Being Dad podcast goes live

Well done to Jake Taylor and Alex Cullen for getting this podcast up and running. Thanks for allowing my contribution to the episode on dads and postnatal depression.

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Why you’ll never measure up to Bluey’s dad

Everyone loves the ABC’s hit kids show, Bluey.

And part of the show’s charm is Bluey’s amazing dad, Bandit.

He never gets mad, he’s always engaged with his kids – you just know they’re going to grow up to be rocket scientists. Or at least happy, well-balanced adults.

University of Southern Queensland clinical psychologist James Brown tells Drive’s Dan Prosser Bandit sets the bar for fatherhood so high, real-life dads are likely to do themselves a (psychological) injury trying to clear it.

And he talks about why mums might not have much sympathy for the predicament regular dads find themselves in.

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Quality time

My son came home from school yesterday quite distressed. Again. There has been a pattern of reported incidents at school of rough play. As he cried and sobbed, my mind was racing with ideas of what needed to be done to help him, and images of myself riding into battle, like the conquering cavalry of old, to defend my wounded boy. However, my attempts to help him were rebuffed, with every suggestion seeming to only escalate his emotions. We were both becoming frustrated with each other, and I was feeling unhelpful…until I just gave in. Almost defeated, I felt that all I could offer was my time, with him, right then, in that moment. My years of training as a clinical psychologist, and many more years working with many young people and their families, ironically with some having similar concerns, culminated in the complex intervention offered to my son of watching a funny TV show together and eating some ice-cream. As time passed, his emotions settled, and he nestled in to my chest. We chuckled together, and the tension eased. Not long after, he took himself off to bed and I sat in his room for a little while, until he went off to sleep.

Decades of laboratory studies, observations in naturalistic settings, surveys, and self-reports, have lead psychological research to this embarrassingly simple scientific discovery – quality time matters. “Quality time is to mental health what clean water is to physical health” (Lee, 2010). It seems that quality time is the most beneficial ailment for wounded relationships, hurt feelings, and personal distress. Quality time given to our loved ones heals wounded hearts, repairs broken ties, and replenishes the soul. For both family and intimate relationships, it is often the common factor in both the deterioration in relationships, and in their restoration. In my couples counselling experience, it is often the starting point of our work together. When couples are willing to just be in each others presence and spend time nurturing their friendship base, the relationship starts to show better promise of recovery.

Having run many parenting programs professionally over the years, my personal and professional experiences still bring me back to this point; there is nothing as powerful as spending quality time with our children, more than any strategy, tool or technique. Not to say that sometimes things need to be done. Action may be needed. There is more that my wife and I must do to assist our son with his struggles at school. But without our first being willing to be fully present with him in his times of distress, and to let our time and presence with him be a soothing balm, not much else is likely to work. Because the best intervention we as parents can offer our children is our time. In that moment, we convey to our children that they matter, their feelings matter, and that we are their safe harbour in times when the seas are rough.

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Couples with kids on the slide.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) have released the census data, and demographers are licking their lips. This recent data has many discussion points regarding the changing nature of Australian society, including such phenomena as the increasing secularization of our society, cultural diversity, and our ageing population. Couples with children are still the most common family unit (44.7% of the 6.1 million), however this number has fallen from previous census’, with an increase in family diversity, including many couples without children, and single parent families, who have also increased in number, with 80% of single parents being mothers.

The census data shows that family incomes on the whole have risen (nice to know), and that higher income couples tend to have larger families of two or more children. Of these families, almost two thirds are dual-income, whereby both parents contribute to the family income as well as childcare. So on the whole family life is far different to that of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Some would tend to bemoan these changes as evidence of some form of deterioration of the traditional family unit. I think it best to defer any judgement about what these changes mean, other than we are heading in to uncharted territory.

Changes in family life can feel quite seismic to some couples, who often are pioneers in their own family dynasties. For example, sharing the roles of breadwinner and childcare in a much more egalitarian way can be very challenging to couples as it is a very different arrangement to what they experienced themselves growing up, often coming from homes where family life was more ‘traditional’. Change can often come with growing pains, and certainly dual income couples are reporting to be feeling the pinch. Women are still shouldering the burden of childcare, even though they also contribute financially to the family. Men are reporting feeling unsure of their new identity as ‘involved’ fathers, feeling the weight of societies expectation to provide financially as well as emotionally for their children.

