherhood that puts a distinctly masculine stamp on child-rearing and home life.

At-home dads aren't trying to be perfect moms, says a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research. Instead, they take pride in letting their children take more risks on the playground, compared with their spouses. They tend to jettison daily routines in favor of spontaneous adventures with the kids. And many use technology or DIY skills to squeeze household budgets, or find shortcuts through projects and chores, says the study, based on interviews, observation of father-child outings and an analysis of thousands of pages of at-home dads' blogs and online commentary.

"Just as we saw a feminization of the workplace in the past few decades, with more emphasis on such skills as empathy and listening, we are seeing the opposite at home—a masculinization of domestic tasks and routines," says Gokcen Coskuner-Balli, an assistant professor of marketing at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and lead author of the study. "Many men are building this alternative model of home life that is outdoorsy, playful and more technology-oriented."

...This really chimes with research I have pointed to which suggests that Dads see encouraging active exploration, pushing the boundaries a bit, as a central aspect of their role. 

Let that point sink in, because I think it's a significant one. In my relatively new and ongoing meditation on what constitutes 'Dad Pride', and whether Dads are really as rubbish as they are often made out to be, I am increasingly being asked about fictional Dads like Homer Simpson and Daddy Pig from Peppa Pig (which is, after all, the British Simpsons). Here's the thing: I don't think Homer and Daddy Pig are rubbish Dads. In fact I think they're excellent role models! As in the quote above, they're not trying to be perfect Moms. They have spontaneous adventures, they find shortcuts through projects and chores, they take pride in letting their children take more risks.

Just as feminisation of the workplace led to some men pushing back against women, and some women taking time to adjust to their new roles, so a masculinisation of domesticity perhaps leads to some women pushing back against men and – I think more frequently and more significantly – some men struggling to get their head round it all. To me that's why most media portrayals – ads, TV, films etc – still peddle the inept Dad stereotype but often a Dad that comes good in the end.

My wife tells me that when I used to go to parenting groups with our first son, other Mums used to report back to her with an incredulous chuckle that I had found the time to read the paper while he played with the other kids. No matter that they weren't particularly interested in talking to me, and that they themselves had found the time to drink lots of coffee and have a very nice chat. There are different ways to be a parent, and the unusual will always attract attention and ridicule.

Through all this the most important thing to me is that Dads find their own way of parenting, and that it's one – like Homer and Daddy Pig – that is at the very least 'involved'.

Monday, 10 June 2013

What if you were offered other, better children?

What is it like to raise a child who's different from you in some fundamental way (like a prodigy, or a differently abled kid, or a criminal)? In this TED talk, writer Andrew Solomon shares what he learned from talking to dozens of parents – asking them: What's the line between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance? 

I was struck by this bit:

I thought it was surprising how all of these families had all of these children with all of these problems, problems that they mostly would have done anything to avoid, and that they had all found so much meaning in that experience of parenting. And then I thought, all of us who have children love the children we have, with their flaws. If some glorious angel suddenly descended through my living room ceiling and offered to take away the children I have and give me other, better children – more polite, funnier, nicer, smarter – I would cling to the children I have and pray away that atrocious spectacle. And ultimately I feel that in the same way that we test flame-retardant pajamas in an inferno to ensure they won't catch fire when our child reaches across the stove, so these stories of families negotiating these extreme differences reflect on the universal experience of parenting, which is always that sometimes you look at your child and you think, where did you come from?

It turns out that while each of these individual differences is siloed – there are only so many families dealing with schizophrenia, there are only so many families of children who are transgender, there are only so many families of prodigies – who also face similar challenges in many ways -- there are only so many families in each of those categories -- but if you start to think that the experience of negotiating difference within your family is what people are addressing, then you discover that it's a nearly universal phenomenon. Ironically, it turns out, that it's our differences, and our negotiation of difference, that unite us.


