A CONVERSATION WITH IAN GRANT
The importance of fathers is not a subject that gets commented on very often in our current politically-correct society – especially by Government and media voices. With increasing numbers of single-parent families, and the drive to declare that kids can be just as well off with only mum (or only dad) around, it’s refreshing to see a book take the bold step of speaking up for dads … declaring that their role (alongside mums) is vital for developing healthy and secure kids.
In his re-released book ‘Fathers Who Dare Win’, one of New Zealand’s best-known parenting gurus, Ian Grant, tackles the subject in a humorous yet practical way – encouraging dads to be their kid’s hero. So we decided to pay him a visit, and have a fatherly chat … about fathers.
GRAPEVINE: Maybe we could start with the end in mind: what sort of legacy should we be leaving our kids?
IAN: Our success or otherwise as fathers will be revealed at our funeral. Actually, let me rephrase that: maybe not the funeral itself (because people always say kind things), but afterwards while everyone’s munching on asparagus rolls – that’s when the truth comes out!
I reckon we often lie at funerals. And I’m dying for the day when the minister gets up and says, “The bastard’s dead – let’s celebrate!” I’ve been at some funerals where I don’t even recognise the person they’re talking about!
IN GRANDAD’S WORKSHOP
This might sound selfish, but I want my grandkids to cry at my funeral. And I want them to say, “Chiefy was my best mate. He taught me how to use a band-saw, and a biscuit-joiner …” That’s the sort of legacy I want to leave.
GRAPEVINE: It’s been 13 years since the first edition of your book was published. What prompted you to dig it out and re-release it?
IAN GRANT: I wrote it originally to underline just how important dads were. But I had an SAS soldier on the cover – and I didn’t realise until later that it’s women who buy the books! So it’s been re-released with a different format, some new stuff added, and now a cover that mothers will buy!
GRAPEVINE: You claim that most of us parents fit into one of three categories. The first is the Parentus Sergeant Major-something … Can you explain?
IAN: Yeah, sure. The Parentus Sergeant Majorcus is the ‘rules-without-reason’ kind of father, who runs the show like a military parade. He figures that the only way you get a message through is to SHOUT … and the louder you yell, the more the child will take notice. He often backs this up with abuse – telling his son, for example, that he’s a useless drongo or an idiot. And sadly, when that son grows up, he hears shouting in the back of his head whenever he does something wrong. So he either hits the bottle, or hits the tracks. He can’t stand that accusation.
Sadly, the Parentus Sergeant Majorcus often produces kids who grow up to be rebels, or failure-fraught adults.
GRAPEVINE: So what’s the second category?
IAN: The Parentus Jellyfishicus. And, all too often, these are mums and dads who’ve been brought up by a Parentus Sergeant Majorcus – because human beings tend to go from one extreme to the other!
This guy’s the ‘Peter Pan’ type father, who constantly rescues his children and never makes them accountable for their actions. When his kids do something wrong, he soothes them – saying things like, “It’s not your fault … you were just being creative!” So they never learn to live with the consequence of their own actions.
A Parentus Jellifishicus produces a kid who can’t face reality, and always blames others for his shortcomings. So, when this kid grows up, if he’s not happy in his marriage … he’s got the wrong woman. Or if his boss is hard on him … he’s got the wrong job. He’s always drifting.
GRAPEVINE: Hopefully the third kind of dad is someone we can aspire to!
IAN: Well, the ideal is the Parentus Backboneicus – the loving-yet-firm dad who teaches his son to live with the consequences, but is always on his side over any problems he may face.
LEARNING BY EXAMPLE
When this kid grows up and things go wrong, rather than hearing shouting in his head, or wanting to run away or blame others, he figures that there are no problems so big that they can’t be solved – “because that’s what my dad taught me!”
He hangs in there with his career and his relationships, because he knows there are solutions – you just have to work at them.
GRAPEVINE: Let’s talk about disappearing dads. What effect does it have on kids when Dad’s not around?
IAN: There’s been a bunch of research done on father-absence. It seems to impact boys more than girls. And the age at which separation occurs is quite critical – with the greatest impact on kids under five.
But it’s important to note here that the feminising effects of male-absence on a boy can be lessened if other male role-models are available. So, if you’re a solo mum, try to involve your kids with other good men … uncles, grandads, etc.
A girl’s behaviour is also impacted by an absent father – because fathers, ideally, by the way they interact with their daughters, are helping them learn the different roles that males and females have. It’s fascinating stuff!
