A new study on fatherhood’s out, published by the prestigious British Medical Journal’s Open portal. It says that a father's attitude to fatherhood soon after his child’s birth, plus his feelings of security as a father and partner, are more important than their involvement in childcare and household chores when it came to influencing a child’s behaviour later in life.
It’s a robust study, coming from the Avon longitudinal study of parents and children – a large-scale UK study that followed the health and development of thousands of children born in the early 1990s. But it is based on respondents rating themselves, rather than observation and, as these things can only ever do, shows correlation, not causation. That said, it is an interesting signal of what’s important. But I dispute the fact that your involvement in childcare doesn’t have much of an impact on children. For example, your attitude only becomes relevant if you are there enough times for a child and your partner to be influenced by it. And as one dad I’ve interviewed for Being Dads says, “if you aren’t doing the childcare, you aren’t putting in the time. If you aren’t putting the time in you can’t claim to have a relationship.”
Challenges with the study aside, it does bear serious consideration. Why? Because our attitude does shape our realities. Angry people get angry responses, friendly people find people are friendly in return.
So if attitude has a big impact, where does it come from and how can we shape our own? That’s a huge question I’m not going to break down systematically here, but to say it comes from a myriad of sources. What I am going to focus on here is your attitude in the moment, where the rubber hits the road. One way your attitude influences a situation in the moment comes from the expectations you carry into that situation.
I’ve been running workshops with dads for the last year. Dads in the City, clever guys they are. One thing that always comes up are expectations, because when expectations are out of touch with reality they create a lot of stress and angst. These reactions to expectations are what you express on the outside, whether you like it or not they seep out.
Over the year, and as a result of reflecting on my own parenting, I’ve come to realise just how much my expectations are to blame for the stress in my household, particularly when it comes to my kids.
I expect too much of them.
I think we all do. You hear it all the time, “they know how to press my buttons” or “they’ve been winding me up all day” We say it as if it’s a conscious thing they are doing, as if they are an adult trying consciously to manipulate us for their own end.
But just remember how old they are, decades younger than you to be sure. And do you really know how to manipulate people that well?
What really happens is we expect them to understand too much. Like what it’s like to have to be on time for work, to have a big meeting. Have you ever tried to explain your work to a kid? That’s when you realise how little they really know.
So what’s to be done? I’ve found two things that work. The first is to remember what my job as a dad is. To help them become brilliant human beings, and that means learning. When my expectations are too high, I try and see it as a chance to help both of us learn and connect. We talk about it. About what I was expecting and why and what they understood and how we close that gap. How I can help them be better next time and how they can remind me that they’re trying.
This normally happens in the morning school/work routine. I ask them to get dressed, then I ask again because they aren’t doing it. Their retort –
Them - ‘I’m getting there dad, give me a few minutes’.
Me – ‘3 or 4 minutes’
Them - ‘5’
Me – ‘OK, countdown started, can you beat 5 minutes?’
Job done. Everyone happy.
The second trick is to hold their hands, because it reminds me of how little, smooth and unscathed they are from the world. It reminds me of how much they have to grow and learn. That helps to reset me.
All of that isn’t to say we shouldn’t have high expectations of our children. We should have, because they deserve them. But we have to be realistic with our expectations, otherwise we’re just screwing up our time together and, if that study is to be believed, their futures too.