Article originally published in The West Australian
Any man can be a significant father-figure to young people, says Western Australian of the Year 2013, Bruce Robinson.
I once sat next to a businessman on a plane who noticed I was editing a draft of my book ‘Daughters and their Dads’. I asked him if he had kids. He said no, “I have a boyfriend and a dog”. But he said he did have two nieces. He nearly fainted when I told him that this book was therefore relevant to him. What he hadn’t realised was that as an uncle he could be a powerful “father-figure” in the life of his nieces.
People often think that the University of WA’s Fathering Project is only for dads. It is not. Many kids don’t have access to a father or have a father who is just not interested in learning how to do a good job of fathering. So we focus a lot on the concept of father-figures. Many people describe having had a father-figure who made a big difference in their lives, such as a grandfather, stepfather, uncle, older brother, father-in-law, schoolteacher, youth leader, sports coach, pastor or family friend.
Research has shown that children with an active father-figure are at less risk of psychological and behavioural problems. It is the case that if these father-figures show an interest in the children, help them to feel special, express unconditional love and can give safe, authentic love and respect to kids, it can inspire those kids for the rest of their lives.
Father-figures matter where dad is still around but they are especially important where there is no dad. And when dad is still “around” but not interested, or is even a negative influence on a child, then a father-figure can become a vital confidant, confidence builder and affirming influence.
Many men are, or can be, father-figures. In reality a father-figure is any man who has significant contact with young people. This role could be as seemingly trivial as being the school bus driver.
A father-figure’s role can be extraordinarily helpful, is usually minimal and is sometimes destructive. Not every child in Australia has a father around but they all have potentially helpful father-figures. Effective father-figures might be found within the family. Grandfathers are often able to spend more time with their grandchildren than they ever did with their own children.
I am now a grandfather of two beautiful and different little girls and I take that role seriously. I love them and want to spend time with them, but I also know how important I can be. I love taking them out one at a time for dates — ice-creams or lunch.
Uncles can also be powerful. I had one or two uncles who made me feel special. One of my uncles once took me on a country trip when I was 16. He showed me how to drive his car and then trusted me to drive once we were out of the city. I felt so grown up, so special, that he would teach me and trust me like that. He did restrain me when I began to overtake a truck at high speed though. Slow down mate.
While stepfathers are not as effective as natural dads at influencing adolescents overall, individually that is not the case — the presence of a nurturing, non-conflictual stepfather has been clearly shown to improve adolescent wellbeing. One important approach for stepfathers is to make it clear that they are not trying to replace their father but because they love their mum and will be staying, they need to be involved and they hope that one day they will be considered a friend.
Effective father-figures might be found outside the family, in the community. Children’s friend’s dads and parents’ friends are ready-made potential father-figures. They are anyway, regardless of whether they know it or not. This information helped me and it changed the way I related to my children’s friends. I realised that I was a father-figure to them, regardless of what I knew about how to be a good father-figure, so when I learnt how to influence their lives and how they felt about themselves, I made more of an effort.
In the US they call this the “double-duty dad” — fathers who are already doing a good job with their own kids but start to think about other kids, integrating them into their lives. This might mean just taking them for a hamburger or going to the football or even camping. The vital component is to be able to speak into their lives, to say
something like, “Johnny, I know things have been a bit tough at home but I just want to say that I have been watching the kind way you deal with kids/your brilliant sense of humour/your great ideas/your initiative and I think you are really gifted and will be a great success in life. You will make the world a better place and I will be watching and looking forward to seeing that”.
Sports coaches can also be powerful father-figures. I coached football for seven years and it is only now that I am finding out how much I influenced some of the players in that time.
We have heard many stories of children whose lives were changed because they had such helpful father-figures. We encourage all men to think about children whom they are in a position to influence positively, create some safe one-on-one times, listen to them without preaching and speak into their lives, helping them realise how special they are and how much you believe in them, even if everyone else does not.