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Friday, January 6, 2012

5 ways to keep dads engaged in parenting

There's this crazy belief still doing the rounds that women can 'have it all'- the family, the job, the fabulous social life whilst still doing Nigella Lawson impressions every night in the kitchen- and this is the key to happiness.

What rubbish. Admit it, go on! We are NOT Wonderwoman! Parenting is a full-time job. A full-time job is also a full-time job. Housekeeping is a full-time job. Somewhere in there we have to sleep and have some recreation and exercise. We'd all be just fine if there were 72 hours in a day.

We need help to stay resilient for our children, we need support systems, and we probably hope or even expect that our first lifeline will come from our children's dad. But you know, we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to accepting support from our partner.

Hormones have a LOT to answer for, you know. We women can get so fired up and protective and emotional when we have a baby- that's nature's way of ensuring the survival of the human race. We can turn into tigers to protect our young. But tigerish mothers can be scary things.

If the tiger in you takes over the control of every detail of how your cub is cared for, you're likely to scare Dad right out of your picture. You've left no room for him in the picture frame. He'll probably go off and hunt for wildebeest and leave you holding the baby- literally.

Of course there are many families who have found a great balance, there are many mums who know how to accept help, and there are many dads who've made a conscious decision to take a major role in parenting. And good on them. But you know, I still hear a heck of a lot of women wishing their husbands or partners would get more involved.

Why is this? Are some men really that disengaged when it comes to their babies, or is it something we're unconsciously encouraging by our behaviour? Do some men just lack parenting confidence?

Obviously that depends on the individual. There ARE irresponsible men out there. But there are also men who have a bit of a self-esteem issue around their parenting ability, and sometimes we do accidentally make that worse.

How can we encourage men to support us and to feel confident and involved in parenting?

1. Stop sweating the small stuff!

Everything to do with the kids and the house does NOT have to be done your way. Criticising your partner when he does small things in a different way to you is completely counterproductive. It's just as counterproductive as criticising a four-year-old for cleaning his room at four-year-old level- all you'll create is bad feeling and a reluctance to co-operate next time.

Have you seen the TV show 'Outnumbered'? There's a wonderful scene where the dad is stacking the dishwasher, and as fast as he puts something in, the mum puts it somewhere else 'because it cleans better'. Apparently the producers got a huge reaction from the audience about that scene- it was just so familiar.

Well, cut it out. Just STOP IT. It's not that important. Obsessing over this sort of trivia is what pushes men away from helping with the chores. Do you really care that you're superior at getting the grunge off the plates? For heaven's sake, get a grip.

And if you really must say something, how about a polite request? My partner is truly wonderful about chores, but when he leaves the sink full of dirty water after he washes up and I find it two hours later, I have to admit it gets my goat. I'm not particularly squeamish, but putting my hand into cold or lukewarm greasy water to pull the plug- well, bleaugh. Yuk. Hate it. And then I've got to wash the ring of grease from around the sink.

So I'm trying a polite request with explanation. "Would you mind letting the water out of the sink when you finish? I've got a thing about putting my hand into that water once it gets cold, which is completely irrational, but that's the way I feel. I'd love it if you just pulled the plug as soon as you're done."

I'm getting about a 75% positive result. Try it- go on! Remember, everything you say to your partner is part of being a role model for your kids... do you really want to model 'nagging ungrateful harridan'? (No, I didn't think so.)

2. Thank him for whatever he does. 

My polite request would have no hope of working if I didn't make a point of thanking him sincerely almost every time he does something helpful. In childcare, we learn to sandwich negative comments about a child in between positive ones when we need to talk to parents about an issue; you can change a person's ability to listen and respond to constructive criticism just by being positive at either end. Remember that!

When I talk about thanking him, I don't mean tossing off a cursory 'thanks' in passing, either. Make sure he hears you, and I'm not talking about levels of deafness- I'm talking about getting the message noticed. I'm talking about making sure I have his attention, looking him in the eyes, giving him a hug and saying "Thank you for sweeping the floor. I'm not good with housework, I hate it, and I really appreciate how much better the room looks now."

Oh, and did you know that housework (by the male) is the most effective form of foreplay (for the woman)? Does HE know that? Why not? Tell him, with whatever choreography appeals to you. Have a bit of fun around this, for heaven's sake. Change the playing field. Move the goalposts. If he doesn't EVER help with the housework, this is a really motivating place to start...
And please don't take the attitude that YOU don't get thanked for the housework, so why should HE? That's childish and it won't change a thing. BE the change you want to see. Remember, your children are watching. (Hopefully not while you're telling him that housework is the best form of foreplay.)

3. Find out where his head is at. Ask him about his childhood.

Often parents have trouble agreeing about issues like discipline, and that can push men away from the whole parenting paradigm. Women seem to spend a lot more time researching these sorts of things than men, and a lot more time analysing their own feelings about their childhood. Open the door for your partner to look at what worked and didn't work for him when he was a kid; he might even need to work through some issues. He might even find some enlightenment about that thing he's doing that SO doesn't work.

