Dads will want to come to parenting classes – but it’s our job to pull them in

25 May 2012

Mark Osborn writes: I have just read Peter Grigg’s blog for the Family Strategic Partnership questioning whether dads will go to parenting classes and am reminded of all the work I’ve done with boys and young men around sexual health. In the article Peter writes “Will dads even want to go to a class? I think I’d jump at it but I just don’t know if the same’s true of all my friends”.

Growing up as a boy in this country still demands an acceptance of myths about what men are and what they do. You might distance yourself from those myths but they still retain the power to present themselves as authentic or true. There is still a general acceptance that men and fathers are reluctant to talk about things that are personal and have great meaning for them. This only remains in place because of the power of the myth.

Masculinity can be seen to be an example of a social construct which creates mutual knowledge within young men. They learn that men act and behave in particular ways and for a great many that becomes unquestioned and natural: “that’s just how it is”. Many men reflexively monitor their actions through their assumptions and expectations of others.

Working with groups of young men at school I often ask if they would talk to their mates if they had a sexual health problem. This is usually met with snorts of scorn and disbelief. They say that they would not speak to any of their friends as they would “rip the piss” (make fun of them) and then spread it around the school. This is regularly expressed in groups and the young men appear to believe this without question.

But when I turn it around and ask what they would do if one of their mates came to tell them about such a problem, they almost invariably give a different response. Usually they feel they would treat it seriously and would want to help – or, sometimes, they express how they would feel unable to help. These young men are not seeing their friends as emotional beings like themselves, but as faceless males acting within the rules of a masculinity which is uncaring and unsupportive.

The presumption of “that’s just how it is” is an example of mutual knowledge; it may be inaccurate but it is not put to the test. This masculinity limits the communication between young men and their peers and becomes a tautology: they don’t talk to each other about such personal matters because young men don’t do that. The ‘rules’ of this form of masculinity are only made real by the adherence to them.

I have worked with groups of young fathers for over 15 years. Some of these young men are incredibly disadvantaged, come from a background of social exclusion, and are not viewed by many around them as having strong interpersonal skills. But given the opportunity, they are committed, insightful, caring and articulate and the love that they share for their children – and can learn to share with each other – is clear.

Fathers WILL want to come to parenting classes but the relationship between the process and the product (i.e. how what we do affects what we get) is crucial. If we establish robust methods to attract men to these classes they will come and they will benefit. If we do not expect men to attend and do not challenge the very powerful myths about men and masculinity that permeate our society, we will fail those fathers, we will fail their children, and we will fail the mothers of their children.


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