Friday, 7 June 2013

'Am I the Dad you need me to be?'

This Father's Day, ask your kids 'How am I doing? Am I the dad you need me to be?'

That's according to Jeff Cookston, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, who says that just being a good parent may not be good enough.

"Kids are actively trying to make sense of the parenting they receive, and the meaning that children take from the parenting may be as important, or more important, than the behavior of the parents. I don't think a lot of parents give these ideas about meaning much thought. You may think that you're being a good parent by not being harsh on your kid, for instance, but your child may view that as 'you're not invested in me, you're not trying.'"

Cookston and Andrea Finlay report a new study in the Journal of Family Issues, examining how adolescents view their fathers' actions – specifically, whether the teens attribute these actions to a dad's overall character or to his reaction in a particular situation.
The study suggests that girls tend to believe that a father's "enduring aspects" are responsible for a dad's good deeds (for example dad took her to the baseball game because he is a good father), while boys are more likely to think that dads do good depending on the situation (dad took him because he likes to go to the game). 
Based on Cookston's research, he suggests Father's Day can be a good time for dads to rethink their relationship with their children:
- Be sure to check in with your child: "Fathers should ask, 'am I more or less than you need me to be?'," Cookston said, "and children -- particularly adolescents -- should be able to say, 'I need you to change course.'"
- Show your emotional support: Cookston said it is the fathers who emphasize their emotional relationships with their children who have kids that are less likely to behave in aggressive and delinquent ways.
- Don't be afraid to switch your style: "Parents can change, and kids can accept that. Parents need to be constantly adapting their parenting to the development and individual needs of the child."
- Be a team player: Children are more likely to talk to parents about family relationships if they see that they agree on parenting decisions, he noted, and "parents play unique, additive roles in their children's lives."
- Aim high as a dad: "We need to raise the bar for fatherhood. If a man is around and is a good provider and doesn't yell at his kids and goes to soccer games, we say that's enough," Cookston said. "But we need to expect more in terms of engagement, involvement and quality interaction." (This reminds me of that Chris Rock sketch about '"I take care of my kids." You're supposed to, you dumb motherf**ker! What kind of ignorant sh1t is that? "I ain't never been to jail!" What do you want, a cookie?! You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherf**ker!')

This Father's Day maybe I'll ask my boys 'Am I the Dad you need me to be?' and let you know the response. I'm not holding out much hope for an eloquent and illuminating one though, given that the other day I was asking them about 'Dad pride' and whether they are proud of me, and my 8-year-old said 'yes, because you always finish off my dinners'. Human dustbin, that I can do.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A risky business

A few years ago I was at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire with my eldest son, then around five years old. He was climbing on the rocks, and I was simultaneously filming him and encouraging him to continue over the top. These are big rocks (amongst the oldest in the world apparently!), and I was caught in the moment, filled with ‘Dad pride’ at his climbing ability. It was only when I (and more to the point his mother) watched the footage back later that I thought ‘blimey, if he’d slipped then we’d have been in trouble!’

I could point to lots of similar incidents in history and popular culture: from William Tell shooting an apple off his son’s head (not that he had much choice), through naturalist Steve Irwin 'Croc man puts his son at risk', via Michael Jackson dangling his son off a balcony, to skateboarder Tony Hawkes not putting a helmet on his daughter. 

Of course, risk is all relative, and there's something to be said for Hawkes' response: 'For those that say I endanger my child: it's more likely that you will fall while walking on the sidewalk than I will while skating with my daughter.' Unfortunately I couldn't offer the same defence with the climbing shenanigans.

But all these incidents got me thinking about the scientific research on the topic. And there is some. For example, this study interviewed 32 dads of young children and found that:

Fathers believed a central aspect of their role involved actively exploring the world with their children through physical and play-based activities. Fathers made decisions about the appropriateness of activities, striking a balance between protecting their child and exposing them to risk and new experiences. Most fathers placed high value on providing their children with risk-taking opportunities and discussed many positive aspects of risk and experiencing minor injuries. The potential for serious injury was considered in weighing decisions regarding risk engagement. 

