Friday, 29 March 2013

Dad song #8

If you find yourself committed to a mental institution, who you gonna call? Daddy, of course.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Prison Dads

I've just watched 'Prison Dads' on BBC iPlayer. It's part of ‘Baby Britain’ a season of BBC Three programmes exploring what it means to be a young parent in Britain today, and how having a baby changes your life. I thought I'd skip ‘Don’t just stand there, I’m having your baby’, which followed ‘clueless first time dads’.
‘Prison Dads’ is a documentary from Ruth Kelly covering six months in the lives of fathers at Glen Parva in Leicester – the biggest young offender’s institution in Britain. Prisoners there are five times more likely to be Dads than other men their age, and as I have written elsewhere this is a growing, worldwide issue. Although the offences and treatment of their beleaguered other halves of some of the Dads featured made it rather difficult to identify with them, you’d need a heart of stone not to get a tear in the eye at the dawning realisation that ‘That’s all gone now, for good that is. Won’t see him do his first words, trying to crawl, all that funny baby stuff’.
The children are growing up with the situation and don’t know any different, with one being told that Dad is ‘on naughty holiday’. These Dads are just kids themselves, hankering after school days as they chat in their cells. Some grew up in the same way themselves. You just have to hope that they will have plenty of professional support on release, to face up to their adult responsibilities and break the cycle.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Faddy Daddies are fussier eaters than the kids?

I've just received a press release claiming 'men are worse than toddlers when it comes to eating fruit and vegetables', with almost half of mums saying they use 'stealth health tactics' on their other half.

Suzie Robinson from Hertfordshire said: 'My husband will only eat carrots and sweetcorn; I am forever pureeing vegetables and sneaking them into sauces to widen his veg intake. I am concerned the kids will copy their father and end up being as picky as him.' Other tactics used to disguise vegetables include covering with cheese or sour cream, hiding them in soups, blending them into smoothies or simply lying about the contents of meals. 

Guka Tavberidze, founder of SaVse – the drinks producer who conducted the survey – said: 'Take chips out of the diet of many men and the reality is that there is too little vegetable content. Eating vegetables is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet and if men aren’t prepared to tuck in, it’s no surprise that their partners are resorting to stealth techniques.'

The press release continues:
'SaVse, a new and surprisingly delicious vegetable smoothie invented in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia is set to revolutionise vegetable consumption in the UK. Recipes blend large quantities of vegetables with fruits to create a sweet taste. No sugar or preservatives are added.
In blind taste tests, 98 percent of respondents were unable to detect the presence of broccoli in SaVse smoothies, despite it being a principal ingredient.  Eighty two percent said that they thought that Savse’s broccoli-based smoothie contained fruit alone.'

Now a few things spring to mind. Firstly, if you want to find out about Dads' vegetable consumption, why not ask Dads? Secondly, 'surprisingly delicious' is never a good start for a new food and drink product. And finally, I like my veg but a broccoli-based smoothie is just wrong.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Ug… are all Dads cavemen?

Due to this cold weather we've been having (I don't know if anyone has mentioned it?), a trip to the cinema has become a staple of our weekends of late. What better opportunity for a Dad to have an afternoon nap?

On Saturday, we went to see The Croods, an animated film about a cave-dwelling family dealing with continental drift and the dawn of ideas. Now, let me say from the outset, I liked it. The boys loved it, with my youngest declaring it even better than Top Cat: The Movie, which – given that TC gets an average rating of just 2.8 out of 10 on Rotten Tomatoes – doesn't sound like much, but believe me it is.

But unfortunately, my enjoyment of pretty much any film at the moment has been scuppered by a mild obsession with the Bechdel test and my own Dad equivalent, the Sutton test.

In brief, the Bechdel test is three simple questions used to identify gender bias in fiction:

1. Are there at least two women?

2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?

The Croods has four female characters (I think the baby is a girl) – 50 per cent of the cast. One big tick. 'Eep', the curious young woman wanting to break free from the shackles of her family, is potentially a really strong role model, but then it turns out really she just loves shoes and boys and is mainly struggling to choose a different man to follow aside from her Daddy. DrMathocist writes about that here.

Those female characters do talk to each other, a couple of times I think, for a few seconds. But I can't recall them discussing anything other than the Dad or the new boyfriend. I'm happy to be proved wrong, but it does seem pretty amazing to me that it's so hard to find a film that passes the Bechdel test!

