Dad's role can't be underestimated!

By Dr John Irvine

With 46% of marriages breaking up and only 1 in 3 separated fathers keeping in regular contact with their kids it is important to realise the role of dads cannot be underestimated.

According to research by my esteemed friend and colleague, Steve Biddulph, children with dads living at home have many advantages – they get better results at school, are less likely to get into trouble at school or with the law, have higher levels of compassion and empathy and self esteem, are less likely to be violent or victims of violence or of sexual abuse or assault, less likely to commit suicide or get involved with drugs, less likely to get pregnant or get someone pregnant during their teens and more likely to have happy marriages and be good parents themselves.

This can still be done even if parents are separated - if dads are involved with their children and have a decent and respectful relationship to the children’s mother.

The dads I meet are trying to do their best under competing pressures, especially with the average dad now working 47 hours a week (equivalent to a six day week) and that’s without calculating commuting.

But there are certain types of dads who don’t make it with mum even though the psychological research rates us as vital.

The types of dads that don't rate much with mum:

•    the absent friend dad - the caring but never home dad is missed so much the kids take it out on mum;
•    the present but preoccupied dad - the home-office dad where phone beats a home all the time;
•    the understanding dad - quick to undermine mum to champion justice;
•    the critical dad - nothing the kids do is ever good enough;
•    the deaf dad - takes a cacophany of chaos to stir him;
•    the indignant dad - takes every comment personally.

But whatever his style, all mums agree that there are several things that dads never say:

  1. "well, how about that? I’m lost. Looks like we’ll have to stop and ask for directions".
  2. "Now that you’re 13 darling isn't it about time you went to a few parties without parents around?"
  3. "Kylie, I noticed that certain of your friends have a hostile attitude, that’s good, I like character".
  4. "What do you mean son, you want to play football, isn’t modern dance good enough for you?"
  5. "Whaddidya wanna go and get a job for? I make plenty of money for you to spend"
  6. "No son of mine is going to live under this roof without an ear-ring. Now quit your belly aching and let’s get down to the mall"

I heard two dads talking about decision making at their house, one dad said he made the big decisions and mum made the little ones. When his friend asked what those little decisions were that his wife made “oh” he said, “the wife makes decisions about discipline, where we’ll live, the schools the kids attend, holidays, budget, the car and things like that”. The other fellow was gob-smacked and asked what the big decisions were that dad made “oh, whether the USA should have invaded Iraq, wwho will win the grand final, things like that”.

There are certain things that are good for dads. Again according to Steve Biddulph, there a few fundamental principles -

  • MAKE TIME. Quality time is a big lie - quantity time matters too.
  • START EARLY. Get involved in baby care - this is the key time for relationship building. Caring for a baby triggers your fathering hormones and changes your life priorities.
  • BE WARMER. Kids love dad hugging, holding, and spending gentle time with them or telling stories or singing songs to them.
  • LIGHTEN UP. Have fun with your kids, wrestle, tickle and play jokes. Find the overlap - things you all enjoy to do. Avoid competitiveness in any activity beyond what is good fun.
  • HEAVY DOWN. Some fathers today are lightweight good-time dads who leave all the hard stuff to their partners. Get involved in the decisions, housework, discipline and supervise homework. Develop discipline that is calm but definite. Insist on respect, and make it mutual.
  • BE SAFE. You don't need to hit or smack children - you are big and they are little and it isn’t fair. You can be in charge through calm persistence and firmness, not through fear.
  • DON'T DO IT ALONE. You have to have help - other men and women, who fill the place where uncles and aunts used to be.
  • REMEMBER THE FOUR F'S. Children like different things in a father to a mother. They like fathers to be Friendly, Funny, Firm, and Focussed
  • BE A PROUD DAD. Be proud of your children, and of the part you play in their lives.
I heard of one feral teenager dragged into the police station for break and enter and resisting arrest, said to the arresting officer, "just you wait, do you know who my father is?" Cool as a cucumber the officer replied, "no, I don't son, but if you ask your mum she might know."

Dr John Irvine is one of Australia's leading child psychologists and the author of many books including A Handbook for Happy Families and Thriving At School. He has a regular segment on Network Ten's 9am with David and Kim and a radio segment called Coping with Kids which can be heard on around 20 stations around Australia. For more information visit