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Just a matter of ‘time’ ?

July 16, 2013

With ‘shared parenting’ presently high on the agenda of most European countries it might prove useful to see what was happening in Australia a few years before they successfully enacted a new ‘shared parenting’ law. The following article was written by Adrienne Burgess, in 2004, for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Background: Adrienne Burgess worked with Fathers Direct in Britain and is the author of ‘Fatherhood Reclaimed: The making of the modern father‘ (Vermilion, 1997). Fathers Direct was established in 1999 but has since changed its name to the Fatherhood Institute in 2008. Adrienne Burgess is presently Joint Chief Executive & Head of Research.

Over the years, Fatherhood Institute (formerly Fathers Direct) have been funded  by the Dept for Education, Dept of Health, Tudor Trust; Barrow Cadbury Trust; Big Lottery; Venturesome; Baring Foundation, Lloyds TSB, the Burdett Trust for Nursing, SHINE, JJ Trust, the Walcot Foundation, Trust for London, the European Union (‘Daphne’ funding stream) Tribal, WO Street, Mercers, Garfield Weston, Annandale Dulverton and a number of smaller charities.

“Just a matter of time before closing the skill gap”

It is vital to recognise the different role of fathers in order to improve their relationships writes Adrienne Burgess

Sydney Morning Herald ( Australia)  Feb 13, 2004

When dishing out practical parenting tips, few experts pay much attention to whether the parent they are addressing is male or female. They generally promote a “one size fits all” approach, as if what is good for the goose must also be great for the gander.

On one level that’s true. Fathers, like mothers, benefit from being shown how to generate a relationship of co-operation with the child, as Moshe Lang, the director of Melbourne’s Williams Road Family Therapy Centre, put it in the Herald on Tuesday.

But the expectations fathers have of themselves as parents, the expectations others have of them and their likely lived experience make supporting dads a very different ball game from supporting mums. This is an
important realisation for policymakers who will otherwise continue to develop interventions that, by default, make mothers alone responsible for their children’s development.

Children want very different things from their fathers and, as all the research into working parents (and non-resident parents) shows, the first thing they want is time. This is usually not their issue with mothers –
even working mothers. In fact, some children feel they get too much time with their mums: one little boy regularly shut the kindergarten gate in his very intrusive mother’s face in an attempt to keep her on the other side of it.

How much time do children need with their fathers? That can be surprisingly predictable (which is why setting out age-appropriate guidelines for contact after separation and divorce would probably be a very good idea).

With very small children the need seems to be little but often. Researchers in Israel found that full-time working fathers who spent as little as 45 minutes a day interacting with their nine-month-olds “knew” them as well as their full-time at-home partners, in terms of being able to respond to them appropriately (a bit galling for the mums, who were presumably exhausted and working their socks off).

One Australian father who learnt about the 45 minutes started spending time consciously with his younger (nine-month-old) son, instead of devoting most of his time to his clamorous three-year-old.

A British dad began getting up early before work to put in the time (incidentally, giving his partner a chance to sleep in). Another (English) father made a commitment to being home by 8pm and found that once his seven-year-old daughter knew he would be there most nights she began saving little events from her day to tell him.

For teenagers, particularly sons, it’s not surprising to hear that it’s best for the father and child to be doing something together, so the conversation emerges out of the activity. Since mothers are usually busy
around the house, mother-teen conversations might well emerge in the normal course of events, whereas special steps might need to be taken to generate chats with dads, other than the “let’s talk about sex/drugs” event, which of course makes everyone clam up.

Fathers who become aware of this have been known to welcome opportunities to ferry their teenagers around. And increasing numbers of dads are recognising that activities such as cooking, cleaning and sorting laundry or toys around their kids can generate getting-to-know-you opportunities.

The earlier fathers start spending time alone with their children the better. They then have a chance to develop a relationship with them not mediated by the mother. One joyful revelation for some divorced dads is the clarity and connection of a truly one-to-one relationship with their child, which is something most mothers can take for granted. Periodic “sole” fathering in “intact” families can also help reduce the mother-father skill gap which first develops massively in the weeks and months after the birth when the average new mother spends about 60 hours a week alone with her newborn (the average new dad is rarely unaccompanied when he is with his baby).

A parenting skill gap is one of the biggest disincentives to involved fatherhood because it makes the mother feel impatient and the father stupid.

Another important need that fathers have, much more than mothers, is for information, not only about different parenting methods but also about infant and child development. When fathers behave negatively towards their children, it is particularly likely to be because they do not have a realistic grasp of their developmental needs.

Mothers read a lot more about parenting, partly because they see it as “my business”, partly because women tend to read more, partly because the literature is usually aimed at them and partly because health and family professionals give it to them.

Mothers also get a lot of parenting information from friends, family and colleagues. Fathers as yet do not tend to make the connections that will facilitate that kind of basic information gathering. The family professionals need to start developing innovative ways of getting it to them – and of supporting families in other ways that are not “father blind”.

For who can fail to recognise the massive social benefits of supporting fathers as well as mothers in what is likely to be the greatest adventure of their lives: being a parent.


  • Adrienne Burgess works with Fathers Direct in Britain and is the author of Fatherhood Reclaimed: The making of the modern father (Vermilion, 1997).


This article should be read in conjunction with “The Invisible Boy: Re-visioning the Victimization of Male Children and Teens”  by  Frederick Mathews (1996) and Linda Lelièvre, President Canadian Foster Family Association ( see ).

The document reminds us by examples of every day ‘normality’ of our unconscious discrimination in the the way we treat boys and girls. An attitude as active in the Hellenic Period (323 BC – 30BC), as it is today:

  • This opening quote from Sander Breiner’s book, “Slaughter of the Innocents: Child Abuse Through the Ages and Today”, is a stark reminder that the story of male child abuse is an old one. The passage is an instruction to those who wanted to get around a law passed by the Roman emperor Domitian prohibiting the castration of boys who were subsequently placed in brothels or sold for “buggering.”
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