popped up in my local news today: Lads and Dads Club to strengthen family unit.
"That sounds a bit... 'last century'", thought I. What activities might require male-only participation? Getting women pregnant probably isn't a task that fathers and sons would traditionally share, so it pretty much had to either be mustache/beard management or targetted urination, right?
But, no, it's a club for doing outdoorsy/adventurous activities. Exactly the kinds of things my wife and eldest daughter enjoy doing, as it happens (our youngest daughter, on the other hand, is scared of mud and trees). So, why the "father/son" branding?
Well, what I suspect they're trying to do is to give fathers motivation and opportunities to spend more time with their children. With the kinds of careers that make the money required to raise a family still much more accessible to men than women, a lot of kids are largely being raised by their mothers, which will indeed give kids a skewed view of the world. For a start, it'll tell them that parenting and domestic chores are for women while going afar and earning money is for men, which sucks. And it'll tell young boys that their destiny is to grow up to be a distant wage-earner, while girls are told that their destiny is to be a carer who's always hanging around the home and spending somebody else's money.
Yep... That sucks. Fathers spending more time with their kids is a good thing, and help in doing that - in telling them that they should, and that it's an OK thing for a man to do, and in giving them ready-made group activities to turn up so they don't need to organise stuff themselves, and to get them in with other similarly-minded people to exchange tips and make friends - sounds awesome to me.
However, I think it's been unfortunately tainted with gender stereotyping. That it's sons that need more time with their fathers, but daughters don't. There's an assumption that the boys need to learn MAN THINGS from their MAN DADS, while the girls are fine learning woman things from their woman mums.
But kids don't have these gender stereotypes as to what activities they should do, unless we force them onto them. And forcing gender roles onto people causes misery.
The Lads and Dads club have a rather defensive-sounding statement on their site saying that mothers and daughters are welcome too, but the rest of the site is full of statements like:
Lads and Dads Club is about creating fun and inspiring male environments. We’ve got great events for grown-up sons and their fathers, from hill walking to sky diving and weekends away. And because not all sons have a dad around, and not all dads have sons, mums and daughters are welcome too.
Boys need to be boys ... At the core of the Lads and Dads Club we are all about supporting fathers in their efforts help their children to grow and develop and have lots of fun along the way. This necessarily means that we are creating a very male oriented environment and we think that this is a good and necessary thing for Fathers, their Sons and often their Daughters too. (and, at least when I fetched it, the bottom of that page had a big ad for "ItsNotForGirls.com: Men's fashion at its finest")
So they've clearly given some thought to gender issues, but seem a bit confused, as no attempt is made to reconcile "Mums and daughters are welcome" with all the hyping of "male environments".
What's going on here? Did somebody complain about the sexism, maybe citing "discrimination", and they felt compelled to quickly wedge in the statements about accepting girls to avoid "trouble"?
You see, I think that organising outdoorsy/adventure activities for kids is great. And encouraging fathers to take a more active role in raising their children is great and particularly needed, because sexist stereotyping tells men they're supposed to be distant and leave the parenting to the mothers. But restricting this parenting to sons, and using it to reinforce the very gender role assumptions that are the root cause of the problem, isn't exactly the best way of dealing with it.
I'm worried that this thing will succeed, and in doing so reinforce the "men work all day, then go to the pub with their mates to avoid going home to their families, and then hide in their sheds all weekend" stereotypes.
And I'm worried that it'll become the target of feminist anger and be destroyed, leaving all the people behind it feeling angry that women came and destroyed their attempts to build a male-only space, leading them to become men's rights activists and try to fight the feminazi conspiracy, rather than trying to help fathers to do cool stuff with their kids (of all genders).
What would be AWESOME is if they realised that the problem they're seeing (fathers aren't getting to do much parenting, at the cost of both themselves and their kids) is a symptom of false traditional ideas of what gender means, and work to solve the problem in ways that break down those gender models, rather than reinforcing them. Now, to market it to fathers who, themselves, will have been brought up with those kinds of gender stereotypes, they'll need to be careful to make it look acceptably "manly" so that the fathers aren't turned away from it; there's a very fine line between "not offending gender stereotypes" and "promoting gender stereotypes", but it can be walked. The organisation's current description of themselves (starting with the unfortunate name...), however, is nowhere near that line. There's no reason to actually use the word "father", rather than "parent"; if the content is all written without touching on gender stereotypes of any kind, it can be "not unfatherly" without being "exclusively fatherly" (and, therefore, "not unmotherly" without being "exclusively motherly" either!).
The United Kingdom is full of "mother and toddler" groups. Even if they're called "parent and toddler" instead, they're invariably female-dominated, which reinforces itself as fathers are left feeling quite out of place at them. It would be great to fix that, and a logical place to start is by making "father and child" groups for various age groups of child, so fathers at least have a comfortable place to share fatherhood with each other. Given a chance to build their confidence in that role, we would be able to break down the barriers and migrate towards everything truly being "parent and toddler"; but as with whenever we apply "positive discrimination" to try and encourage people to do something society historically tells them they shouldn't, this needs to be handled with utmost care and sensitivity, lest it becoming divisive and discriminatory in its own right.
This can happen alongside "adventure activities for kids" groups that encourage mothers and fathers to go and do fun stuff with their sons and daughters - which would start off being dominated by fathers and sons, because of our social expectations; but there's no reason to give into that and assume it's the natural state of affairs.
We're all suffering because of gender stereotyping. There's no reason to force that onto another generation.