Anyway, how about the Sutton test? Just to remind you, this is also three simple questions:

1. Is there a man in it?

2. Is he a Dad?
3. Is he being anything other than a dickhead?

It's a tricky one, this. Yes, there are men in it, and one of them, Grug, voiced by Nic Cage, is the Dad. He spends much of the film being a dickhead. His main rule is 'Never not be afraid', he tells depressing stories and he gets punched in the face by monkeys (much to the amusement of his family). So far, so familiar. There's also a rivalry with his daughter's growing love interest which I'm sure many Dads would relate to, and it reminded me of the fantastic 'Cuckoo' and this Phil Jupitus routine.   

But as the film develops, so does Grug. The key exchange with the boyfriend, Guy, has Grug defending his stifling rules by saying:

'I guess I was just busy keeping them all alive'.
'It's ok, that's what Dads do', replies Guy.

Despite bemoaning 'I can't change, I don't have ideas, but I have my strength and right now that's all you need', Grug does then go on to have an almost painful moment of cognitive enlightenment… we are seeing thousands, millions of years of evolution and brain development compressed into a few seconds. And I suppose the film is encouraging an audience of sleepy Dads, dragged along to see the film, that they too can change – they can keep their family safe while encouraging creativity, independence, in short to let their children live a little.

I think most Dads are aware of this. But when I do lose the plot in parenting terms, it tends to be over 'rules' that probably aren't anywhere near as important as keeping them safe from a prehistoric monster, so it doesn't hurt to have the odd reminder.

So I think The Croods passes the Sutton test. I realise I may be reading too much into all this, but hey at least it kept me awake!

Friday, 22 March 2013

Famous Dad #2 and #3

Today's 'famous Dads' illustrate failings at the most basic levels of fatherhood.

Rule no. 1: Don't sacrifice your children.

In the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Bible, the founding father of the Israelites was commanded by God to offer his son up as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah. He travelled for three days until he came to the mount that God told him of. Abraham gets Isaac to carry the wood upon which he would be sacrificed (well, you would, wouldn't you?), and when Isaac gets a bit suspicious and asks where the animal is that they're going to chuck on the fire, his father replies "God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering". The just as Abraham is about to actually sacrifice his son, "the angel of the Lord" appears and goes "woah woah woah, you weren't really going to do it were you?! We were just having you on!". The angel points to a ram "caught in a thicket by his horns", at which point I imagine Abraham is feeling pretty daft and definitely not Dad of the year.

Still, for his obedience Abraham received a promise of numerous descendants and abundant prosperity. I just wonder whether, years later when Abraham and Isaac were sharing a pint in a cosy tavern, Abraham said: 'Isaac, you remember that day we went to the mount and sacrificed the goat? Well, you'll never guess what…'

Of course, the story of Abraham has featured in a few songs, including Leonard Cohen's 'Story of Isaac', which may well have been inspired by Wilfred Owen's 'The parable of the old man and the young' as it seems to speak to the cruelty and futility of war. Here we hear the story from 9-year-old Isaac's perspective, with the suggestion that maybe he was a bit more clued in to what was going on than the Bible version makes out. There's also Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 revisited', where Abraham switches from an incredulous "Man, you must be puttin' me on" to a Tarantino-esque "Where do you want this killin' done?" rather too quickly for my liking. 

Rule no. 2: Don't devour your own offspring.

According to Roman myth (inspired by the original Greek myth), it had been foretold that one of the sons of the titan Saturn would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus. Not one to take any chances, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born. After being caught out by this five times, his wife Ops eventually hid his sixth son, Jupiter, on the island of Crete, deceiving Saturn by offering a stone wrapped in swaddling in his place (I suppose he'd never had the chance to learn the difference in feel between a baby and a stone). Jupiter eventually supplanted his father just as the prophecy had predicted.

The Spanish artist Goya depicted Saturn devouring his son in a famous painting.

Wikipedia says: 'Various interpretations of the meaning of the picture have been offered: the conflict between youth and old age, time as the devourer of all things, the wrath of God and an allegory of the situation in Spain, where the fatherland consumed its own children in wars and revolution. There have been explanations rooted in Goya's relationships with his own son, Xavier, the only of his six children to survive to adulthood, or with his live-in housekeeper and possible mistress, Leocadia Weiss; the sex of the body being consumed can not be determined with certainty.'

I used this painting on the cover of The Psychologist following our 2008 redesign. It didn't go down too well.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Do daughters cause divorce?

Did you know that parents of girls are more likely to divorce than parents of boys?

A decade ago, economists Gordon Dahl at the University of Rochester and Enrico Moretti at UCLA identified the gap, and noted that it widened as you added girls to a family. Parents of three girls are 10 per cent more likely to split than are parents of three boys! And an unmarried couple is more likely to marry if they learn their unborn child will be a boy than a girl. The figures vary with country: in Vietnam parents of a girl are a whopping 25 per cent more likely to divorce than parents of a boy.

