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Teachers and Teaching
Don't dismiss dad
Andrew Smith reports the views of a group of men that were part of a formal study on how their fathers influenced them during their growing up years and demonstrates that dads are teachers too.
If you’re trying to pound something down my throat, then what I would’ve learned from you is exactly the opposite of what you were trying to teach me. I think more often than not, if you’re not trying to teach me something I would have just learnt something off you.
I was interviewing Steve (not his real name) as part of a research study exploring men’s experiences of the transition to manhood, and who or what had contributed to shaping their view of masculinity. Steve was 22 at the time of the interview and we were talking about his perception of his dad’s contribution to his learning during his growing up. As teachers, it is prudent to be reminded that it isn’t only schoolteachers who teach. Steve wasn’t the only one interviewed who made such a comment.
When I asked my participants—six family groups of son, father and grandfather, each interviewed individually—who they would see as the most significant influence in shaping their views of manhood, the answer was consistent—dad.
Definitely my dad—from my dad and granddad.
Seeing Dad in his role as a father and husband and man, I guess, obviously would’ve shaped [my view]. Obviously I think now that he was very significant.
In the generation above, Michael’s father’s view was:
My dad is the most single significant person in that timeframe.
So before we react out of frustration to the Steves of this world, let’s look a little further at dad’s role. While being aware of not wanting to generalise, I want to highlight three themes that struck me from the conversations, and offer them for your consideration.
The most significant influence
Firstly, I was struck that ‘dad’ could be seen as the most significant influence even in situations where the relationship appears less than ideal. Martin’s father remembered his own dad starting work early and finishing late and not seeing much of him as a consequence. Although not there physically, he saw his father as a ‘very stable and strong positive role model’. Both Theo and his father, in their separate interviews, referred to the conflict and disagreement that had been present between them over several years, and yet Theo made the comment quoted previously concerning his father’s influence.
Discussions of the role of fathers often comprise comparisons of ‘father-presence’ with absentee fathers. However, as Marsiglio and Pleck have pointed out, such discussions are complex, and at risk from simplistic conclusions. Multiple factors, such as levels of physical involvement, degrees of emotional investment and reasons for absence (dad going off to war and dad going off with another woman create very different situations) all contribute. Whatever the circumstances, of far greater significance is how a boy experiences the relationship with his father and the learning that he takes from it.
Paralleling the comments of the young men in my study, other much bigger studies by Burdon in Australia and Harris and Salt in North America have found, perhaps surprisingly, that high numbers of adolescents feel ‘satisfied’ with the relationship with their father. While this in no way ignores the abusive nature of some paternal relating, it moderates to some extent the negative press that fathering sometimes seems to attract. More particularly, it challenges fathers not to underestimate the loyalty and responsiveness of their children, and to realise that ‘teaching’ is often happening even when the ‘teacher’ is unaware of it.
Learning by example
This leads to the second theme from the interviews with my participants. While the men identified dad as the major influence in their thinking, they commented that their learning had generally been by observation and osmosis rather than proactive communication.
Dad never talked to me about masculinity ever. He was brought up on a farm with four other brothers so he—he’s a man’s man I guess, he doesn’t talk about emotional things…we’d never talked about things but I [was] watching him and how he did life…
Our relationship mostly just seems to be doing stuff together rather than sort of sitting down and having long chats or anything like that…I’ve got a good understanding of where he’s coming from and stuff like that and sort of his perspective on everything.
For Theo’s father, his approach was obviously intentional:
The emphasis was on doing stuff because my emphasis with my kids is that if you do stuff together the relationship will come. If you try and sit down and talk about stuff it’s not going to happen because one’s an adult and one’s a kid.
Dan’s father was clear about why he thought that fathers don’t talk more openly about such things:
It’s probably just a cultural thing. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t, it’s just that we’ve never done it.
While teaching by example will generally be more powerful than teaching by words alone, teaching by example without explanation leaves learning to the interpretation of the observer. Linking back to previous comments, it is not difficult to see that the learning from difficult situations could be either helpful or traumatising. Likewise apparently constructive environments could result in a wide range of learning if the meaning made from those situations is entirely in the hands of the young person. Our challenge is to consider the words that we put alongside living life, and the attitude behind those words.
The third point I want to highlight is that in reflecting on the interviews, I was left with a strong sense of the presence of family themes—views or behaviours or use of language that ran down through the family group, across the generations. The presence of these themes seemed much stronger than the existence of commonalities across peer groups. These family themes seemed evident even where there was a lack of cohesion within the family or in the presence of overt tension. Michael’s grandfather illustrated this pattern:
I was more following my father’s information, I suppose as a role model—I didn’t realise what it was but I followed him and his thoughts—and because he was a Labor man, so I was a Labor man.
In an era where we all too aware of the influence of peer groups, maybe we fail to see the power of ‘inheritance’.
The interaction of teaching and learning is complex and unpredictable, but if there is one message I take from my interviews it is this: if you are my dad—even if I may not consciously show any indication of wanting to learn from you, and irrespective of how you feel about our relationship—it is quite likely that you will be the major influence in shaping how I make sense of being a man. The last word goes to one of the young men I interviewed whose father had obviously taken up the challenge to be intentional about his involvement. I asked Eddy how he saw his dad fitting into his growing up. His reply would be a great accolade for any dad:
He’s always been there…He doesn’t mind how well you do or how badly you do as long as you’ve given it kind of the best shot…He’s been a really involved parent compared to some…he’s always kind of been ready to drop everything and come if I needed him to or anything like that—he’s been awesome.
Burdon, B (1994). ‘Fathers in families’ in F Briggs (ed.), Children and families: Australian perspectives, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, pp. 17–35.
Harris, I & Salt, R (1999). ‘Patterns of paternity’ in Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2.
Marsiglio, W & Pleck, J (2005). ‘Fatherhood and masculinities’ in MS Kimmel, J Hearn & RW Connell (eds), Handbook of studies on men and masculinities, Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, chapter 15.
Smith, A (2006). ‘Spirituality and the transition to manhood’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Deakin University, Victoria.
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