Dad Stuff, or Sexist Stuff?

Submitted by Janine on Tue, 11/29/2005 - 10:03

Two weeks ago, the Guardian published in its Family supplement a double-page spread called Things every dad should know. Said 'things' include:

  • How to start a fire
  • How to fly a kite
  • How to make a bow and arrow
  • How to teach a child to ride a bike.

These nuggets are from a book called Dad Stuff, which in return for giving Guardian readers a window into their wisdom, gets a shedload of publicity and a whopping sales boost.

I resent even having to explain why this is sexist tosh. But, erm, why is this "dad's stuff"?! What is it about my genitalia that makes me the parent unsuited to flying kites and teaching cycling? Both of these, I might say, I do with my kids much more than their dad does.

Looking at this picture from the other side of the canvass, why does 'Dad stuff' not include:

  • How to bring down a sick child's temperature
  • Cooking for kids
  • Changing nappies?

All of which, to be fair, my kids' dad does more often - and better - than I do. Presenting 'Dad stuff' as just the outdoor, fun-and-games stuff devalues the other things that dads do. Is my family odd, unnatural maybe, because dad does the laundry and mum drives the car?

The writers claim that: "We owe it to our children, and to mankind, to preserve the myth that dads are infallible, all-knowing and just about omnipotent." Actually, telling that to kids (and to humankind) is about as useful as telling them that fruit is poisonous or traffic harmless. Fathers can do without the pressure to be perfect, mums can manage without being made to feel inferior, children need much more urgently to know that their parents are not omnipotent, and "mankind" needs to take more responsibility for children instead of kidding its collective self that fathers are supermen and society need not get involved.

Oh, and having acknowledged that it is a "myth", why call people to arms to preserve it? Myths are for debunking, not preserving.

So, what is going on here? Does the Guardian think this is "ironic" or something? Do the Family supplement's compilers laugh at their younger selves as they remember being angry at this kind of stuff when they were strident young things?

The last fifty years or so have seen a big shift in attitudes to fathering. Many more men want to have a hands-on, involved, close relationship with their kids. That is very much a Good Thing.

I once read that in the 1960s, only 2% of births were attended by the father. This, incidentally, makes my dad one of the top 1 in 50 most liberated blokes of the decade, a fact I am struggling with. The point is that these days, if you are not at the birth, you are an unbelievably crap dad. (Ian Wright, apparently, absented himself from his kid's arrival into the world, worried that he would no longer fancy his wife. What a tosser.)

Even the law has made steps towards greater paternal involvement - although, typically, these are small shuffles lagging way behind the public's general enlightenment.

So, what are Dad Stuff's authors - or the Guardian's editors - trying to tell us? Be an involved dad, but make sure you do it within the confines of traditional masculinity? Why not go the whole hog, and include a chapter on how to be a good hunter-gatherer? How to club your intended and drag her back to the cave, anyone?

I am not against having books aimed at dads. I can see the value in addressing issues specifically facing fathers. I can accept that there are some differences between mothers and fathers. Pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding. And yes, John is better equipped than I am to teach our sons to pee against a tree. But lighting fires?! Flying kites?!

The sad thing is that this book may well be packed with great tips on having fun with your kids. So why spoil it by saying that it is (only) for dads? Yorkie is very nice chocolate. But the wrapper is sexist.

Am I wrong to get irate about this? Shouldn't I be concentrating on the gender pay gap, or abortion rights, or domestic violence? In campaigning terms, yes. I am not about to picket bookshops, demand a strike ballot or write a resolution damning Dad Stuff. But this is my blog, and here I vent my spleen.

Is Dad Stuff just harmless fun? I ponder this for a moment, and conclude: no, it's not. The irrational, unnecessary division of men's and women's roles in the family underpins the whole matrix of women's disadvantage in society. One reason there is still a gender pay gap is that engineers are paid more than cleaners, and engineering is bloke's stuff, cleaning women's stuff.

The Guardian, and the silly book it promotes, may not be the foundation stone of women's oppression, but their smug perpetuation of sexist crap puts an obstacle in the path of those of us who are still trying to fight it.