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."