Am I really better than my old man at being a dad?

Studies suggest we are more engaged than our dads were, but does that make us better at it?

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I am by nature a competitive person. It’s why I’m so lazy — if I can’t be better at something than someone else, I really can’t be bothered doing it in the first place.

Fatherhood is no different, so seeing as I’ve already started doing it, I’m determined to find someone to beat at it.

Apparently this shouldn’t be too hard — sociologists say that the modern generation of fathers is way ahead of their forebears when it comes to engaging with their children.

This means that, if I’ve got some stiff competition in the fathering stakes from my contemporaries, at least I’m likely to be a better dad than my dad was.

Which, you know, makes me feel bad for my dad, but in the end there’s no room for sentiment in fatherhood. Unless sentiment makes me a better dad, in which case I’ve got heaps of room.

Of course, a lot depends here on definitions. The study showed that “fathers of younger children engaged with them several times a week”, which raises the question, what does it mean to “engage” with a child?

If engaging means “talking”, then I am a super-engager, as I manage to talk to my kids pretty much every day. But then, so did my dad, so I don’t know whether he was way ahead of his time.

But if “engage” means taking the kids fishing or teaching them to ride a bike or necessarily listening carefully to every single story they tell, no matter how long or pointless … well okay maybe my engagement numbers aren’t as high as they could be.

I reckon I engage with my kids more than my dad did. And he engaged with his kids more than his dad did. Going all the way back to the very first dad, who looked once at his baby, grunted, and went out to die in a mammoth hunt, the evolution of fathering has been one of generation-by-generation advancement.

For example, my dad never taught me to ride a bike, which is why I couldn’t teach my kids to. But I did stand next to my kids while they learnt to ride a bike, and yelled encouraging things, so I figure that’s growth.

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When my son is a dad, he will take things to the next level, which is as it should be.

But there’s another side to this: while our generation of dads is, on the whole, more engaged, more openly affectionate, more emotionally connected with their kids, might there also be things we’ve lost?

Modern masculinity has softened, as many men try to rid themselves of the aspects of old-fashioned gender roles that restricted their fathers, and in so doing they pass on these values to their kids.

That doesn’t mean there was nothing good about the old-fashioned ways of ‘dadding’.

Sometimes I fear that while I’m beating my dad on one front, he’s giving me a real thrashing on another (not on the front of giving out real thrashings, however — thankfully my father was not of the view that belting your kids around the earhole was beneficial to development).

For example, I grew up in a house my parents owned. That had to add a little bit of security to my life as a young scamp. Indeed, my father was always a reassuringly secure presence in my life.

He was a real grown-up, if you know what I mean. He seemed to live in an adult world, with business and offices and briefcases and ties. This world may have allowed him less engagement with his kids, but it also made sure we always felt someone was in charge of things.

I don’t know if I give my kids this feeling, but the amount of time I spend in tracksuit pants can’t help, can it? I know I have never felt in charge of anything in my life, so I doubt I’m instilling much confidence in the young ‘uns.

My dad once made a bookcase. Actually made it, out of wood. Painted it with a variety of colourful beloved children’s story characters. My dad could actually make things, whereas I break into a cold sweat just hearing the words “flat pack”.

And it’s not like he was one of those scary “handy” guys, the guys with toolbelts and steel-capped boots who put up shelves for fun. My dad is an intellectual bookish sort of fellow who would much rather receive a book about etymology for Father’s Day than a handheld drill.

It’s just that back then, dads could make things. It was normal. My dad learnt from a very early age what a “retaining wall” is. I still don’t know. I am dreading the day my kids ask me, because they’re in for a major letdown.

Maybe what all this means is that when it comes to fathering, we should always be learning from what came before, using what worked and discarding what didn’t, always striving to be the best dads we can be, but never being afraid to change and grow.

Or maybe what it means is that if I build my kids a colourful bookcase they’ll love me more. That could take a while. In the meantime, I will take comfort in the fact that actual scientists have determined that I’m probably a better dad than the dads who came before me, and try not to think about the fact that my dad could change a tyre by himself.


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