Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
ARTICLES

Fathers look after their children, but seek more thrills for them

USUALLY he amazes, but this time we were appalled.

That’s because this time, when Steve Irwin stepped into the arena at his Sunshine Coast wildlife park and used one hand to feed a dead chicken to a 4m crocodile named Murray, clutched in the other was his tiny one-month-old son, Robert.

For some, the hubbub that followed is a whole lot of fuss about nothing. Why call the child protection authorities or threaten Irwin’s nomination for Australian of the Year? The man is an expert and knew exactly what he was doing.

Irwin himself agrees. “I was in complete control,” he insisted at a news conference the day after the incident. In complete control? Come on, whoever is?

And that is precisely the point.

The reason Irwin has found himself on the sharp end of so much finger-pointing is that his behaviour provides us an opportunity – as a society — to trumpet to the rooftops our collective values and standards about the right way to raise kids.

What we Australians tend to believe (rightly, in my view) is that regardless of how much risk Irwin was actually putting his young son at, any risk at all ~~– if it is avoidable~~– is too much when it comes to children. Particularly children that are so young that not only do they lack any capacity to defend themselves, but even to express their feelings or desires about what is happening to them.

Far from being petty or over the top, the chatter of disapproval surrounding Irwin’s decision to make his young son part of the show serves an important social purpose: constructing and then reinforcing our collective moral beliefs about how parents should – and should not – behave.

But beneath such values talk lurks something more sinister. A belief, or perhaps just a suspicion, that men simply lack what it takes to be good parents to young children.

Like Michael Jackson, who just over a year ago became embroiled in a similar controversy when he dangled his infant over a hotel balcony, Irwin comes across as a man of his generation: a loving, enthusiastic and seemingly hands-on father.

But this may be the problem, because the behaviour of both superstars seems to have unearthed longstanding beliefs that, when it comes to looking after infants fathers just don’t have what it takes.

They are simply too noisy, too rough, too danger loving – in a word, too unwomanly – to provide the gentle care and tender nurture that young children need to thrive and to survive.\ This is mostly rubbish, though like all lies it does contain a grain of truth.

And that is that while fathers are more than capable of caring properly for children of all ages, they will not parent in the same way as mothers. While there is no doubt that modern-day fathers are still feeling their way towards a child-rearing style that is uniquely their own – and that getting the precise formula right may take time – it is a certainty that as long as men are less risk-averse than women, fathers will raise their children in more thrill-filled ways than do mothers.

And while dangling kids near crocodiles and over railings is extreme and should be ruled out of bounds, I feel confident in saying that exposure to the different parenting styles of both genders won’t damage kids.

It may even do them good. For in observing – early on and on a day-to-day basis – the ways mums and dads think, show love, play and simply go about the business of getting things done, kids are learning the most valuable lesson of all: that in most of the ways that matter, women and men are pretty much the same.

But it’s those differences that keep things interesting.

Publication History

Fathers look after their children, but seek more thrills for them, The Herald Sun
07 Jan 2004

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