This recent census data can help us to see the direction of where we are heading as a society, and what we might be able to do in response to this new trajectory. It gives us as a society the opportunity to formulate good answers to important questions, such as; Are we able to implement legislation and policy that helps to support parents in this new world of family life? For example, how might paid parental leave help support working couples who decide to have a family together? How might workplaces better accommodate working parents with integrating their family life and their work life? How could schools better adjust schedules to allow for parent involvement in the education of their children? And so on…

Obtaining good data through a census can be a master stroke in formulating a direction and a plan for our future as a society, rather than just a narrative for historians. Let’s hope we see this data lead to planning for a positive future for our children.

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Father Involvement In Parenting: What We Know And What We Need To Know

Father Involvement in Parenting: What We Know and What We Need to Know

By James Brown. Over the last few decades, Western societal views on fatherhood have shifted from favoring a more emotionally detached, authoritarian figure, to one whose role is more involved in the nurturing of children. Society now expects the modern father to be more caring and emotionally available to his children.

This is reflected in the attitudes of an increasing number of fathers, who report the desire to be more involved in the lives of their children and reject the idea of being relegated to the traditional role of provider only. Men want to spend more time with their children, and are looking to share the responsibility of child-rearing more equally with mothers. Common activities that today’s fathers often reported engaging in with their children include care giving, play or social activities, guidance or teaching, and emotional support. Read more <>

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Ladies, get out of the way :)

I remember one evening very early in our marriage, I was in the kitchen cooking dinner. Michelle had one of her friends visiting with us, and we were all chatting together. I can’t remember what I was cooking, but I do recall at one point Michelle stepping in and correcting me on what I was doing. It was something like “don’t do it like that, do it this way”. Quick as a flash her friend interjected, “Michelle what are you crazy!? Don’t get in the way of a man cooking in the kitchen, I would do anything to see my husband cooking in the kitchen”. With a smile on my face, I carried on without a word…it was a small victory, but it was mine.

Why was a man cooking dinner in the kitchen such a spectacle? For Michelle and I, it was normal for us to share the household duties from the very beginning of our marriage. We talked about the job list at home regularly – what needed to be done, and who would take which task on. Generally, cooking was shared half-half, with each of us electing to cook on particular nights.

Maybe for some men, cooking has become scary and intimidating. Those that can cook do it so well, that it seems like too hard a task to the novice. And then there’s the celebrity chefs, interestingly many of whom are men, who cook these amazing dishes and sell it as being all so easy. Whatever the reasons, what we know is that despite most families being duel income households, women are still doing the majority of the domestic chores like cooking. This is neither fair nor sustainable. Things need to change, or else the strain will take an unhealthy toll on marriages, and in fact it already is. It is becoming more and more important for couples to share domestic life. So let’s start with sharing the cooking of meals.

First, ladies I need to suggest a change on your part. If we are going to encourage your husbands to cook more, we need to have an attitude of anything goes. We are looking at turning the tide around here. Fathers have been removed from the kitchen for generations, and many have lost the basic skills and instincts. Michelle’s friend was right to say – ‘hey get out of his way’. If it is ‘dad’s night’, then let it be simple, easy, boring, and whatever he can muster. Heck, the kids will probably like it anyway! If we correct and criticise dads for having a go in the kitchen, then they will be less inclined to try to cook. And there you will be, complaining about doing all the cooking. So if it is dad’s turn to cook, show appreciation for his efforts and over time he might become more confident to try out new things. But importantly, your children, and your grandchildren will benefit from these small beginnings, as over time you will instil in your family gender neutrality when it comes to cooking.

Second, and this is to the men, you need to just have a go. If it is your night, and you don’t feel confident in your cooking skills, maybe cheat a little to begin with. Buy a cooked BBQ chicken, pre-prepared salad, and some Turkish bread from the supermarket. Take it home and ‘plate it up’ like the say on the cooking shows – call it your warm chicken salad, and add some nice dressing you found. Your family will enjoy it, but importantly it will build your confidence in your ability to make a meal for your family. From here you can then try following some basics, like ‘meat and three veg’ combinations. With a little seasoning, sauces or gravy, this will always be a winner with kids. From here you will start to feel you can cook almost anything. So start with simple ideas and build from there. But have a go! It’s the only way to learn, and if there’s something I have learned so far about life, its’ that if you don’t choose to learn or change, life will do the teaching for you whether you like it or not.

When I was about 9 years old my mother became seriously unwell and spent considerable time in hospital. Dad was in the army, and there was only so much compassion the army would show a family man. So dad had to take care of us four kids, juggling with his work and visits to mum in hospital. He had never cooked much before, so he just had to have a go. We still tease him to this day on the dinners we ate for about a 4 week period – a rotating menu of three meals; meat pies, chips, peas and gravy; sausages, baked beans and mashed potato; lamp chops and frozen veges. But to his credit he managed. He never made comments about ‘us men’ doing the work of women in the kitchen. We cooked together, and it felt normal and right. There was nothing fancy about any of the meals on offer, but our tummies were full and we were well nourished. We were in awe of our dad that he could take care of us so well. It became a part of our framework for understanding our role as future fathers, which included the ability to manage and contribute to domestic life.

