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Father down the road


This Sunday, 3 September 2023, I am hoping to spend a quiet meal out with my partner and our kids. And possibly the dog, depending on the weather. Fathers day looms as a shaky breath in the calendar’s proceedings for Australian clans, before we make the long run past the Melbourne Cup towards that distant oasis, Christmas.

I am grateful for happy memories of my own childhood, and for my old man. I’m sometimes conscious of the less than happy memories, but they are not relegated in importance by the positives. If I can scrape up a pass-mark on my own parenting when my progeny reach my age, then I will be relieved.

That said, being a parent is not a doddle. The balance of selflessness required and the need to keep your own spirit alive is not achieved simply, unthinkingly, or without effort. And fathers day is not an easy day for many people who may have a dysfunctional relationship with their pater familias, may have lost their dad, never had a father, or wished they’d never had a dad.

What’s the state of play for Australian fathers? Where are we coming from?

It comes as no surprise that today’s fathers are much, much more involved with their kids than the fathers of previous generations. Both mums and dads are often required to be in the workforce to survive financially; men are no longer the sole breadwinners; nor are men the aloof, distant figures they once were.

While the comparative study by the Conversation noted that ‘The fathers who spend the most time with their children tend to be those living in less typical family types, including single and stay-at-home dads’, it also noted that ‘while men’s family roles have changed, deep-rooted societal and cultural forces keep them from being the kind of fathers many of them would like to be’.


'I can vouch for the positive influence and role models to be found in males in our families and friendship groups, in our workplace, church, educational and sporting circles. That’s true for both our daughter and our son.'


Given the demise of the patriarchal expectations, what are fathers expected to be and do these days? Are we still the provider? The protector? The punisher?

I knew, growing up, that if I truly screwed things up, then I’d answer to my father. That he’d stick up for me, bail me out, or smooth things over; that I’d be punished and rewarded according to how I acted. There was, generally speaking, a fairness and a rationality at play.

I, and my other siblings, knew that Dad, eccentric though he was, loved us and loved Mum. The fact that he was there at all was a gift that I didn’t really understand and appreciate until later in life – many of my friends and classmates down the road didn’t have a dad, or contended with ambivalent, sometimes violent relationships with stepfathers or their mother’s de facto partners.

A sticking point for many Australians my age is the use of corporal punishment in our childhood. For those fortunate enough to have avoided the wooden spoon, the belt, the back of Dad’s hand or a smack on the bum, or to have been forced to sit or stand in uncomfortable positions, corporal punishment was an almost universally-endured and justified experience for many generations.

Thankfully, the traditional application of parental wallopings is no longer an acceptable pastime, as I have previously noted in Eureka Street, and some of us hold sharp memories of being clobbered.

The trick is, having gone through the mill, choosing whether or not to do likewise. For mine, discipline is best applied verbally and through conversation – admittedly, a lot easier to do with young people than with toddlers. Boundary setting and positive approaches are generally recommended in these enlightened times.

An article by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, published two years ago, states that ‘around six in 10’ children globally receive corporal punishment – and perhaps 50-80 per cent of Australian parents whack their kids. The statistical vagueness is not surprising; who wants to admit to not having the self-control required to be a parent without lashing out and alleviating frustration by forcing your will on a child?

The same study notes 80 per cent of Australian parents were smacked themselves – some 51 per cent of us ‘believe it is never acceptable to use physical discipline with a child’, and yet 51 per cent ‘had used it on their own children’. Words and deeds don’t always match up neatly.

The #MeToo, and #ChurchToo movements have brought to light murky truths about toxic masculinity, and the ways that some men subordinate their partners and other vulnerable people, as well as their own kids. The systemic abuse of power is a truth that we still need to acknowledge, in a nation where one in five women and one in 20 men ‘have experienced sexual violence’ and, on average, ‘one woman every nine days and one man every month is killed by a current or former partner’.

Reading this, you may be feeling over or underwhelmed. Or ticked off. I have acquaintances who will read this and think, ‘Yet another attack on men!’ That’s certainly not my intention. Both as a man and a father, I hope for the best from myself and my mates. I don’t accept bullying or anti-social behaviour from male or female quarters.

I can vouch for the positive influence and role models to be found in males in our families and friendship groups, in our workplace, church, educational and sporting circles. That’s true for both our daughter and our son.

I think there is a bit of truth to the cliché that men and women have different approaches to parenting, and that men may sometimes skate by being seen as the ‘fun parent’. It can be seen to transcend, and go beyond gender stereotypes and clichés; men and women do sometimes have different approaches and responses to life, and the use of humour may be a positive for fathers. I am reliably informed my go-to alacrity for puns and wordplay is cringeworthy. The responses I get tend to increase my proclivity for them (as every Dad knows, what gets rewarded gets repeated).

But regardless of orientation or gender, beyond the roles of mother and father, in any caring community we all have a duty of care to look after each other, and look out for each other.

If you are a father, or if your father’s still around, that might bear thinking on as you unwrap the time-honoured socks and jocks this year. Nobody sets out to be a crap parent. As always (Hegel was onto something), the gap between the real and ideal is where we struggle. What is or was your relationship like with your father? Were you glad you had one?




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Family, Fathers, Fatherhood, Fathers Day



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Existing comments

Fathers Day. Yet another American style commercial enterprise with no object other than making money by cheating on peoples emotions. Money ruins everything and is indeed the "root of all evil". It is also the root cause of the loss of responsible parenting in our sick society - both Mum and Dad prefer work with its money rewards to making sacrifices for their children engaging with that great anthem of the 1980's "What about me?' Crikey! Now I'm starting to worry about my ageing attitudes. Perhaps I'm losing touch with the real world. Is gender but an emotion?

John Frawley | 02 September 2023  

I think, John Frawley, a lot of the good things of the past you, I and others remember are based on perennial truths and thus can't be 'cancelled.' Some Anglican bishop in England, York?, feels you can't refer to the Almighty as Father. What a load of cobblers! Long may the traditional family and fatherhood flourish!

Edward Fido | 04 September 2023  

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