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

The success of House Husbands, 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…

According to official figures, the time fathers spend with their children has been static since 1997. flip & serena/Flickr

The success of House Husbands, 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 Australian 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, 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 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 sentiment isolated to 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 study tracked almost 5,000 children from their first year of life. Among fathers of two- to three-year-olds, 41% reported 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’re doing, not why. Dads’ thinking and feeling about being a father will not be picked up by asking “how many times do you do [insert activity with child]?”

There is one group with a vested interest in figuring out what men feel about being a dad. When marketers' surveys and focus groups suggest that fathers are getting a greater sense of satisfaction from their children, they pounce on the new market.

Focus groups by Lego 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, “It was much more of an emotional campaign rather than a specific product-driving campaign."

Fathers’ tenderness is also starting to show up on our screens to help sell cars. Volkswagon’s new Polo ads 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 campaign 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.

A recent Australian study of over 1,000 childless men and women for a company selling pregnancy test kits also underlined the change. It reported 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 be telling us something important about a shift in men’s values and emotions.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom


    It is unlikely father's feelings for their children have changed.

    It is more likely fathers have always had deep feeling for their children, but fathers have been badly portrayed by the media and by feminists.

    On average, married fathers with children are spending more hours in paid work and childcare than mothers. (about 11 hours extra per week)

    On average, single parent fathers are spending more hours in paid work and childcare than single mothers. (about 11 hours extra per week)

    Children also need time by themselves and time with other children, and I think there can be too much adult time with children, and too much supervised play.

    1. Linda Seaborn

      Workforce Development Project Manager at Health and Community Services

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Considering the historical gender stereotyping of men's roles its a long stretch to blame "feminists" (who tend to argue for more involvement of fathers in parenting). However I agree the media can be unhelpful.

      Thanks for the link to the Hilda figures, interesting. I gather that your point in totalling the figures and comparing the difference is to point out that men spend more in time the combination of paid work and time with children than women do? I would suggest that the difference is made up in the unpaid housework - not included in the survey data. And I also note that the disaggregated figures show that far more of men's time is in paid work. I would suggest that the amount of time that men dedicate to earning money is what prevents them from spending the time that they'd like to with their children, rather than the dreaded feminists.

    2. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Linda Seaborn

      As mentioned above, housework figures are rather meaningless. In fact, if someone is very unproductive with their housework, they can actually look good, because they are spending more hours at housework.

      The main aspect of the HILDA survey figures is that fathers are contributing more than mothers, and are probably more committed than mothers towards running a family.

      This is contrary to how fathers are normally portrayed by the popular media and by various feminists, but I have learnt to be totally circumspect regards anything in the popular media, and I rarely believe anything from a feminist.

      I also don’t feel guilty about that.

    1. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Alice Gorman

      Another common way for the media and feminists to vilify and denigrate fathers is to portray them as not doing enough housework.

      But yet, I have never seen a figure of how many hours of housework per week is sufficient, or too much, or too little.

    2. Alice Gorman

      Lecturer at Flinders University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      You don't need figures about this one. It's about sharing it equally and taking responsibility for it equally. If you can't tell what work needs to be done, then you need to be more observant.

      And you don't need to identify as a feminist to desire a fair distribution of parenting and household chores.

    3. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Alice Gorman

      I hate to disagree, but I think studies into housework are an absolute necessity, particularly if people are to be working longer hours (and we will be working longer hours if we want to compete with countries where wages are much less than ours).

      From what I can understand, (or, from what little knowledge is available regards housework), clutter in the home is the main cause of increased housework, followed by poor house design, followed by unproductive methods of housework.

      Obviously with the billions spent each year on feminism/social science in universities around the world, research into reducing the time necessary for housework would be a top priority, but instead it seems to have no priority at all, and the main priority of feminism/social science seems to be denigration and vilification of the male gender by whatever means possible.

    4. Linda Seaborn

      Workforce Development Project Manager at Health and Community Services

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      "I hate to disagree" I'd say that wasn't true Dale :)

    5. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Linda Seaborn

      Now now, Linda,

      You could always do some research to find new and improved ways to reduce the time spent on housework.

      I'm sure university academics would find it very interesting.

  2. Dianna Arthur


    Employers take note:

    Family friendly workplaces is not just for women, nor should parents be assessed on hours spent on work, rather should be on quality of work which is likely to improve if parents do not feel penalised for wanting to spend time with their families.

    Men say they want more time with their children - time to walk the talk.

    1. Robert Johnson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dear Mr./Ms.:

      My wife and I would like you to sell/advertise our book "Overcoming the Afflictions of the Fatherless" in your book stores, radio show, or at your next Christian event. If you sell the books at the price printed on the cover, we will sell them to you at 10 for $70.00 as a donation.

      This 96 page paper back book (glossy cover) exposes the afflictions of the fatherless and depicts the role of the passive father in the home. This book also serves as an end-time tool in the spirit…

      Read more