The world is changing so fast and the ways of the past are no longer valid for many families. We have to adapt. It can no longer be seen as acceptable to ‘expect’ women to do the majority of the housework, especially in families where both couples work. We have to share the load, and a simply start can be father’s having more of a go in the kitchen. And remember ladies, if he is willing to have a go, stay out of the way.

PS – Ironically Michelle was right, I was about to do something wrong with what I was cooking, but don’t tell her that!

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Family serenity now!

‘21 days to happiness!’ ‘30 days to a happier family!’ ‘12 weeks to a better you’. Wow these are big promises, and will probably sell books! But as the saying goes, ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’. While parenting self-help authors are well meaning in offering their wisdom and expertise, and certainly most suggestions are well intended, I am concerned by this ever increasing expectation that we need to somehow be ‘happier’, and that if family life is not ‘all peaches and cream’ there is something wrong with us. Reading things that give the false hope of some kind of family utopia, is more likely to elicit unhealthy perfectionism, anxiety and guilt. We will drop our kids off at school and see other families seemingly doing things with ease, thinking that we must be doing something wrong. The truth is, behind the public façade that we all try to maintain, everyone struggles. Family life can be tough.

For Michelle and I, trying to raise four kids, life is hectic, if not chaotic. We are the classic modern duel income family! Weeks go by in a whirl, sometimes leaving my head spinning. I certainly try hard to contribute my best at home, but some days are just bad days and I am glad to go to bed, re-boot, and then start all over again in the morning. I do my best to find moments of peace, like lying down in the grass at our local park, taking a morning walk, brushing my teeth mindfully, or just trying to be present with my kids and show good active listening. But I certainly wouldn’t describe my family life as bliss. There are moments, more often than not I am glad to say, where home life is good and we are happy living life together. That’s good enough I reckon.

As a father, in particular, I feel I am in uncharted territory. My life as a dad is very different to my own father. In the space of a generation men have gone from being the sole breadwinner, to the current state of affairs where dads need to pull their weight equally on the domestic front. Most weekends Michelle and I divvy up the domestic tasks – the old divide and conquer approach. There is no gender divide in our relationship. I’ll cook, while she will do some cleaning or the grocery shopping. I remember one day my kids walked in the kitchen and poked fun at me – there I was wearing an apron cooking muffins for school lunches, while Michelle was outside pruning the hedge. I could see the funny side, but that’s how we roll. We play to our strengths as a couple and get the business of family life done. Sometimes there is bickering or complaining, especially when we try to marshal the children to do their jobs. There isn’t always merry whistling of a happy tune. Sometimes I can mumble some fairly colourful language while cleaning the bathroom. But we get things done, and family life keeps rolling on. On a good week we will have a family night, playing games and eating treats. On other weeks we crash on a Friday night in front of a movie, wine glass balanced in one hand (the parents I mean, not the kids).

I remember many years ago there was an adage that we as parents should try to get it right 80% of the time, and then let the other 20% go. ‘Good enough parenting’. It’s about making progress day by day, and picking ourselves up and trying again after a bad day. Isn’t that what family life is really about? That is certainly a better lesson to teach our kids through example. ‘Roll with the punches’, ‘be your best’, ‘go easy on yourself’, ‘get back on the horse’, ‘just keep swimming, just keep swimming’. These are the kind of messages we teach our kids, but truthfully, as parents in this busy world, these are the messages we really need to repeat to ourselves. So to hell with ‘21 days to a happier you’, ‘make your family the perfect utopia’, or whatever spin is being sold, I’m just happy to get it right 80% of the time. Here’s to good enough parenting (insert chink of glass sound here).

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“One father is more than a hundred Schoolmasters”

One of my children, after their first day back at school, exclaimed “my teacher rocks!” I was so happy to hear of his appraisal of his teacher and hope this opinion endures for the rest of the year. For me, I have always viewed one of my roles as father to my children to be a teacher. Sometimes when a teaching moment arrives I will actually ask them “is it ok that I be your teacher for a moment”, before I share with them a lesson that I feel is important. It was George Herbert who famously said “One father is more than a hundred Schoolmasters”[1].  However to be an effective teacher to our children there are three key things to remember.