… In other words, Dads believe exposing their children to risk is absolutely key to their role. This article agrees: 

In one experiment… toys were placed at the top of a flight of stairs. The researchers noticed that the dads tended to follow their children at a greater distance than the moms and this seemed to encourage more exploration.
“We found that fathers are more inclined than mothers to activate exploratory behavior by being less protective,” says the study’s lead author, Daniel Paquette, a professor at the university.
“[Dads] respond to the child’s need to be encouraged, to overcome limits, and to learn to take risks in contexts in which they are confident of being protected from potential dangers.” 

Interestingly it appears this influence continues beyond childhood, and can actually guide children away from risky behaviours:

Other recent studies have shown that dads have a more powerful influence than moms when it comes to convincing kids to steer clear of cigarettes and sex. 

There's also some research which suggests gender differences in reactions to risk taking:

Parent reactions to risk taking by sons focused on discipline but reactions to the same behaviors by daughters focused on safety. Mothers, in particular, reacted to sons with anger and daughters with disappointment and surprise. Parents attributed risk taking to personality for sons but situational factors for daughters, and judged daughters could be taught to comply with safety rules more than sons.   

I wonder if there are any studies on parental response to injury resulting from risk taking? It's not necessarily risk taking, but in the context of football I see Dads every week (including me) grabbing their injured, crying boys under the armpits and hoisting them up with a 'come on mate, run it off, you'll be fine'. I would say that 99% of the time we're right, and that we're deliberately trying to teach that rolling round on the floor is very rarely necessary or helpful. (I'm not sure my sister would agree: when she was about two and I was around 15, she had a fall and I employed the 'it'll be fine' waggling technique on her wrist, which turned out to be broken).

I'd love to hear about any other research on this topic, and views from any Dads (or Mums) out there.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Guest Dad: What have you done today to make you feel proud?

Today's post is a guest one, from Andy Agides, who also blogs about being a Dad. Thanks very much to him for contributing: I think this is a very thoughtful consideration of what 'Dad Pride' might mean across individuals and generations, and I certainly identify with it.

"I want to thank Jon for asking for my thoughts on this; the process of thinking about being a Dad is one I believe important for me. It’s tricky though isn't it? Pride; it is one of those words that is rather double-edged, though there has been a tendency in more recent years to see it as a positive thing, a value worth savouring in one's achievements or in those of one’s countrymen particularly. (Thanks to M-People's Heather Small, London Olympics et al!) I'm not certain it was always thus. The move towards a more secular society as opposed to one based on religious teaching, where the most forceful thrust against pride was preached, may well be part of the reason, but the emancipation of the family is certainly where current and future pressure will come.

I have no recollection of my Father ever proclaiming pride specifically in my efforts or attainments as a young boy nor come to that as an adult, though I can definitely remember him rolling out the tired old expression about ‘pride coming before a fall’. When I reflect on these things today, I wonder if that is some emotionally stunted method of protecting oneself from disappointment of failure, something that certainly drove me on at school and into work, and I believe my father was always fearful about losing the ability to provide, seeing benefit claimants as scroungers, something he would never be.

What is Dad Pride?
The cliché is that it was a different time and men’s acceptance of their emotional involvement in their families was not as commonplace as it is today. That is of course true to a degree. Mine, and to my memory most fathers of the time self-endowed their ‘pride’ by fulfilling their role as provider, but certainly not all. The closest I can recall my father exhibiting pride in connection with me was in his ability to deliver on the promise of a new bicycle should I pass the exam to get into ‘a better school’! That was the thing, not ‘I'm proud of you son for passing the exam’ but ‘be proud of your Dad for keeping his word’. The notion that today’s man is confused about his role in the family because of the dynamics of family life doesn't reflect that many men suffered a good deal of insecurity even then about their role. I have to make a conscious effort to not be overly influenced by my history and for years before my children came to be, I would often maintain relationships by buying ‘stuff’ to prove my love. Falling ill and losing work or the ability for a time soon taught me ‘that’ lesson.

