Dealing dads back into the family equation

By Paul McDonald.

It’s a defining moment for a family when baby comes home. It is a milestone that parents look back on as changing their lives forever.

Many men say that becoming a father is really the first time that they felt what their role is to be a man. The birth of a baby is also the ‘birth’ of a father, and the beginning of them being a role model, a provider, a protector and a carer.

This Sunday, families across Australia will celebrate Father’s Day and the important role that men play in raising children, whether as dads, grand-dads or even male mentors in place of an absent father.

However the role of father is not always the way in modern Australian life. Many children are growing up where dad is missing in action or at best an intermittent or inconsistent presence in the life of that child’s upbringing.

Against life pressures, the role of a father is more important than ever before. Children are living in a society that seems to want them to grow up too quickly, children are exposed to more information than any other generation at their age or stage, and the social pressures on young people these days are as tough and unforgiving as ever before. Dad needs to be there to help his kids navigate through all of this.

Through many years of working in child, youth and family welfare, I’ve seen the very best of what men have to offer their children. Dads who have risen above adversity or a troubling up-bringing to be caring and reliable dads to their children, foster dads who’ve brought stability, routine and safety to children, men who know the hard times becoming mentors for troubled teens, or the young man who finds himself unexpectedly a parent, and who steps up to build better futures for his new young family.

However I’ve also seen the terrible legacy of a dad who has been absent, violent and neglectful.

Still too many men in Australian life are dealing themselves out of the family equation. Children can become all at sea when dad’s behaviour is poor or unpredictable, or he appears in fits and bursts into family life. The influence even of these dads on their children are no less significant on the child. Monkey see monkey do.

If the recent family violence royal commission told us anything, it told us that you cannot be a good parent if you are a bad partner. It’s a common refrain for men starting behaviour change programs to say ‘but I never did anything to hurt my kids’ while at the same time admitting to abusing their partners. That lightbulb moment, when they realise how wrong they are, is often a great motivation to change.

Parenting is under rated and under invested in Australian life, yet good parenting is the key preventer of many interventions from child protection to police. For many years, parenting programs have been treated as side extras rather than core strategies in the arsenal against child neglect and family violence. Yet investing in parenting programs stops problems spiralling out of control and becoming more costly to solve later on.

In the past, programs for men have been thin on the ground and over-subscribed with long waiting lists. Thankfully in Victoria that’s starting to change with investment flowing from the Royal Commission into Family Violence on programs such as Anglicare’s current trial of the internationally acclaimed Canadian model ‘Caring Dads’. Men with family violence histories towards their partners, are put through a 12 week course to talk about how they were fathered and how this influences their own fathering capacities. Men are now lining up to want to continue into the next round or recommend it to other male family members.

We know that being a father has a unique impact on children and these days, in a more pressured faster paced world, dads are more important than ever to help their children to benefit from and make sense of the world they are growing up in. Yet while all parents need this help, it is the role of the father that today needs our focus more and more.

As one man told us recently when attending a Caring Dads course, ‘I told my daughter that I was coming to Caring Dads to become a better dad and she told me that she was proud of me’. It can’t get any better than that for a dad. We need to keep working with men like him, who need our help to become better dads, and make Father’s Day an occasion that more dads can truly celebrate.

Paul McDonald is the CEO of Anglicare Victoria.