Dads learn by doing

As Dads get more involved with raising children, they begin to understand what Mums have been saying for some time: raising children is a tough gig, rewarding of course, but challenging too.

To do this combined with a productive career is even tougher.

So, how come men seem to have taken so long to get the message?

Well, it's because he didn't hear the message.

It could be that men just don't hear very well, but I suspect that men in general just don't seem to learn that way. (And maybe a good number of women too - but that's another story).

Dads are beginning to realise that child-care is anything but child's play - not because of Mum's advice, but because he is getting involved.

Now Mum's advice is well-meaning, but most parents will freely admit that there is no instruction manual for raising children.

And even if there was, almost everyone would agree that it would be highly unlikely that Dad would be willing to read it!

I don’t even read the instructions before trying to put together some flat-pack from Ikea, so why am I going to go to the instruction book for raising my child? 

I like to learn by doing - not by reading the manual.

Oh and in case there is any doubt, I'm not very fond of having the manual read to me either!

We know that men are already notoriously reluctant to ask for directions. However, to be clear, when I choose not to ask for directions, it is not simply out of shyness on my part. If directions or advice are offered unsolicited, I am not likely to be very receptive!

The same goes for parenting advice.

Perhaps it is because I don't like to confronted by my own incompetence, perhaps it is ego-threatening, or perhaps I just like the challenge of solving the problem without the instruction book!

Men do learn stuff, lots of stuff, and without the instruction manual.

Men learn about parenting the same way that Mums do?

First and foremost, they learn by doing. This will almost certainly involve some trial and error - which can be tough on everyone involved when some the child scrapes some bark or breaks a limb, but it is a way of learning.

Dad (like Mum) does learn from others - but more from their example than from their advice.

So Mum take heart. Your example is important, even if your advice is, well, like the instruction manual, an unused resource!

Perhaps the most striking example offered by modern mothers to fathers is not so much in terms of how to care for the children, but rather her example in how she engages in raising children and engages in a productive career outside the home.

Huh! How is that?

Mums have shown men that child-care can be accommodated alongside other achievements – even in defiance of stereotyping and bias.

Mums have shown dads that being a parent can be accommodated along with other achievements, and even in the face of people doubting their capacity to do so.

Perhaps one of the biggest demographic changes wrought in the last century is the move of women out of the home and into the workplace. Mums (and other women in general) have proved clearly that they are quite capable of operating in the workplace. Even showing that they can break down barriers to do so if need be.

The migration of mothers to the workplace has shown Dads two things. One, career and child-rearing can both feature in your life, and so Dads are implicitly invited to participate more on the domestic front.

The second service is to show Dad the way of defying ‘invisible’ barriers that might prevent him being a participative parent. The boss, colleagues, peers may sneer at men that choose to put a high priority on rearing the children. However, as we learned in the school yard, it does not always make sense to do as your mates do.

Perhaps men (and others!) see men's specialised role in the family to be that of the 'breadwinner'.

However, just as women have rejected the overspecialisation of their sex to one role, men too might be encouraged to reject their overly specialised roles.

In sum, Dads prefer to learn by doing, so Mum, the school m'am role might not be the best approach!

However, you might like to take heart in fine example you offer to Dad, and in particular, the example of how to break through stereotyped sex specialisation that sends men to breadwinning and women to child-caring.

(If Dads are looking for some ideas on what to do, you might try Mal White's book Good Dads Great Dads. It's not an instruction manual, it's just ideas. You can get lots just from the contents page!)

Dad: the male supermodel

Dad: a male supermodel
When we talk of models, many (okay, mostly men) will think about super-models.  

However, Mum and Dad are both models – and in terms of their degree of influence over their children, it might even be fair to describe them as ‘super-models’ for their kids.

One of the best predictors of how a child will turn out is to take a look at the Mum and Dad. 

Part of that prediction is based on genetics, but the other enormous part of that is based on environment. 

A child shares most of their time with their parents, especially in the formative first five to seven years. After this time, others such as teachers, peers and other social influences such as media and marketing begin to have some impact.

Take the examples of consumption, and especially sometimes socially undesirable products such as tobacco and alcohol. People are quick to blame marketing and media, but the biggest predictor of a child’s consumption of tobacco and alcohol is that of the parents. 

The influence of parents on tobacco and alcohol consumption is higher than peers, and higher than other influencers such as media and marketing. 

Those that take up smoking are much more likely than those that do not take it up to live in an environment where smoking is perceived positively and people around them smoke[i]. A child is about two times more likely to take up smoking if one or other parent smokes, almost three times more likely likely to take up smoking if both smoke.

Similar findings of the importance of parental and other family members alcohol consumption and history have been found to predict the age of uptake of alcohol and the likelihood of alcohol related problems[ii].

In short, parents are important models: "The importance of parents/caregivers as role models can never be over-estimated. They are the child's everything. And the older you get, the more you realise that it's not just your nose or eyebrows that mimic your parents, but also your behaviours."[iii]

Blaming media and marketing influences on children is easy, but more significantly, overlooks the profound influence of parents on their children.

Dads are particularly important for modelling manhood, to daughters and sons alike. She learns how to relate to good men, he learns how to be a good man.