I am, as they say in the modern parlance, a ‘mature father’. I am not certain if this gives me a different perspective on the role of Dad, but certainly my own experiences as a child have significantly informed my choices as one. I am also an example of the "modern Dad", one from a failed relationship who is judged by our judicial and social care systems and to some extent our current society to be almost certainly, and regardless of information to the contrary, likely to be less effective a parent, particularly with regard to emotional development of children, than the mother will be. This is our fathers' legacy to us, and I hope very much one that will not persist beyond this generation. 

My main focus has been that I never wished my children to feel they needed to hesitate to ask for reassurance or support in their life choices and progress. Nor did I ever desire the fear of failing be a reason to prevent any of them from pursuing their passions, intuitions, desires or beliefs. I hoped to find a way to provide what I felt they truly needed rather than what they wanted, so how to do it? The answer exists in the list of aspirations I set for my boys, namely 'ask the person who is doing the thing already, they will be bound to have considered it'. So I asked the children (because they were the children), and I continue to try to find from them what they need. 

I have learnt from my children by listening to them and engaging with them just what it is they really need. I have come to realise that far from wanting the latest toy, they need time with their parents. They need to talk about things and not be questioned about them, they don’t even need you to have an answer a lot of the time, and they often just need reassurance that they have found the correct one for themselves. In my own blog I wrote a piece based around an email I sent to my sons when I had been ill and unable to see them as often as we all had wished, and in response to questions the boys had asked. Almost everything in that email however had been discussed with one or all boys at some point or other, and rather than put things down in the form of answers I tried to let them know that these were things that I hoped for them to know and that I felt I had taken too long to learn.

I think that I have come to see being a Dad as a bit like mentoring; being a good Dad is a lot about being a good man, much like a good manager often makes a good mentor. I observed senior managers often make ridiculous assumptions about experience and knowledge without understanding that experience is not about time spent doing something but about learning from the doing. We all know of people that have worked at the same thing for years without improving it only for someone with genuine passion and interest to come a long and overtake them. They practised more; they learnt more they tried harder. Being a Dad for me takes practise, I need to think about it and try harder each time. If I don’t I can’t possibly make it as a mentor, and as a Dad. I see one of my important responsibilities to try to turn out children, who will practise longer, try harder and think more than I did.

Like Jon, I am disappointed by the often negative stereotyping of Dad’s in the press and media, I'm also a little disheartened with us Dads for not standing up for ourselves a bit more. In a world with movements in support of so many different aspects of family life, (and rightly so), including organisations to empower mothers, like “Mumsnet” and the positive reinforcement of Gay and Lesbian parenting models, the support for the single parent family, all of which have affirmative and strong networks built up, Dads have a disparate group of individuals and small associations – none of which seem to be supporting each other pro-actively. Is this because we come from the “STAND ON YOUR OWN TWO FEET!” school of man training? If it is then it needs to change. I struggled for years with my personal demons, never quite understanding why I couldn't solve them all, at least temporarily; my epiphany came when I finally asked for help. The best decision I ever made rather than making me seem weaker as I had been taught to believe, it gave many around me the view that I was actually strong for seeking it out.

'Dad pride' for me is about showing my boys that learning and knowledge, empathy and appreciation, succeeding and failing, all go towards forming personal beliefs and opinion, and that it is vital for them to function as reasonable and effective contributors to the lives of others including their own families, schools, associations, workplaces, friends, and even future Dads organisations, that they form thoughts, judgements and opinions with balance in all these things for all futures to be rewarding. It's about encouraging thinking, excelling at thinking, believe that thinking is a requirement, a necessity. Embrace the task of thinking, work at it, nurture it in others as well as yourself, refine it, define it, hold it in your hands as well as your head, and keep those thoughts you have no earnest use of and share them with those who may, and write them down. Seek out different views to the ones you form, they will either persuade you in which case you learn something or they reaffirm your beliefs in which case you still learn something.