Does this suggest that boys are an asset to a marriage and girls are somehow a liability. Steven Landsburg, also of the University of Rochester, has looked at this argument. Maybe Dads prefer boys and will put more effort into keeping the relationship together in order to raise them? 

Or is it that women who have daughters have less need for a husband? Anita Kelly, a professor of psychology at Notre Dame, points out that nearly 75 per cent of all divorces involve a wife leaving her husband, so the question is not why do men stay for boys, but rather why mothers of daughters are divorcing more than mothers of sons.

Professor Kelly concludes:
… wives with daughters are less likely to stay with their husbands because they know that with a girl, they’ll never be lonely or without help. Thus, they may be less willing to tolerate any bad behaviors from their husbands (and less willing to stay married) because they don’t need their husbands as much. This idea could even explain why couples expecting a girl are less likely to marry: A woman carrying a girl anticipates that she won’t need a husband.

What do you think?

Easter egg competition

Tuesday, 19 March 2013


Tonight sees the start of a new series on Channel 4 in the UK, Bedtime Live. It features Clinical Psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, who I interviewed in 2005 for The Psychologist.

I just started taking the survey, but stopped because it seems to assume that you have a child with sleep problems. We had years of our youngest coming into our bed in the night, or dragging one of us in with him. But touch wood, all is good at the moment.

I'll be interested to see how the series progresses, because in my mind it all boils down to a couple of simple rules:

1) Get your children to bed at a sensible time. Ours are pretty much always in bed by 8pm, with the nearly 9-year-old getting an extra half an hour to read. Later than that, it tends to be pretty obvious the next day that they've missed out. I am usually in bed myself by 10, so any later than this also means no evening to myself! No doubt this will change as they get older.
2) Have a routine. I think every part of that routine helps with the transition from the usual madness towards sleep, and I have always found bedtime reading is a very important part of that.

I suspect the series will highlight the negative role of electronics in children's bedtimes, and I agree that a DS or TV in the room is unlikely to be conducive to slumber. But I swear by audiobooks… after storytime, if the kids aren't quite ready to go to sleep but you're more than ready for a glass of wine, sticking on a CD is just another way of helping them wind down and they tend to be asleep in a few minutes. Current favourites are Just William, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington etc.

I have no doubt that bedtime is a battleground for lots of parents. But the vast majority of kids do get tired, and want / need to sleep. Create a calming environment and a routine and you should be fine.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Some Comic Relief

As it's Red Nose Day here in the UK, I thought I'd point you to the two funniest things I've seen about fatherhood this year.

Firstly, Stewart Lee. The clip below isn't about fatherhood, but it's genius. It's taken from his 'Carpet remnant world', which is well worth getting hold of. In his usual style, he does a painfully extended but extremely funny routine about Scooby Doo style jungle canyon rope bridges, because all he does these days is watch Scooby Doo with his young son. 'I've got nothing,' he repeats apologetically. 'I look after my 4-year-old son, and I drive round the North Circular'.

Secondly, this from Phil Jupitus is just phenomenal. Not safe for work, but you just have to watch his account of his daughter's first 'sleepover' with her boyfriend at Phil's house. The final straw comes when beer (or, more accurately, 'dog lager') appears in Phil's fridge. 'BECAUSE I IMAGINE THAT HANGING OUT OF THE BACK OF MY FIRST BORN IS THIRSTY WORK!'

Sometimes I'm glad I don't have daughters.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Should the father be present at the birth?

Yes. Yes he should.

But that wouldn't make for an interesting blog post, so this article discusses when and how it became almost mandatory for Dads to be present in the delivery room.

The piece is based on a fascinating project by Dr Laura King at the University of Leeds, 'Hiding in the pub to cutting the cord'. Apparently:

"It is very hard to find definitive statistics on this, but from the late 1960s to the late 70s it goes from a minority [of Dads being present at the birth] to something between 70-80%," says King.

In 1970s sitcom Some Mother's Do 'Ave 'Em, when Frank Spencer's daughter Jessica is born, he has to ask the doctor's permission to attend the birth. Dr King says that in the 1970s there were three different sets of feelings involved – the woman's, the man's and the medical profession's.

"There is a school of thought that said that doctors feel quite threatened by another presence in the room, another person who's asking questions about why they are doing what they're doing," says King. 

About 14% of fathers are still not able to attend the birth of their babies. Footballers (and former footballers) seem to be particularly reluctant.