Here’s a few of the particular ways in which Dads serve as models for their sons and their daughters[iv]:

   - Dads tend to offer more physical play than mothers, which increases the physical competency of their young children.
   - Fathers often think “out of the box” and offer alternative strategies for problem solving.
   Fathers teach sex roles: they are generally more physically active with their sons and more protective of their daughters.

When fathers model behaviours that are respectful to women, their sons are more likely to see women as human beings rather than “things” to manipulate. When men do not father at all, well then things get very ugly. 

Abusive fathers raise abusive children, and absent fathers raise lost children.

[i] J. Leonardi-Bee, M.L. Jere, J. Britton, (2011) “Exposure to parental and sibling smoking and the risk of smoking uptake in childhood and adolescence: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Thorax, 66(10):847-55. doi: 10.1136/thx.2010.153379,, accessed 3may2013
D.B. Buller,  R. Borland, W.G. Woodall, J.R. Hall, P. Burris-Woodall, J.H. Voeks, (2003) “Understanding factors that affect tobacco uptake” Tobacco Control, Supp 4, IV:16-25,, accessed 3may2013
[ii] L.B. Fisher, I.W. Miles, S.B. Austin, C.A. Camargo, G.A. Colditz (2007), Predictors of initiation of alcohol use among US adolescents: findings from a prospective cohort study.” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine;161(10):959-66.
V. Johnson, L.A. Warner, H.R. White, (2007) “Alcohol initiation experiences and family history of alcoholism as predictors of problem-drinking trajectories” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs,68, 1(Jan) 56-65.
[iii] Andrew Whitehouse (2013) “Swearing at kids in supermarkets,” The Conversation, April 2,

Doing it Daddy’s Way

Just as women can bring their own feminine traits to the workplace – with great success – so men can bring their own masculine style to the domain of child-rearing.

When my son was very young, just months old, I told his Mum I wanted to have one day alone with him each week so that we would learn about on another.

She loved the idea, and why not? Not only did Dad get involved with his own child, but it gave Mum a day off.

However, the theory sounded great, the wrinkles revealed themselves more in the practice. The very first Saturday that was declared to be Dad-son time, she hovered around in the background. Actually ‘hover’ makes it sound like she was a humming bird – and at some levels, she was.  But at another level, she was more like a Momma-bear.

I felt intimidated. The stereotype of intimidation generally runs in the other direction, but in this instance, I definitely felt like I was being watched, and judged – and perhaps found wanting. Even though I tend to work at home, and so I was around much of the time with our young son even if she was the one primarily pre-occupied with our first-born. Nonetheless, there was a sense that on this first Dad-son day that this was not my domain.

To add to that, Momma bear wasn’t far away as she was pottering around the house doing other things in other rooms. This could at some level be reassuring, but at another, it threatened to undermine the whole intention of the practice.

Whenever our young son would squawk or wail or burp or grizzle, she would holler her advice from somewhere within the house: “He wants a feed,” “He needs to be put down,” “You need to change his nappy,” etc.

I quickly saw that this was not what I had wanted and just as importantly, was probably not going to work. So I suggested to his mother that for Dad-son day, either Dad and son would leave the house together, or she could leave the house for the day leaving us to work it out for ourselves.

It was hard to establish a rapport with my young son with his Mum playing translator and big boss ma’am. I was fortunate. His mum agreed to this and so I learned heaps about my son from these regular intensive interactions, and maybe he learned some from me too!

Yes, the Mum may have a good deal of expertise in the care of the offspring. However, just as Mum will probably acknowledge herself, all the advice in the world (from her own mother, from her mother-in-law, from other helpful mothers) does not replace the tried and true hands-on method. At some point, the parent – be it Mum or Dad – has to work it for themselves.

Men – like women – need to be supported in this. Parenting is a tough job, and as every child is different, it is impossible to ‘parent by the book’. So it would be great if the community, that is employers, neighbours, mums, all stepped up to support Dad for what he is doing. When he gets involved with the kids at home, he is doing everyone a favour.

Mum in particular can help. It is true that ‘his’ way may not be ‘her’ way – just as ‘her’ way may not be the way of those faithful family members who tell her how to do things. However, she can help by trusting that Dad will learn the same way she did, by trial and error, hands-on practice.

(For more thoughts along the different and important ways in which fathers offer care, see Richard Fletcher's book The Dad Factor and see Bettina Arndt and some of the damage done when Dad is absent)

Au pair wanted by single dad

A single-dad looking for an au pair - is it just some kind of joke?  Even a rather sick joke perhaps?

But where’s the joke? Is the automatic snicker to a single-dad's desire for an au pair a little like what confronted women 100 years ago when they declared their desire to engage in society with the same freedom as men:  to vote, work, play sports, etc?

I have a lot of time for single parents, partly because I know that they have so little time for themselves!  And  because I am a single parent myself.  Or at least, a half-time single-parent.

Since my son was one, he has been raised by his Mum in her home and by me in my home.

Now, I know that my son’s mother found it tough being a single parent.  Me too. 

She showed the good sense to ask for help, and in particular, she applied to an agency for an au pair.