Being proud as a Dad for me is about my child coming to conclusions or decision in life situations that match those I would likely have reached in similar circumstances, or even better different to mine, with an ability to explain why by only using reasoning.

As much as I want to have pride in my children and for that matter my children to be proud of me, the main thing for me is that I can be proud of myself, that I did my best. It is a mantra I espouse to my lads frequently and if I want them not to remember me as a hypocrite, then I have a duty to myself and them too always work towards my best.

People talk grandly about birthright and legacy; well I believe the greatest legacy I can leave my boys is my time, our time, and this time for their lifetime.

What have I done today to make me feel proud?

Easy really; I told my sons I loved them."


Friday, 31 May 2013

Dad song #9

I'm somewhat obsessed with Lee Hazlewood at the moment, and this is the perfect song for my blog. I believe he wrote it for Nancy Sinatra, who recorded it as a tribute to her Dad Frank (who used to have 12 showers a day).

There's a man who always stood right by me
Tall and proud and good when times were bad
Too much heart, is the only fault that I see
This song's not for you folks
It's for my Dad

Always a partner, a playmate and a teacher
Ready with a joke when times were sad
And in my teens, sometimes he was a preacher
This song's not for you folks
It's for my Dad

He always was a rock when I needed one
He gave me good advice when I needed some
I want you to know that when It's said and done
He's one of the best friends I ever had... I ever had
This song's not for you folks
It's for my Dad.

… I like the idea of 'too much heart' as a fault. It reminds me of job interviews, where the interviewer says 'We've heard a lot about your strengths, now what about your weaknesses?' 'I'm too honest'. 'Oh, I don't think honesty is a fault!' 'I couldn't give a **** what you think.'

Thursday, 30 May 2013


Half term this week, so another trip to the cinema to watch more crap Dads. This time: Epic.

I am happy to report that Epic passed the Bechdel test, courtesy of a brief conversation between Queen Tara (voiced by Beyonce Knowles*) and MK. But did it pass the Sutton test?

As seems to be the way with films I watch these days – is my wife trying to tell me something? – there were loads of Dads in the film. Were they rubbish?

The leader of the evil, decay spreading Boggans, Mandrake, intent on destroying the forest, seemed like a fairly loving father as tyrannical leaders go. He included his son, a general, in their joint enterprise of spreading devastation and darkness. When his son meets a messy end, and one of his soldiers says 'Plus, your idiot general gets himself mulched!', he thunders: 'That idiot general was my son!' with something approaching fatherly pride. So, setting aside the apocalyptic intentions, I think Mandrake passes the Sutton test.

The leader of the Leafmen, Ronin, voiced by Colin Farrell in a really off-putting way where his Irish accent pops up and disappears like a Whack-a-mole fairground game, is a father figure to MK's love interest, who he has mentored since the death of his birth father. He's the square-jawed, stoical hero type, who struggles to express his emotions. There's a nice line at the end where the two, relieved to be alive, are ribbing each other and MK says 'Oh please… just say you love each other!', and Ronin replies 'I thought we just did'. Dads, eh? Can never tell our boys we love them. Except of course we can and do. But again, a pass for the Sutton test.

Finally there's MK's Dad, a naturalist obsessed with finding the advanced race of little people in the forest. He starts off as the stereotypical rubbish Dad, barely noticing his daughter (grieving for the loss of her mother – for every rubbish Dad in a film, there's a Mum who's got off the hook by dying). His single-minded pursuit was behind the breakdown of his marriage, and although he obviously loves his daughter he's on track to lose her too. He's basically saved by the fact that he turns out to be right, so MK starts to see him in a different light. When someone asks her 'Who gives up everything for a world that's not even theirs?', she replies: 'Dad. My Dad does'. 