First, remember there is a difference between a teacher and a lecturer. Our children will often tell us through the rolling over their eyes or blank stares into the distance, that we are in lecturer mode. We are ignorantly assuming that if we talk at our children we will somehow artificially inseminate our pearls of wisdom into their empty receptive brains! No one likes to be talked at, especially children. Being a good teacher to our children requires us to be good listeners first, and then to ask really good curious questions that help them to think through situations and to form their own conclusions, followed by some kind of confirming piece of wisdom from us as their dad.

Second, create great teaching opportunities. Sometimes we need to be thinking ahead, finding the right time or opportunity where they might be more receptive to listen to some thoughts that we would like to share. No one likes to be ambushed into a discussion about something they are not prepared for. Make a time with your children to have a chat, or create a moment where there is an opportunity to talk. This might be a regular family chat over Sunday breakfast, or a specific time alone with one of them while driving in the car. Or the moment is just appears, and you ask “can I be your teacher for a moment?”

Third, remember one of the best ways we can be a teacher is through our example. Dr Albert Badura famously demonstrated that as human beings were are able to learn through observation of others’ experiences, which became part of what he termed social learning theory. As fathers, we can teach our children many of life’s lessons by role modelling for them certain principles. This doesn’t always have to be lessons based on our strengths, but also on times when some of our weaknesses are on display, such as demonstrating how to fix mistakes we have made. So dad’s, I hope we can all “rock” in our roles as teachers to our children.

[1] George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs, 1640


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Danny the Champion of the World

Like many, I was a fan of Roald Dahl as a child and read most of his books. You would probably think that the BFG (Big Friendly Giant for those unfamiliar) would be my favourite, as it is with most Roald Dahl fans, however it is the lesser known “Danny the Champion of the World” that has always been the most special to me. I have made it a point to read it to all of my four children, one by one. I have just finished reading it to my youngest, Jamison, who is nearly 7. To be honest, I think I enjoy reading it more that my children, but they do like it; I am sure.

What has always struck me is the character of William, Danny’s father. Roald Dahl depicts William as a kind, gentle, strong, secure father figure for Danny, whose mother died when he was very young. Written in 1975, it is an early piece of literature in the evolving “modern father” treatise that we are seeing the fruition of now. I am not sure of Roald’s intentions with this character, but certainly it is asserted in the story that a father can fulfill the physical and emotional needs of a child.

To me, William has always been the real champion in this story. Like many men, he makes sacrifices to give his child the best start in life he can. At times, this has meant letting go of material wants, in order to available to provide for his child’s needs. He realised that his time, attention, guidance, and love, were the most important ingredients in his parenting recipe, with a splash of “sparky” as Roald would say.

So well done Roald, for you unwittingly entangled a lovely message of parenting and fatherhood in this wonderful children’s story.

“A message to children who have read this book;

When you grow up and have children of your own
Do please remember something important

A stodgy parent is no fun at all

What a child wants and deserves
is a parent who is SPARKY”

Roald Dahl – Danny the Champion of the World

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Flexible work also for dads

This week I have been reminded how lucky I am to have an employer that is supportive of flexible work arrangements. I have had two children this week home from school on different days.  My role as a Lecturer is very flexible and autonomous, and other than when teaching classes face to face, I can do most of the other tasks of my job from anywhere so long as I have my laptop and internet access. So when life throws me curve balls like this week with my kids, I am glad I can be there for them, and still meet the requirements of my employment.

Statistics* show that almost two thirds of families with children under 15 years of age are dual-income families. It is now more normal than not, for both parents to be working full-time, while managing the demands of raising children. For those also on this journey, you would know all too well the strains this can cause. However, these strains are not so overwhelming when we have an employer who is understanding and flexible. Working from home is one flexible work arrrangment, but others are flexi-time, staggered start and finish times, just to name a few. For some parents, seeking out family friendly employeers has found equivalence to the importance of the salary package offered. Most of these flexible arrangements are targeted at working mothers, however more and more fathers are starting to take up these types of opportunities. My career change from running my own private practice, to working at my current place of employment, was largely influenced by my desire to have a more family-friendly work life arrangement. So far this choice has paid dividends. I would really recommend that dads also consider flexible work arrangements in their employment to help manage home life. Remember it is just for a period of life when it is needed most, not forever.

Individual families have to assess their own circumstances, and what might work best. No situation is the same. But certainly if both parents, or like in our case, just one parent, can have some form of felxible working arrangement to help manage their home life, it is shown that everyone benefits – mums, dads, the kids, and even employers! For those of you who are really feeling stretched by this dual-income arrangement, then investigate if your current employer can allow for some flexibility in your role, or if not, find an employer who will.

*Chapman, J., Skinner, N., & Pocock, B. (2014). Work-life interaction in the twenty-first century Australian workforce: five years of the Australian Work and Life Index.Labour& Industry
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