Detecting the sea change in men’s feelings for their children

Dr Richard Fletcher

The success of House Husbands (1), the Australian drama featuring four hands-on dads may be a signal that today’s fathers really want more involvement in their children’s lives than did previous generations.  

Pundits are hailing the arrival of a new model of a man, a blokey bloke who really wants to spend time with children. Perhaps the usual markers for change in parenting behaviour, like the number of minutes a dad spends with the kids, are missing something.

Because, according to the “official” figures (2), fathers’ time with children is static. In 1997, dads spent on average three hours and 55 minutes a day caring for children, and in 2006 they spent… three hours and 55 minutes.

Over the same period, mothers increased their time by 37 minutes to average eight hours and 33 minutes a day. Viewed through the gender-equity lens, blokes are going nowhere.

There’s certainly some interest in fathers.  House Husbands became the most-watched Aussie drama(3) when 1.37 million people switched on to watch the first episode and more than a million stayed for the following weeks. This suggests that men “doing fathering” with their kids, often competently, is something worth watching. Perhaps the shift being picked up by Channel Nine is how men feel about their kids.

The fathers in the antenatal classes I run were clear on this point. They didn’t know exactly what they were going to do after the birth but they were sure they wanted a close connection to their child. This wasn’t a comment only from dads who were professionals. One diesel mechanic told me that having a good connection would “drug-proof” his baby. If they connected early on, he said, then his child “would come and tell him stuff” as she grew older.

Perhaps what dads do with their time is changing even if the total number of minutes stays the same. The Growing Up In Australia (4) study tracked almost 5,000 children from their first year of life. For fathers of two- to three-year-olds, 41% reported (5) changing nappies or helping their children with the toilet every day, and around a third helped their children get ready for bed every day.

The trouble is, we don’t have a similar study from ten years ago for comparison. But even if we did, it would still only show what dads say they are doing, not why. Dads’ thinking and feeling about being a father will not be picked up by asking “how many times do you read to your baby?”

There is one group with a vested interest in figuring out what men feel about being a dad. When marketing companies’ surveys and focus groups suggest that fathers’ sense of satisfaction is coming more from their children, they sense a new market.

Focus groups by Lego (6) UK found that fathers wanted a more hands-on relationship with their children than their own fathers but lacked opportunities to engage. Lego’s new campaign featured a father and son having fun building a Lego house together.

The ads didn’t feature any specific Lego set. Their intention was to show that what father and child built was not something that could be bought. As the Lego marketing manager told MarketingWeek (7), “It was much more of an emotional campaign rather than a specific product-driving campaign.”

Chevy 'Like a Rock' campaign

Fathers’ tenderness is also starting to show up on our screens to help sell cars. Volkswagon’s new Polo ads (8) show a father’s gentle care for his daughter from birth to when he chokes back a tear as she drives off in her first car. The ad, which includes lyrics from the song *I’ll watch over you* scored 210,000 hits in just five days on YouTube.

At the same time making fun of dads caring is becoming less acceptable. Earlier this year Huggies withdrew an ad (9) with the tagline, “Nominate a dad. Hand him some diapers & wipes, and watch the fun” in the face of widespread criticism that the ads promoted stereotypes of dads.

When we are trying to map the changes to our culture, relying on surveys of time use may miss important shifts in feelings and desires. A recent  Australian study of over 1,000 childless men and women for a company selling pregnancy test kits found that men were just as likely as women (66% versus 67%) to desire children. ) One in four of the men said that seeing mums with babies made them want their own.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to advertisers when trying to decide what really drives a modern dad to cuddle up with his baby. Commercial surveys lack the objectivity of government statistics but they may tell us something important about the shifts in our values and emotions.


This post originally appeared in The Conversation

Male staff and father involvement in early childhood services

This month’s AFRN Blog has been contributed by guest blogger, Craig d’Arcy.  Craig has been working in early childhood for 21 years. He is the facilitator of the National Males in Early Childhood Network and is on the leadership team for the World Forum project, Men in Early Childhood Education.


In Australia, the number of children attending one or more type of early childhood service reached 1.9 million in June 2011 representing over half of children aged 12 years or younger (1). The staff (numbering well over 100,000) that educate and care for these children are overwhelmingly female; just 2.6% of the total staff working with under 5’s are male (2). Lifting the numbers of male early childhood staff could benefit the children and support the shift in our culture to have fathers more actively engaged in caring for their children.

The benefits for children to have more men involved in early childhood services are far reaching. Developmentally, it is beneficial for young children to have exposure to gender diversity within their service. Having a stable male role model in the early years can assist in forming healthy gender identity for both boys and girls. Male participation allows children of both sexes to see that men can be as capable as women in caring for and teaching young children.

There are also benefits for fathers. If a male is present on the staff team, a rare circumstance, it can provide a signal to fathers that men are welcome in the early childhood centre setting. Seeing males in these roles shows that men can play a part in children’s care and education. This may encourage fathers to increase their involvement and be an active participant in their child’s experience of the early childhood service. 

In the broader context, males as child care workers could also demonstrate to the wider community that men are capable of taking responsibility for children.


So why aren’t men entering the profession?

  • Negative community attitudes that men face, including the fear of being accused of abusing children or being branded a paedophile. 
  • Low pay and working conditions in childcare, including the predominance of part time positions. Therefore the profession carries little prestige.
  • The presumption that teaching young children is only for women or that childcare is little more than baby-sitting.
  • Children’s services employers and training institutions lack an understanding of how to recruit, support and retain men as workers or students. Males are often seen as tokens or a novelty, noticed because of their gender, not their skills or qualifications.
  • Men studying in early childhood have an extremely low number of other men in the profession they can model themselves on.
  • Men working in isolation from other men find it difficult to maintain confidence in their value in the field.


What can be done to help counter these barriers?

  •  Targeting men to enter men-only early childhood training courses. This approach has been used successfully in Scotland (3)
  • Establish and support male mentoring by making networks available to decrease isolation and encourage other men to enter the field. 
  • On the policy level, there must be a recognition of the importance of male workers in early childhood.  The current Early Years Workforce Strategy (4) does not specifically mention men as potential recruits when addressing the perceived future shortages of staff.
  • Different models of early childhood services may be needed that will benefit the children and be more attractive to men. Men have been interested, for example, in working in the Norwegian outdoor preschool model (5).  

There is a great deal of work to be done to reach a point where the early childhood sector reflects the shifts in the greater community, where there is strong support for fathers to be more actively engaged in caring for their children.