Us Dads have been known to have our obsessions, and the message here seems to be that as long as they bear fruit all will be forgiven and your children will still talk to you. But once again, overall I think MK's Dad just about passes the Sutton test.

So well done to the makers of Epic, who I think also made Ice Age (which has a lot of Dad themes in it). It's all still pretty relentless though isn't it: certainly seems that all Dads in films have to display some level of thoughtlessness, single minded obsession or repressed emotion!

*Dad joke alert: How do you contact dead single ladies? Have a Seyonce. Yes, that's right, this whole post was just an excuse to tell that joke. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Darth Vader and Son / Vader's Little Princess

I popped into a bookshop in a grey and drizzly Loughborough yesterday and was cheered considerably by a little book called 'Darth Vader and Son'. In postcard form, Jeffrey Brown imagines Darth Vader as a Dad like any other - except with the baggage of being a Dark Lord of the Sith.

Apparently there's also a follow-up, 'Vader's Little Princess', in which Darth faces the trials, joys, and mood swings of raising his daughter Leia as she grows from a sweet little girl into a rebellious teenager.

Star Wars and Dads - what more could I want?

New Dads feel more physically attractive

Newly published research suggests that men feel more physically attractive after becoming a father - at least if it's in their first year of marriage.

I became a father in my first year of marriage - in fact, 9 months and 15 days after my wedding day (so much for enjoying the trying…). I'm not sure I felt 'physically attractive', maybe more 'exhausted' and 'poo stained'. But having said that I've only got worse as the years have gone by, so maybe this finding represents men thinking 'well if I'm not attractive now, I certainly never will be again!'

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

We are not idiots!

The main spark for this blog was the discrepancy between one prevailing societal view of Dads – that we're a bit rubbish – and the actual contribution of loads of great Dads who I know or have met over the years. At the time I thought I was pretty much alone in the blogosphere: there are loads of online networks for Mums, but a quick search suggested there wasn't that much discussion and support amongst Dads.

A few months later, I have come across lots of sites, mostly in the US, where Dads are leading the fightback. This morning I listened to an interesting and amusing discussion on the Dadsaster podcast. In particular, there was a fascinating chat with @DaddyFiles who has written about the use of fathers as a punchline.

They discussed this article, in which one Mum gives her views on appropriate gender roles:

The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.” Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; “women,” she says, “keep it together better than guys do.”

This is obviously a massive generalisation, even though with my sample of 1 I would possibly agree with her on the final point: my wife probably does keep it together better than I do. She's also incredibly patient and tolerant. I might be a better multitasker.

I very rarely get the vibe from my wife that she thinks I'm any less capable than her on the parenting front (and of course it's not a competition). And when there has been a glimpse of that, I think it comes across as playing up to a cultural norm rather than a deeply held view. That's something the article tackles:

Psychologists suggest that perhaps American women are heirs and slaves to some atavistic need to prove their worth through domestic perfectionism: 'So many women want to control their husbands' parenting,' says Barbara Kass, a therapist with a private practice in Brooklyn. '"Oh, do you have the this? Did you do the that? Don't forget that she needs this. And make sure she naps." Sexism is internalised.'

Of course, women have had to put up with this for years, a point Aaron Gouveia (aka DaddyFiles) makes in the podcast:

'It's like what you see with so many women entering the workforce in recent years, men have gotten defensive, and women don't have it even, going to work and trying to get up the corporate ladder, and it's kind of the same thing here in reverse: women have traditionally been at home with the kids and now Dads are staying at home, and there really is a sense of "wait a minute, you're creeping in on my turf here." It really shouldn't be that way, it should be equal involvement or at least as close to equal involvement as you can manage. It's a shame that that mindset is still there.'