Look, I’m more convinced than ever that we’re designed so the buck stops with the man. If men say, for example, “Hey listen, our marriage isn’t working – I want you to enjoy being married to me. How can we solve this?” … the outcome will be far more positive than having the wife drag him, kicking and screaming, to counselling. Because when men step up, things happen!
Sir John Graham talks about this in the foreword of my book, about what happened when he was Headmaster at Auckland Grammar. Whenever there was a problem with a boy, if his dad came into the school and got involved with finding a solution, the problem was nearly always solved. You see, there’s something about men – we fix things.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m not saying that women are less important – because that’s not true! In my marriage, for example, my wife Mary and I are equal. But the buck stops with me!
If there’s something wrong with the family, and men step up to it, the problem is often solved.
GRAPEVINE: Some dads reading this will judge themselves pretty harshly – maybe even think it’s too much of a step-up to step up! Have you got a word for them?
IAN: Well, here’s the thing: I’ve never met a man who doesn’t want to be a good dad. And the reason I’ve written these books is that I’m a hopeless dad, too!
My most common prayer is, “Dear God, it’s me again. I’m in the Winnie-the-Pooh, and not much Winnie!” You see, I’m still learning as I go. There’s no such thing as a perfect dad – and there’s no such thing as perfect children!
We just need the right attitude – of wanting to get better, and being willing to take small steps.
GRAPEVINE: You’ve often said that a father is like a coach. How does that look?
IAN: If I say to my grandkids, “Hey guys, you’re in Chiefy’s team today!” they all go “Okay!” – because they want to belong! A good coach sees the individual strengths of each player but, at the same time, inspires them to be part of the team. And, most importantly, a coach stays on his pedestal … and, through his belief in his players, he wins their respect and love.
I don’t know how many people go to a high-school reunion and head straight for their history teacher. (Not that I’ve got anything against history!) Most of the time, with boys especially, you head for your rugby coach! Now that coach might’ve said to you, “If you get penalised, you’ll be running around the field until you spew! ‘Cos I’m gonna make you the best team in the world!” But, funnily enough, boys respond to that – because, while he sets high standards, they know their coach loves them.
Arthur Lydiard was a great example, wasn’t he? He was a successful athletics coach who took ordinary Kiwi boys and made them winners. But he didn’t say to his guys, “You could be New Zealand champions.” No, he said, “If you work with me, I’ll make you WORLD champions!”
A good dad gives his kids a dream, sets the standard high, and helps them get there. If your child comes home with one ‘A’ on his report card, a dad doesn’t say, “You’ve got to get at least three ‘A’s’! Don’t show me your report until you do!” You’ll just crush them! But if dad, with a bit of humour, says, “Son, you must have your mother’s genes! One ‘A’ – that’s brilliant! But do you know what? I think you can get two next time!” … the kid will go out and get three!
It’s about encouraging … not crushing. And a good coach knows how to do that.
GRAPEVINE: If the words we use with our kids can have such an impact on their future, we need to be careful what we say – don’t you agree?
IAN: Too right! We’ve got the power to leave positive, energising and healing messages in our children’s heads that will remain there for the rest of their lives. It’s the good and bad beliefs they have about themselves that, at the end of the day, will determine their attitudes and their actions.
JUST ANOTHER WORD FOR EXPERIENCE
Grab every opportunity to say things like, “I’m so glad you’re on my team!” Let them know they’re important, that they’re valued. Reassure them that mistakes are okay – that anybody who never made a mistake, never made anything!
Edison’s the great example here. Was it 1100 light-bulbs he made before he got the right one?
GRAPEVINE: Something like that! So, what other messages should we be giving them?
IAN: There are heaps of them! “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” “Honesty’s the best policy.” “There’s no problem so big that it can’t be solved.”
One thing that boys, especially, need to hear from their dads is, “You’ve got what it takes, mate!” And for girls, you need to tell them, “If you ever get into trouble, I’m always here for you.”
I had a friend tell me about his teenage daughter who rang him from a party. He picked up the phone to answer it, but before he could say anything, she said, “Oh Dad, do I have to come home now?! It’s only 11 o’clock! Oh … alright. Do you know where to come? Okay, I’ll be out on the street in 10 minutes.”
He didn’t say a word throughout the whole conversation! But he understood that his daughter was in a situation she didn’t want to be in – and she knew she could use Dad as the ‘fall-guy’! So my friend said he went to pick her up feeling like James Bond! And, when he got there, she hopped in the front seat and said, “Dad, you’re amazing!”