Here are some useful questions for a quiet moment (stop rolling your eyes- you need to MAKE time for quiet moments!):

What did your parents do when you (insert bad behaviour that your child has recently exhibited) when you were little?

How did you feel about that? Did it stop you? Did you understand why they reacted like that? What would have worked better for you?

Did you feel like your parents loved you / understood you? What made you feel like that?

What's the naughtiest thing you ever did as a kid? Why did you do it?

Did your parents give you lots of presents? Lots of time? Lots of hugs?

Try to come to a point where you understand the motivation for your partner's parenting actions and reactions when they differ from your own. Starting from a place of empathy gives you much more chance of reaching a compromise. Remember that the two most understandable responses by an adult to bad parenting practices in their own childhood are to repeat them or to overcompensate for them, and men are no exception here.

4. Let him be a male with the kids. 

Your children are not going to break if he gets into a bit of horseplay with them. They're not made out of glass. Trust your kids to let him know themselves if they don't like the game. Male energy can be a wonderful thing for active, full-on children, especially when you're feeling exhausted yourself. Encourage him to get the kids out and being active.

Even though my husband and I divorced when my son was a preschooler, even though it was an acrimonious parting of the ways, I can still remember the gratitude I felt to him for still taking my son out to play soccer and cricket throughout his childhood- absolutely not my strong suit. If I hadn't had that male energy available, my son would have been considerably less fit and active. Utilise your man's differences for the good of the kids.

Male energy can be a mental challenge for the nurturing woman. The temptation to put your children in cotton wool can be huge, but resist! If there's a genuine problem, the time to talk about boundaries around boy-games is NOT in the middle of a game, unless you can see that your child is in danger of serious injury (and I mean a dislocated shoulder from being swung round by one arm, not a grazed knee from rolling down a hill) or is seriously upset and not being heard. If you get too anxious, don't look or do some deep breathing. Try to enjoy the respite without being fearful or judgmental.

If you have serious concerns about age-appropriate or dangerous behaviour (for example if your man wants to share his shoot-'em-up computer game with a 5-year-old) you need to choose your time to talk about it, make sure you have legitimate universal concerns (rather than personal experience-based anxieties), and BE CALM when you discuss it. Belittling your partner's judgment will encourage him to withdraw and disengage. If you have knowledge and resources that back up your concerns, share these with him calmly- he may simply be unaware of the problem.

If you want support, you have to be prepared to trust your man. Let go. He has a different set of qualities and experiences to offer your children.

5. Accept that your man may listen to other men's advice more than he does to yours. 

Wow, was this ever a hard one for me. I spent hours over a period of many months trying to convince my extremely busy husband to devote some time to reading my son a bedtime story each night, to absolutely no avail. And I was absolutely furious when a few months later, when I'd given up, a male superior at his workplace shared with him how important it was to read to your child a bedtime story... and my husband IMMEDIATELY changed his behaviour! (Furious is probably an understatement, actually. I was livid and irrational.)

But come on, ladies, let's be fair. Are you more likely to listen to parenting advice from a woman or a man? Tell the truth. I'm not talking about professionals giving you advice- I'm talking about anecdotal advice. TELL THE TRUTH. You'd listen to a woman more, wouldn't you? You'd feel at some level that they shared your perspectives and motivations. Well, men are the same.

Now you know this, use it as you see fit, and try not to overreact when your partner does what mine did. I mean, who cares? My son started getting his bedtime story from daddy at last. I just had a bruised ego that I didn't deal with very well.

Women seek out advice from other women; similarly, men do tend to respond best to male role models. Try to help him find some, and don't chuck a fit like I did when he learns something from one. In this case the product is what matters for once, not the process!

So there are my five best tips. Do you have any secrets of your own to share that help you to keep your man feeling like he's a vital part of the parenting equation? Please share in the comments if you do!


  1. Thank him. That's the one I need to work on. I mean, I could use work on all of them, but I am getting better. I remember when the shift happened for me was one night I was listening to my husband read a bedtime story and he was doing it textbook good. I mean, it was as though he had sat through child development and children's lit. courses, which he HAD NOT... he's a computer guy! At first I felt like, how can he do that with no training?? (I know, I laugh at myself now). I think I realized at that moment that I had been trying to train him to be a good dad and it just came naturally to him, but in his own way. I have all boys so it's important for me to let go and do it in their guy way sometimes. (Though I still think it's important for me to inject a little femininity into our home ;) The other day, he let me sleep in and the couch was flipped over and turned into a fort, and there was a child on top of the flipped couch, but everyone was happy and I was well rested!
    I am going to work on verbally thanking him. He's a good dad, and I take it for granted sometimes. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. I guess I remember that one better because other people I've lived with have been less than helpful- it's such a change to have a man who HELPS!!

  3. Let The Children Play brought us together today, and I am so glad! I am your newest follower. Please to drop by, and see what fun we have been up to as well :)

  4. I did indeed drop by, and I liked what I saw. :)


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