For some this is no bad thing, with Dads even getting the blame for the increasing rate of Caesarian section births!

For the record, I wouldn't have missed the births of my two boys for the world. But my memories for them are pretty sketchy… the sound of a worryingly slow heartbeat filling the room, until the nurse helpfully informed us the machine might be on the blink… trips to the hospital shop to buy a range of Ginsters products (the whole thing made me strangely hungry)… slipping on blood… and the relief.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Growing up with psychologists

As I've said before, I'm interested in how much awareness children have of their parents' careers. Does growing up with a psychologist as their Dad have much impact on my own boys? I doubt it, particularly as I'm now more of an editor really… they just get bought lots of magazines!

Others have written about that collision of professional and personal lives, notably Charles Fernyhough's beautiful 'A thousand days of wonder', a chronicle of his daughter's developing mind (and his use of a SenseCam with his son). Athena seems aware that she's part of something: indeed, a reviewer said that 'the book really takes off when Athena is old enough to take centre stage; when she starts to run the show, participating and rejecting her role in her father's sometimes needy experiments.'

But that's more about actively being a psychologist with your children, actually researching and experimenting with them. What about when your children are just hit by the fallout of you taking a psychological approach to life?

Some have blogged about it. And in The Psychologist we ran an interview with Clinical Psychologist Sarah Marzillier, who had the good fortune / misfortune to grow up with not one but two psychologists as parents. 

There's also this book, 'Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks', which I love the sound of. Micah Toub grew up with two Jungian psychologists. The review says:

'Jungian psychology evolved from the ideas of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist and disciple of Sigmund Freud before the two parted ways. Now better known as analytical psychology, the method attempts to understand our motivations by examining the subconscious mind, partly through dream interpretation.
It wasn't as if his folks ended each evening with a cry of "Micah, it's couch time!" But there were moments.
Toub writes about how his dad tells him, "That's good that I died in your dream, Micah. It means you're integrating your inner father and becoming more independent." After he confesses his fumbled attempt to lose his virginity as a teen, Toub's mom informs him, "You have to BE the erect penis in your life.'

I'm no Jungian, but that one is going in the memory locker to be produced at an appropriate time! Or, indeed, an inappropriate time…

I also like his Dad's own, rather understated, review:

"I'm certainly proud of my son for his accomplishments and glad he's been able to use what he understands about Jungian psychology for his own development," he said.

Monday, 11 March 2013

'Can hedgehogs and foxes go in the sea?'

I am well aware that this particular post is straying into 'kids [well, my kids] say the funniest things' territory. I will try to steer clear of that, generally. But do other Dads / parents out there find that their children are at their funniest and most creative at six in the morning?

I have not had to set an alarm clock for many a year, because my youngest will invariably pop in at around 6 and launch straight into some bizarre question as I groggily rouse myself from my slumber. Here's a selection of my 'six-year-old alarm clock' quotes:

'One question what's really important: can hedgehogs and foxes go in the sea?'
‘Daddy, I want to make a metal detector’. ‘Ok, how do you make one of them?’ Indignantly: ‘I don’t know, don’t ask me!’
'Dad, did you know that in the Stone Age the first word was "Ug", and then "Hunga Bunga"?
'If cockroaches can survive a nuclear bomb, how do they fight?'
'Can an alien put his feet in cold water for 100 seconds?' 
'Will there ever be a tsunami?' 
'Why do countries fight?
‘Dad, when I grow up I want to be in a band called Robin Rovallo and the Flying Pigs.'

Is this a common experience?

Friday, 8 March 2013

'Dad! I want to go as a ninja!'

'Hear hear' is all I can say over this article about parent-child battles over costumes for World Book Day. To be honest I even struggle with sending them to school as Harry Potter. I was, however, delighted when my son decided to go to school dressed as the SpaceBatAngelDragon from Ted Hughes' 'The Iron Man'.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Dad song #7

I am currently having a real Lee Hazlewood spell – the good people at Light in the Attic are doing some great reissues. But this morning it was the turn of his three albums with Nancy Sinatra, and I came across this little ditty, 'Tippy toes', from 'Nancy and Lee'.

'One of the nicest things about being a big people, 
is discovering that you can make little people, 
and little girl people are something extra special to their Daddies'.

I've got boys, so I can't comment!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Dad jokes and the psychology of humour

I have struggled to focus today, because on the way to work I made up a joke that I am ridiculously pleased with. Drum roll, please:

'I had a dream that I was going to get wet on a camping trip. Turns out I was right - must have been a portent.'