She got an au pair in no time flat.  And when one would finish up and head back home or wherever, my son’s mother had little trouble finding a replacement.

My son liked the au pairs at his Mum's house.  He talked to me about each one and the fun they had during the au pair's stay. 

I’m guessing it made my son’s mother’s life much easier too.

I naturally thought ‘What a great idea’, and I applied for one too.

To the agency’s credit, they did not laugh when I submitted my application. 

On the other hand, they did not do anything else either.

I was not offered an au pair.  I was on the books for some years.  During that time, my son’s mother had a number of au pairs.

I was left perplexed – and acutely aware of the burden of operating as a single-parent without any household help. 

Occasionally I would call up the agency to remind them that I was still looking.  On one such occasion, they admitted that they were still looking too.

The difficulty it appears, was that of placing an au pair with a single father.  I heard phrases like “young women”, “living with a single man”, “concerned families back in Europe”.

Ah, I see.

I gave up and realised that I would just have to sail solo, even though single parenting is no kind of plain sailing.

Then one day, out of the blue, the agency called me: “We have an au pair that we think might be of interest to you.  Can we send you the details.”


The au pair looked very impressive with lots of experience caring for nephews and nieces (the sister’s children), good references (from the sister and others), good English, late 20s (which I thought to be a good thing) and so forth.

Oh, and one particularly interesting point, the au pair applicant was male!

Having gotten cranky about the double-standard of the placement of au pairs with single mothers, but not single fathers, I was now confronted by my own biases.

Would I accept a male au pair?  What if he was some kind of weirdo?  What male chooses to be an au pair?  Out came my biases!

Why do we fear men so much?  Yes, me included!

Well, from a psychological point of view, it has to do with something called the ‘availability bias’.  We can think of instances of men having been convicted for child abuse much more easily than women.

Is the fear justified?  Not really.  The media run stories that are interesting.  A mother neglecting a child is not nearly as interesting a story as a complete stranger abducting a child.

Couple of reality checks.  First, child abuse of any form is rare, very rare.  Second, the most likely offenders are people known to the child, particularly mothers as it happens but that may simply reflect the amount of time they spend with the children.

So the horror stories of children abducted by strangers and abused are far more memorable than the more numerous and less media-worthy cases of children neglected or abused by their own parents. 

Just like how we are far more fearful of a shark attack than we are of drowning even though the latter is statistically many times more probable than the former.

So, I am looking at a young German man’s application to be an au pair.

I took him on.  I overcame my gut reaction and realised it was the same one that leads to squirliness in our society about men around children in general.  The prejudices that lead to so many stories of men being challenged when looking for undies for their daughter, or watching their children / grand-children in parks, or sitting next to unaccompanied minors on airplanes, or looking for an au pair.

Our German au pair was a great success.  He was with us for one year.  My son thoroughly enjoyed the time the au pair spent with us.  And I really appreciated his help with my son and around the home.

Maybe this experience will help my son will grow up with different views (read: less biases) about men than our generation?  I hope so.

Confessions of an alleged child abuser

Discouraging child abuse or encouraging father abuse?
August 21 was a horrible evening. Blustery winds and driving rain buffeted the windows and the door.  

A knock at the front door that no-one was expecting heralded the arrival of a different kind of storm.

I had three boys spreading toys around my home - my four and a half year old son and the two boys from next door.  To help me oversee this  chaos was the father from next door as well.

I left them to answer the unexpected knock at the door. I wondered if it might be my neighbour’s wife arrived home early come over to join the party. Or perhaps my partner.

Nothing prepared me for what was there.

There, huddled in the wintry, wet porch were five people. Five people who were quite willing to stir up a storm.

At front was a shortish man with a rather striking white shirt with odd black decorations on it. Beside him, a very tall man (well over six foot) in dark blue shirt and jeans. And alongside, a youngish woman, dressed in a unmemorable way, but normal-enough looking. This core of three was backed by a further two men for whom I have no description whatsoever. I guess I never got to processing who they were, or if I did, it was masked and lost by the events that followed. It was astounding enough, in such intemperate conditions, to come to my door to be confronted by five people. Five people as I was to find out, who were exceedingly keen to talk to me.  

Seemed a little like overkill for Mormons. At any rate, salespeople generally call by the telephone at this hour – yes, almost exactly this hour, 5.30pm the buggers. Trying to sell me some new telephone service from the middle of India. No, they didn’t look like salespeople.

However, they started like most of the salespeople do. A shortish man asked asked me to confirm my name.  I did so and I asked them their business – as I do when they contact me by phone.

The shortish man stepped forward and said they were from the Child Protection Agency and they wished to come inside. What the ... ?! My guts wrenched sideways. The Child Protection Agency? What did they want? Isn’t that the service that comes and takes children away from families that they deem are unfit to care for the child. My mind screamed. What was this about?

Despite my fears, my nerves, I realized that no accusation was being made. I was merely ‘catastrophising’ as one of my friends would put it. I needed to establish what they were here for. Later I would realize that five people showing up at your front door either from or supporting the Child Support Agency is not ‘catastrophising’ – it is a catastrophe.