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Dads, children are better spending time together: Russell

Ever wondered why ‘dad and partner’ pay is only two weeks, while ‘primary caregivers’, that is, mostly mothers, get 18 weeks’ pay? Graeme Russell has. In fact, he has been questioning politicians’ gendered parenting assumptions since he began researching fatherhood in the 1970s.

Speaking on men as active fathers at the University of Wollongong’s Future of Fatherhood conference this week, Russell remained dissatisfied with the ‘dad’ status quo.

The former associate professor of psychology at Macquarie University – now a parenting consultant – wants fathers to be recognised as equally capable child-rearers.

“My interest is in men and women both having responsibility for children,” he advised. “Fathers matter to children. We’ve known it for a long time.”

Play gains

Play is just one area where dads are key. Rough-and-tumble activities like mock-wrestling, climbing and chasing may sound mindless but are anything but. And because of their general proclivity for physicality, dads are especially well-placed to engage their kids in it.

University of Newcastle Family Action Centre project leader Dr Richard Fletcher said that, in addition to developing motor skills, rough play teaches children how to regulate intense emotions, like anger.

Fletcher’s initiative is a website that educates fathers on child involvement. The government fully funded it. the same can’t be said for paternity leave.

Working fathers

ABS figures show the median age for new Aussie fathers is 33, and more than 90 per cent of dads with kids under 15 work full-time. This, coupled with only two weeks of government-paid paternity leave, doesn’t leave them much time for parenting. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Dennis, the Sydney-based father of 4-month-old Leila, is glad his employer gives him the flexibility to work from home sometimes, meaning more daddy-daughter time. But not all dads are as lucky as him. For those with inflexible working arrangements, not only is paternal leave limited, it is often frowned upon.

Russell acknowledged there’s a stigma around paternity leave. “It’s seen as a sign of a lack of commitment to paid work and it’s not culturally appropriate,” he says. Yet he believes taking it doesn’t often cause actual job damage. “It’s very rare to find a father where that’s stuffed up his career,” he offered.

Were the taint of paternity leave removed, Russell thinks huge benefits could be reaped: “It will make a difference in how [men] engage as fathers,” he said. He explained that in Scandinavian countries, where more comprehensive paid paternal leave policies have been adopted, studies have shown fathers are more likely to be involved in their kids’ lives, later on.

“Our country has a long way to go,” he reflected.

Not only will paternity leave, and more of it, strengthen father-child bonds, it will be a boon to working mums. Aside from it enhancing their employment prospects, as they won’t have to take as much time off, it will also give them a much-needed break from caregiving. Russell proposed that parenting was never meant as a solo, solely female role.

Dads in the classroom

We know hands-on dads are seen as unusual in the workplace, but what about in the early-childhood education space?

Russell, himself a grandparent, doesn’t perceive any barriers to men in this realm, but nonetheless feels perceptions of caregiving need to change: “Probably more important than inclusive practice [in early learning] is to make an assumption that men and women share responsibilities for children and build all of your policies and practices around it.”

He has been consultant to an array of childcare providers on this point, and described an illuminating occurrence at an inaugural dad support group he organised: “On the first occasion, one of the dads stood up in the middle of the room in a dramatic way and was saying how fantastic this was that he was engaged in this activity, and that he was sick of being seen as the village idiot coming home to his child.”

The substance of this anecdote is backed up by a recent Australian Institute of Family Studies fact sheet, which revealed fathers who spend more time on childcare are the most satisfied with their relationships with their children.

Ultimately, though, familial relationships, whether they are child-dad, or dad-mum, are symbiotic. That’s why Russell wants what’s best for dad – it will be what’s best for mum and bub, too.

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