ARE FATHERS MISSING IN ACTION IN TODAY’S FAMILIES?
In an address last week, Australia’s Social Services Minister, Kevin Andrews, stressed the need to support families. Judith Ireland at Fairfax Media wrote:
Mr Andrews will talk of the importance of early intervention and prevention to avoid family breakups which he says increases the risks of child neglect and self-harm, and alcohol abuse and unwanted sex among young people.
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There are many issues here which beg for attention. But in this article let’s focus on the role of fathers.
Look at the media and you’ll see men displayed as sportsmen (Usain Bolt or Cristiano Ronaldo or Sachin Tendulkar). Or showing off their ‘jacked’ bodies and six-packs . Guys like Mario Lopez, Matt Barr, Mike Chang, Usher. Wait- have you even heard of these people? No? You’re showing your age!)
Or men are found out for various kinds of mischief (just check out the sports pages, or those awful celebrity magazines you read nervously as you’re waiting for the dentist). We expect so much from men these days. We want men also to play a vital role as fathers. But fathers are often missing in action in today’s families. Let’s look at some of the patterns.
First, fathers see less of kids after separation and divorce. Of course divorce and separation are a problem time for all those affected. Men suffer in their own particular way: sleeplessness, headaches, and depression included.
In many or most examples, there are custody cases. And we’ve heard that there is a long backlog of custody cases in Australia and in many other places, including the USA.
Men accused of abuse are especially vulnerable as they wait for a court to hear about allegations. And it’s really easy to make allegations.
There’s evidence that males after separation or divorce are much more vulnerable than usual to severe depression and suicide. Yet we expect men to soldier on, keep working, and not show pain. We don’t seem comfortable with men who are too emotional or needy. In typical American fashion these guys are labeled ‘deadbeat dads’ if they don’t do everything required of them.
The effects of separation and divorce can be severe for children, too. Kraemer suggests that boys suffer more than girls.
The care of boys is generally more difficult and therefore more likely to go wrong, adding to the deficits already existing before birth. Since most of the growth of the human brain takes place after birth, some early environmental stressors could lead to disadvantage for boys being “wired in”. In any case, in boys the formation of secure attachment to a caregiver is more subject than in girls to parental unavailability, insensitivity, or depression.
Second, we men need to focus more on relationships. Historically, relationships weren’t a man’s main focus. Being a man meant that you worked. Work was something that men did. Men worked outside the home; women, inside. The whole domestic sphere included raising kids, looking after their education, keeping everyone on an even keel physically, spiritually and emotionally. This was seen as women’s task. We know that there has been a huge revolution in gender roles since the 1960s. But men still seem focused on work, and less aware of their own feelings and those of others. How many males are good at working out what’s going on: am I ill? Or feeling sad? Or maybe depressed? Or just bored? Are we smart enough emotionally to work out what our sons, daughters and partners are feeling? Too often, we’re lagging in this area.
Third, the ABC series on Fly in, Fly Out workers showed that many fathers are working long distances away from their families.
It’s clear from the program that there are thousands of men working shifts like eight days on, six days off. A quick search of Fly in, Fly Out jobs shows that there is, indeed, a large range of jobs of this type available.
How can a man be an effective father and partner when he is so far away from his family, so often, for such long stretches?
Finally, around the world, boys are having difficulties in learning. The educational literature is full of material asking why this is the case: are boys slower than girls? Is school unfair to them? Are we teaching in ways which unconsciously appeal to girls, while boys are rebelling against being made to be in ‘sit-stilleries’.
Ask yourself: how good am I at sitting still all day?
And I’ve found in interviews that often, behind boys’ learning difficulties, there lurks a familiar problem: the lack of a secure connection with a father who is physically and emotionally present. And a father who offers his son attention, encouragement and sensible guidance as to how to get the best from school and life itself.
I think all of these point to the truth about today’s families. We have unconsciously emphasized the role of mothers in raising and educating kids. And fathers feel they aren’t so important these days.
When I run workshops on raising boys, I tell fathers they have a vital role in raising their sons and daughters. The many mothers present welcome this. A large number of them have encouraged their partners to attend the workshop in the first place! Let’s not forget, too, that our idea of what is a family? has altered a great deal since the 1950s. Today we have gay dads (Ricky Martin seems to be one of many); blended families; other variations on the ‘normal’ family, and the huge variety of cultures who raise kids in their own ways. Thus the 1950s model of families looks pretty quaint. We have to keep adapting and changing our ideas about family as our society changes.
So what can we do to take up Kevin Andrews’ ideas? I suggest we start with the following.
First, parents could use some ideas about better parenting. We need sensible, experienced people to offer sound advice to parents. Older men and women could give advice based on their experience. A discussion group for particular fathers might be a good plan. It’s likely that Fly in, Fly Out dads could benefit from exchanging ideas.
Second, we need to encourage men to be fathers. Many of us feel that being a dad is the most important job a man will ever do. We need to spread the word about how a man can spend time with his sons and daughters. Playing hide and seek, throwing a ball around, learning to swim: the list is endless. Kids love the attention they get from their dads. And many a man has been surprised by his joy in being a dad.
Third, we males must develop our emotional intelligence. Kraemer talks about alexythymia among males. This is a lack of an emotional vocabulary. It’s associated with deficits in inter-hemispheric transfer across the brain. We need to be more aware of the emotional lives of boys in our families and our schools. Some schools do provide useful lessons for boys in getting on with people (I wish I’d learnt more of this!) Boys probably need some coaching to help them work out the differences between sadness- such as when a loved one dies- and depression, which is much more worrying. We Anglo-Australian males might learn something useful from our Italian, Brazilian or Greek friends, who seem better at expressing and acknowledging their emotions. Perhaps we might learn something also from the women in our lives. I have a few who often give me some suggestions for improving my relationships…
Fourth, around the western world, we need to get and retain men in teaching , especially at the peak of their careers (around 25 to 35 years). Child education experts have urged the need for men in early stages of learning.
To get men involved in education will take an enormous effort, as many males get the message ‘school is not for me’. Teaching becomes a ‘no man’s land’. And to keep men in teaching we will need to raise teachers’ salaries and working conditions significantly.
Last, it’s worrying looking at the Fly in, Fly Out dads and wondering how they can be effective parents when they aren’t around most days for their kids. But this isn’t the first generation of kids not to see their dad at breakfast. Some men I’ve interviewed talked of their time as boys of eight or nine. Their dads were shearers and instructed their son how to be ‘the man of the house’ till Dad got back. Many of us had dads absent in wartime. Maybe the mining companies could usefully provide workshops for their workers, in how to act as a father long-distance. Phones, Skyping, and email could all play a part.
In sum, Mr Andrews challenges us males to be better dads and grand-dads. And for our society to acknowledge the importance of fathers in families. We need to show more confidence in fathers to do their job and not pay incautious attention to accusations without evidence. Changed as they are, and in all their variety, families are still a crucial building-arch for every society we know. And fathers are the keystone.