Now I'm not saying that's good; in fact, the complete opposite. I shared it on my Twitter feed, which kind of specialises in bad jokes, and my friend and psychologist Chris French immediately responded 'that is truly awful – go to your room!'

The really funny thing is that that was the desired response: I like a groan more than a laugh! That is particularly the case with 'Dad jokes'. I tell my kids jokes as often as possible, and the worse they are the better. Is it just me, or when you tell your children a joke do you actively want them to think it's rubbish?

Why do Dads do this? Why do we seek out and tell rubbish jokes in order to reinforce the stereotype that we're a bit rubbish? Why does nobody talk about Mum jokes – what would a 'Mum joke' even be?

(If you're interested in the psychology of humour, look out for the April issue of The Psychologist, which is going to be a comedy / laughter special. But be warned that American author E.B. White once said: ‘Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.’)

Unfortunately my effort isn't suitable as a Dad joke, because for most children (and, let's face it, many adults) it would mean explaining what 'portent' means. 

So what makes the perfect 'Dad joke'? I would suggest:

- it's simple
- it's short
- it references something in their lives
- it's not very good.

Against those criteria, I think it's difficult to beat this one:

'What do you call a nervous Jedi? Panakin Skywalker'

…but I would really love to hear your Dad jokes.

Of course, kids' jokes are something else entirely. There's some interesting research on the form they take, but to me most seem to be along these lines:

'Why did the chicken cross the road? Because he was being chased by the Poo Monster!'

Check out this site if you don't believe me.

UPDATE: Another example of classic Dad humour… if I'm in the car with the boys and we see an ambulance, I will always, without fail, say 'You're not going to sell many ice creams going at that speed'. It stopped being funny about 237 times ago. In fact, the boys would probably argue that it wasn't funny the first time. But I will never stop saying it, and I suspect that when they are Dads they will do exactly the same. Is this the best wisdom us Dads can pass down from generation to generation?

UPDATE TWO: Those nice guys over at Dadsaster have pointed me to Dad's Bad JokesIt has terrible jokes for every occasion, for example when driving past some black and white cows, 'Boy it must be cold out there, those cows are Fresian!' 

UPDATE THREE: Also, maybe worth including my three favourite jokes that I tell about my own Dad, which are:

I'm sure wherever my Dad is, he's looking down on me. He's not dead, just very condescending. 
My Dad did a lot of his talking with his hands, if you know what I mean. That's right, he was a puppeteer.
My Dad was also a clown and he wanted me to follow him into the business… but those are big shoes to fill.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Dad songs #5 and #6

It's a Billy Bragg special today, following requests from fellow psychologists Mike Eslea and Mike Page.

First we have 'Brickbat' from the 'William Bloke' album, when Bragg was coming to terms with his domesticity and life as a father.

"I used to want to plant bombs at the Last Night of the Proms / But now you'll find me with the baby, in the bathroom / With that big shell listening for the sound of the sea / The baby and me..."

Then it's 'Tank park salute' from 'Don't try this at home'. In this 2003 interview he describes it as the most honest thing he's written. When he sings 'You were so tall: how could you fall?' I defy you not to get a shiver down your spine and a tear in your eye.

Billy Bragg: I wrote that about my father who died in 1976. It was strange because I had never really spoken about that to anybody at the time he died really up until I wrote that song. When I wrote that song, playing it live, people would come up to me and tell me about an experience they had with…not necessarily a family member, just someone dear to them who was lost. So I had to suddenly find a way of speaking about it. Now even to the extent of speak about it on TV, which I had never had done before.
Andrew Denton: What was it you wrote that expressed you?
Billy Bragg: Well, really, I suppose about my relationship with my father and how I felt about the sense of loss. I suppose that's obvious to anybody. But there's some things in there about, you know, about being tall and him being strong and all those dad things that dads are. I've had big burly guys who have just loaded all the gear into the truck come to me afterwards and say, "That song about your dad, I thought it was great." You can't really ask for more than that.
Andrew Denton: Part of the thing with your father dying — as you were saying, he was a big strong man — but when your father dies he's suddenly made small.
Billy Bragg: He is. He's made mortal. When I became a father myself, it gave me a completely different perspective. Really great as well, because just recently last month was the 50th anniversary of my parents getting married. I was walking along the beach that day and I was speaking to my mum and I thought to myself, "What would be the thing of all the things I've achieved that I would most proud to show to my dad?" 
And it occurred to me it'd be my son, Jack, that was the thing I'm most proud of. When I thought about it that, it further occurred to me that the thing he was probably most proud of was me and my brother. And that made me feel closer to him on that day, that special day.