We all love our Dad. Such a statement would have been trite fifty years ago. Boys grew up expecting to become a father, breadwinner, head of the family and husband of a loving wife. Our kids would look up to us and people would respect us. That’s how it was in those years before about 1970. I base this on my own family experience, and work I did for a book on Australian men, Fathers, Sons and Lovers.
Today almost any statement about family becomes controversial. Families are – we now admit- really diverse. Teachers tell me that a kid with two dads is nothing unusual. Mixed-race families are commonplace: it’s sometimes tricky working out who are the parents of a kid who might be dark-skinned or Asian in appearance. And we are about to have a long and painful debate about same-sex marriages. And an unnecessary one, to judge from what I’ve heard from the younger generation (“why don’t they just get on with it?”)
Are fathers respected today? Many men have talked about the suspicion that falls on men. There was the case of a man asked by staff to move from his seat on a plane because he was sitting next to children. Of course: he might be a child molester, was the implication.
Men: just fools and clowns?
Men are not seen as very interesting these days, except as problems. As we watch the nightly news, see for yourself how often this follows. If there is a victim, it’s probably going to be a female. If a married man and woman are interviewed, somehow the female usually does the talking. If some evil has been done, or some criminal act done, expect to be told that a man did it. The ABC and SBS seem especially fond of championing women as experts on almost everything: sex (of course- what would a man know about it, except worrying about the size of his, er, pencil?) And in education, careers, marriage, housing issues, adolescents, and so on - expect to hear women’s voices. In summary, much of the time, the media portray men as fools and clowns. And people who are respected are not male. Certainly not the current President of the USA (not much of a surprise there, at least!)
What do fathers achieve?
Thus it might be timely to remind ourselves of what fathers actually do that’s so useful. And we must include all the different varieties of fatherhood. There are a huge variety of cultures native to, and brought to Australia: it would be pointless to try and list them all. Yet fatherhood seems to me fairly universal to them. There are particular qualities to observe. Filial piety seems to be strong in many of the cultures that come out of China. Among boys of Middle Eastern cultures, teachers have told me the potent threat is “ I’m going to call your father!”. And the response is usually “Oh no! Please don’t do it! He’ll beat me!”
What does being a dad do? Fathering transforms men. Australian men in my research believed there was a very defined pattern of being a man. Men felt they must be strong, never admit weakness, not be emotional except in sport or in the privacy of the bedroom, be endlessly interested in sex, and be wary of anything soft or girly. I still raise my eyebrows when I see a male wearing purple or (God forbid) pink.
But fatherhood takes men into a domain of nurturing which is often previously foreign to them. Fathers benefit kids in many ways, says US research. Fathers orient their children to the world with talk of work, money, sport and adventure, says an article in a useful US website, the Good Men Project. We need more of such encouragement for males.
Dads connect kids with the outside world in a score of ways. Watch dads around the shops, pretending to be a monster, chucking balls to kids, talking about sport. When their father takes an interest in them, kids’ school results are better, they are less likely to be violent, have a teen pregnancy, or become victims of other adversities. A recent article in The Conversation talks about how useful it is to read to kids, even after the kids can read for themselves. I was a bit sad to see that in this learned piece, there wasn’t much emphasis on dads reading. There has been much anxiety about NAPLAN results, with the usual concern that our children aren’t doing well enough. Making sure busy dads find time to read to kids might do a lot to improve academic and social outcomes. The gap between boys and girls in writing might be narrowed if we could get more dads reading, and modelling writing as well; especially with boys - but to girls too.
And in sum
We’re hearing about a renewed push for improving men’s health.Part of that project must be to harness the power of fathers. We are young, old, indigenous, or perhaps we’ve come from Africa, the Middle East or India. And increasingly, a mixture of a few of these. We have huge potential to do good. So let’s reflect on what our own dads did for us. And what we can do for our kids and grandkids.
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