TIME IS WHAT COUNTS

Simply spending time with your children might make the biggest difference of all and boys, especially, need fathers. Author Robert Biy believes that boys are genetically programmed to need four or five hours of male input per day. While they can get by on two or three hours, many get 10 minutes, maximum. Modern commuter-career lifestyles can make it very hard to be a good dad.

For thousands of years, boys grew up with their fathers and other males in the home, working together, learning to be men. Girls today learn to be women during the thousands of hours they spend with Mum and with female teachers through primary school. But boys who lack sufficient male contact (and for this read most of us) have to just pretend to be men, hoping no one will notice.

Recently, I took a brave step and offered a seminar for fathers only. The bond we forged during that half-day session was very strong, as we admitted how lonely and separate from our fathers most of us felt. The room seemed full with grief — grief which was very healing, as it was shared, but painful to witness and deeply felt. There was a real determination not to cause this kind of pain to our sons, and daughters too.

Dads also help the healthy development of daughters — mostly by the same means as for boys. Girls, too, need to know how to change a tyre, build models, fish, hike, play football and so on. But there is an extra role for the opposite-sex parent, in helping to build their daughter’s confidence in herself as a young woman. If they get the balance right, fathers provide a source of admiration and warmth, which gives their daughter self-esteem about her conversation, sense of humour, intelligence, looks and how to interact with males generally. Dad can do this by being interested, admiring, but never flirtatious or in any way sexual. He’s a ‘safe’ male, with whom a girl can learn to be comfortable and confident with men.

WHAT IF YOU ARE A SINGLE FATHER?

There is no point beating around the bush — being a single parent is hard. Single dads find it difficult to be both father and mother, giving tenderness and managing the household, as well as making a living. Children give affection back to us, but the human design is to have an adult partner fuelling your supplies of love.

Take care to keep up adult friendships and have a life of your own. Don’t let your children be your only support network; you have to learn not to use single parenthood as a safe retreat from the world. Find adult friends and involve others in the care of your kids. Many single dads tell us they feel lonely and awkward at playgroups and preschool, with all those women around. Enjoy it! Perhaps, as more fathers are doing the care-giving, there will be more inter-dad support everywhere.

If you are separated or divorced and have access to your children, you need to learn to be balanced in your care of them. Resist the temptation to be super-generous and tolerant of bad behaviour, for fear of losing their affection. They will feel most secure if you are firm and don’t allow them to play you off.

Animals and feelings

Pets have many benefits for children. The (slightly idealistic) idea of learning responsibility through caring for a pet is well known. This activity is more specific.

Little children need help to learn to read the body language of animals they meet. It’s especially helpful to show a child the signs which tell when a cat or dog is unhappy (that is, losing patience). When a cat flicks her tail, puts her ears down or starts to meow, she might be angry and could scratch or bite. When you go near the dog’s food, and he starts to growl and flattens his ears, that might mean he is warning you to stay back. It is his food and he is protecting it.

Your child will be able to identify with this. An explanation will result in the child being confident around animals, rather than unnecessarily scared. At the same time, they will avoid unhappy encounters through bad timing. Very young children can be taught to pat and stroke animals gently, instead of grabbing or pulling. Show them and hold their hand to demonstrate. They will see the dog wag its tail or the cat purr. Tell them, ‘See, you have made him happy.’ father, even if they have a stepfather. Don’t disappear from the scene, even though it is sometimes hard not to. Get on with your life and be happy; this will mean they can approach you comfortably. You will always be their father.