I think there's a lot of truth in that, but I don't think it's enough to explain the general rubbishness of Dads in popular culture. Take films. Most of those that portray Dads as bumbling idiots are written by men, by Dads. I think crap Dads are just seen as an easy target, with broad enough shoulders to take the sexism in good humour. And generally we do. But it doesn't half go on, and that brings me back to the purpose of this blog: to hopefully show from time to time that many Dads are in fact capable of getting through the day without killing, losing or starving their own offspring.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Friends for tea

This afternoon my youngest son has a friend coming round for tea. I always find this amusing and horrifying in equal measure.
I wonder if other Dads have experienced the same thing. My wife tends to bear the brunt of the experience, and when I arrive home I have usually missed a good hour or two of sibling rivalry and cajoling of our guest to do things they really don't want to do. It just seems inevitable that if eldest son has a friend round, said friend will mainly want to play with youngest son, and vice versa. That's if they want to do anything at all: we have a rather large Lego collection, and on more than one occasion I have arrived to find our guest immersed in the latest Marvel offering when all my boy wants to do is drag him outside to play football.
I usually get back just in time for the actual 'tea' bit. Now my sons have got lovely friends and they're not necessarily angels themselves, but you get used to your own child's ways. So I tend to spend much of the mealtime agog as our guest demands a ketchup sandwich, or devours six cookies in one go, or just refuses to eat anything. If ever you're in need of a flood of love and appreciation for your child, just invite one of their friends round for tea.
There's an added element of amusement / horror to this afternoon's visit, which is that my son is having a girl round. Now my son is six years old: I am sure this is entirely innocent and I shouldn't be worried about the fact that he says she mostly wants to see his bedroom. I shouldn't be worried, but then again this is my son we're talking about. Once I was chatting to his elder brother about playtime, and elder brother informed me that during 'chase' he had kissed two girls: one on the cheek, one on the forehead. 'Where do you think the best place to kiss a girl is?', I asked youngest son. 'Under the slide', he replied.

Friday, 10 May 2013

All-stars: Does it pass the Sutton test?

Last weekend saw another family trip to the cinema, this time to watch All Stars, in which shy streetdancer Jayden must team up with wheeler-dealer Ethan to save their local youth club.

Now some of you may remember me proposing the Sutton Test, to complement the Bechdel Test (which I'm happy to say the film passed, by virtue of a brief conversation between 'Gina' (Ashley Jensen) and a council official). Put simply, the Sutton Test when applied to any media is:

1. Is there a man in it?
2. Is he a Dad?
3. Is he being anything other than a dickhead?
Unfortunately All Stars failed this test, aside from a few minutes of redemption at the end. To be fair, a) it's just a film (yes, I do know), and b) adults in general didn't fare well in this film. The whole point was that kids were doing stuff for themselves, in the face of bureaucratic madness, work-enduced exhaustion or blind ambition from the adults surrounding them.
But did there really have to be three crap Dads? Jayden's ignored his obvious love of and talent for music, banning him from dancing in favour of an entrance exam for an independent school. He did come round in the end when he chased him to the performance and actually saw him dance. Ethan's Dad was, again to be fair, a reasonably good portrayal of that kind of Dad that keeps banging on about being a lone wolf, not wanting to be tied down by actually facing up to his responsibilities and being there for his family and son. Amy's Dad, John Barrowman, spent the entire team grunting from the sofa (apart from one dream sequence), depressed at his wife walking out. I don't think he even made it to the show, which is unusual for John Barrowman.
I'm not saying that lots of Dads don't have those faults. But three of them, in one film? The portrayal of rubbish Dads in the media just seems so relentless. Maybe the Sutton test is even harder to pass than the Bechdel test. Or maybe the difference is that men in films start out rubbish and then, because the films are largely written and directed by men, by the end they're vaguely passable. Whereas women just barely get a look in as three dimensional, independent characters at all.