He was her knight-in-shining-armour! She knew she could trust him to be there when she needed him.
GRAPEVINE: He sounds like quite the hero!
IAN: Absolutely! And guess what? You’re already a hero to your kids … until they discover otherwise! Our children need their dad to be a hero. They need him to be available, to invest in experiences – not just things. To be a hero to their friends. And to honour his commitments – even when life gets busy.
You see, right up to about the age of 12, your kids think you’re the best dad they could ever have. But, after that, a radical re-evaluation takes place! So make those years count …
GRAPEVINE: That can be pretty difficult – especially when Dads work long hours and often don’t get home until late.
IAN: Then you’ve got to think outside the box! If you’ve been working late and missing your kids, try this: When you arrive home after the kids have gone to bed, go into their rooms and say, “Quick, wake up, get in the car!”
They’ll ask, “Why Dad?”
“Can’t tell you …”
“Do we have to put our clothes on?”
“No, your PJ’s will do.”
By this stage your kids will be wondering what on earth’s going on! So drive them to a takeaway and ask, “What flavoured milkshake, guys?”
CRAZY ABOUT YOU!
There’ll be a sigh of relief. And, as you drive out, one child usually asks: “Why did you do this, Dad?” “Because you’re on my team!” Children instinctively know you do crazy things with the people you love – and they respond well, knowing they’re special.
GRAPEVINE: We’ve all seen parents who try to be ‘mates’ with their kids – which often results in children who don’t respect them. How do you get that balance right, between friends and parents?
IAN: Well, it’s the coach! The coach is in charge. And, if you think about it, all our great coaches are tough guys – you don’t cross them. Look at the All Blacks: the coaches have set a standard, and (most of the time) when the young guys come through, they play stunningly! Why? Because they’re encouraged to reach that goal – not settle for mediocrity.
And the coaches and players are often best of mates. Look at Sir Graham Henry and Richie McCaw, for example. You watch them relaxing – they’re brilliant!
So yeah, it’s important to develop a friendship with your kids – but it’s a friendship with boundaries. Be the boss!
GRAPEVINE: Lots of authors and researchers have lamented the lack of initiation rites in our Western culture – helping boys into manhood, for example. This is important, right?
IAN: Interestingly, in most other cultures that initiation into adulthood is still there for boys, but unfortunately, in the West, we’ve failed to supply that challenge. And yes, this is desperately needed – especially when boys reach 14. At 14, there’s this window of opportunity when they have a tremendous sense of the future and of their own potential – and if we don’t capitalise on that, by the time they reach 16 or 17 it’s often too late. They’ll settle instead for mediocrity and what their peers dictate.
GRAPEVINE: So how can we help our boys move into adulthood?
IAN: They need to be challenged. Boys, in particular were made for that, so they need a variety of activities that’ll challenge them. Things like fishing, fixing things, sport. Take your 12 year-old son away for a ‘blokes weekend’ – hunting or fishing or surfing – and talk about the real issues of life.
GRAPEVINE: Such as?
IAN: Well, things that’ll help him become a man. Like: your actions have consequences – and you’re responsible for both. Pornography will destroy your intimacy with your future wife. Your brain is your most powerful sex organ, so make good decisions about love and friendship. There are plenty more ideas in the book …
It’s also helpful to have an actual initiation ceremony. Interestingly, there was always pain involved in these ceremonies; maybe that’s how you get through to the male brain – with pain! But there doesn’t have to be bloodshed.
You might say to your son when he turns 14, “Hey listen mate, there have been a few people who’ve influenced your life apart from me, so we’re going to have a mentor’s dinner.” You have him invite up to five people who have mentored him – and over dinner each guest gives a small gift and a speech to your son. Then he stands and gives a thank-you speech of his own.
This dinner declares that he’s now looked on as a young adult … and that’s a very powerful message to give to your son.
GRAPEVINE: How about our daughters? Do they need initiating?
IAN: Absolutely. And, by all means, use the mentor dinner as well! Today’s world is an oyster of opportunities for our girls. She can be the Prime Minister … she can be a great leader. But she still needs to be a woman. And I get awfully sad when I see women trying to be men. You don’t have to be a man to be a leader! You can be a lady leader!
So yeah, daughters need that initiation. And one of the best things you can do as a dad, is take your daughter out on a date when she’s 14 or 15 (just the two of you) and tell her how much you appreciate her.
Get the relationship expert you sleep with (your wife!) to help you prepare a list of seven good things about your daughter. Then, without reading the list (because you’ve learnt them off by heart!), drop them into the conversation over the course of the evening.
You see, every woman wants a man who’ll fight for her, be her hero, and say to her, “You’re lovely and capable!” Dad should be the first male in her life who affirms her and celebrates her value.
It’s surprising how much research there is linking a daughter’s self-esteem to her father’s approval – especially just before and just after puberty. So dads with daughters? This is really important stuff.
GRAPEVINE: Sex. Do we have to have the birds-&-bees talk? Can’t we just leave it up to the school? Let’s face it, for lots of dads this is one scary subject!
IAN: You’ve gotta do it! And the earlier you start the better. But don’t give the whole cartload at once … just whatever’s appropriate at that age.
The thing is, most parents know their teenagers better than anyone else – they just need the confidence. So when you see your kids starting to ask questions and talk about it … start preparing yourself!
I think the best advice I got is that you need to be unshockable. When I worked with teenagers and they told me something private – if I showed my disapproval, the conversation ended. The truth is, sometimes I wanted to shout out “WHAT?!” But I had to bite my tongue and say, “Tell me more …” You’ve got to get the whole story out.
And listen, a dad should be able to talk about this stuff – because he knows men! He can say to his daughter, “Look, if you wear a dress like that, it’ll arouse guys!” Fathers know these things.
I was talking to a dad whose daughter had just become a teenager – and he’d told her that if any guy wanted to take her out, he had to ask him first. Some might say that’s old-fashioned, but I say no, that’s really smart. I often joke at seminars that you dads should buy a cheap baseball bat, and rough it up on a brick wall so that it looks used … then, when the boy turns up, have the bat in one hand while slowly hitting the other …
Now, I’ve had dads who’ve actually done that. And they’ve said to these young guys, “Hey, thanks for taking my daughter out. I know you’ll treat her right, and I want you to have a good night. But you know you’re answerable to me.”
I tell you what: boys respond to that! They know they’re accountable to her dad.
GRAPEVINE: What happens if we’ve blown it as a dad – and our kids are now well into their teens or even older. Is it too late?
IAN: No, no – you can still pick it up. But it’s like when the coach says, “Hey listen, I missed it. So can we try again?” Look, as a dad there were a few things I missed that I had to pick up. For instance, when I saw my boys getting angry, I used to get mad with them (and at myself!) because I knew who they’d learnt it from. I did it without realising. So I had to make that right.
But magic happens when dad says, “Hey mate, I’ve blown it. I’m sorry.” An apology like that is a very powerful thing.
GRAPEVINE: Any final advice you want to leave dads out there?
IAN: Don’t underestimate how important you are. One psychologist told me that the biggest issue in New Zealand is dads who still live as if they’re single – and mothers who still want to control everything in the family.
When Mum rings you at the office and says, “I’m having a terrible day – the kids are driving me nuts!” … it’s too easy for Dad to say, “YOU’RE having a terrible day? I’ve got five staff away sick, and it’s all turned to custard! You’re only looking after two little kids …” (Ouch!)
Look, I train dads to think “I’m the dad!” – and instead say, “Honey, I’m coming home. When I get there we’ll sort this out.” On your way home, you stop at the dairy and get a big pile of popcorn, fruit-juice, whatever. Then you come in the door and say, “Where’s the most amazing woman in the world?”
You give Mum a 30-second kiss. And the kids say, “Whose party’s this? It’s nobody’s birthday!” And you say, “This party is to celebrate the end of snot-week!” Just watch what happens: the kid’s behaviour will change, because Dad’s said “Snot week is over! We’re not going to grizzle anymore. We’re having a party!”
There’s something that happens when dads declare things … I don’t know what it is, but it works!
And here’s one more idea. The magic line to say to your lady is: “How can I be a better husband?” or “How can I be a better dad?” Men don’t want to go there, because they know they’ll get a lecture. And you will! But you’ll be in your ‘happy place’ very quickly, because that’s what she wants to hear.
If you move a metre with you wife, she’ll move a kilometre in relationship-improvement. It’s how we’ve been designed …
IAN’S BOOK IS AVAILABLE FROM HIS WEBSITE – WWW.FATHERSWHODAREWIN.COM – AND FROM ALL GOOD BOOKSHOPS.