Daddy, we hardly know you

Loving, gentle, strict, detached? What should fathers be - and do we even need them? Jerome Burne looks at the conflicting theories and talks to two sons of famous absent fathers
"My father was frightened of his mother, I was frightened of my father and I'm damned well going to make sure my children are frightened of me." King George V's theories on child-rearing weren't particularly unusual 60 years ago.

Today we know better. The emotionally inarticulate dad is out. Even among new lads there is a belief that fathers should be loving and take on some of thedrudgery of child-rearing. But the implications of this dramatic social shift have hardly been thought about.

What are fathers for? Are they interchangeable with mothers, or do they contribute something specifically male, especially to their sons? Or, as a few radical voices are suggesting, do they have little effect at all?

The scales are heavily weighted against this new breed of caring, sharing fathers when it comes to spending time with the children. This is the topic of a conference, "Men and their Children", starting tomorrow, organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent centre-left think-tank.

"The workplace likes to pretend that children don't exist for men," says Adrienne Burgess, one of the organisers. "It is a brave male executive who says he can't make a planning meeting because he has got to collect the kids from school." And when divorce happens there is rarely a question of who is going to get custody. If men are going to be equal parents then they should have equal rights. "A father's relationship with his children shouldn't depend on the mother."

Burgess believes that men were pushed into their traditional detached role by the industrial revolution."Before then they were much more likely to be working around the home," she says. But she doesn't believe in a special male contribution. "Studies show that if men look after children from the beginning they are just as nurturing as women and they do all the same things like talking in a high voice to babies."

It's a view shared by Daniel Goleman, author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence. "If you want to know which children are going to have good emotional skills, be able to resolve conflicts, then a good predictor is how the parents get on with each other, not who does what," he claims.

But this theory of unisex parenting overturns a century of psychological theorising. At the mythic core of psychoanalysis, for instance, are stories of the unique role that fathers have to play. Father and son compete for the mother, but unless the father, by being more rational and detached, helps the son to separate from the mother there are psychic storms ahead for the youngster. This is why distant or absent fathers are held to be so dangerous. An American psychiatrist, for instance, wrote recently: "Young boys seem instinctively to invite their fathers to roughhouse, but without a paternal presence who sets limits, a boy's natural aggression can intensify into a well of pure destructiveness."

Conventional social psychology, on the other hand, has constructed its child development theory almost entirely around the mother. It is the cold mother, the smothering mother, the over-anxious mother who piles up problems for the boy.

In fact new American social psychology research supports the view that a loving father's involvement with his son does have specific benefits. A long-term study of families in Boston found that the more emotionally involved fathers were with their sons, the better they did both at school and in their later career. Moreover, active and involved fathers are much more likely to advance in their occupations, particularly in middle age, than self-absorbed fast-trackers.

All this psychologising concentrates on the nuclear family. But recently a controversial step outside has been taken by the writer and activist Robert Bly. He points to the important part in tribal societies other adult males play in initiating boys and suggests we need something similar. Even more radical are the findings of Professor John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire, whose latest work suggests that families, with or without fathers, have no role in shaping either masculine or feminine roles. "That seems to be entirely the responsibility of the peer group," he says.

In this sea of conflicting opinions the French essayist Montaigne appears as a sane guide: "A father is very miserable who has no other hold on his children's affections than the need they have for his assistance."

He wasn't the huggy-kissy sort but we knew he loved us

Barry Johnston is the eldest son of the broadcaster Brian Johnston. He works for the Johnson Memorial Trust producing audio books.

"My father was certainly distant when I was little. I went to boarding school when I was seven and he was on call 24 hours a day for the BBC so my mother looked after us. Sometimes she'd say: 'Wait till your father gets home', but when he did it was usually several days later and he was more interested in telling jokes.

He was never strong on discipline, he was more of a jovial uncle but we put him on a bit of a pedestal. He was a larger-than-life character. When he walked into a room it lit up.

He was never the huggy-kissy sort. He came from the stiff-lip generation but we knew he loved us very much. I spent time in America where people are more openly affectionate and when I came back I thought, hell I'm going to give him a hug. So I started doing it and I think he got to quite like it, though he could never bring himself to do it.

We never did things together when we were little. I see my kids all the time and I realise how much he was missing. A few weeks before he died he and I went on a TV programme about fathers and sons. One of the guests was saying that his life had been messed up because his father never said he loved him. Brian said: 'I don't think I've ever told Barry I loved him', and the presenter said: 'Now's your chance', so he said: 'I love you, Barry', and I could see from his face he was really pleased and so was I.

The only difficult time between us was when I was at Eton, which he'd loved and I hated, and all I wanted to do was play in a rock group. Once I started working in the music business we immediately had things in common and from then on we were very close. I saw him on the day he died. I sat and chatted with him for a bit about my kids and work and I gave him a hug and a kiss and said goodbye so I've no regrets at all."

Some parents are easier to talk to dead

Richard Olivier (main picture) is the son of the late actor Sir Laurence Olivier. He runs Wild Dance Events, which stages initiation rituals for young offenders. He describes his experiences in 'Shadows of the Stone Heart'.

"My father was 54 when I was born and until my teens I saw very little of him. I remember him then as a gruff, rather frightening figure. Later, when he was ill, we got on quite well and I became a kind of secretary/companion.

There was a gap in the masculine side of our relationship. Because he was so old I missed being energetic and doing sports with him. Even when I was with him on film sets he was cosseted and pampered. I never got to do any rough and tumble so I never got the message that it is OK to take risks.

I now make a big effort to spend time with my son. It's partly selfish. I'm trying to make up for what I never had. If he doesn't want to play football I can feel myself getting quite annoyed. I try to let him know what I'm feeling. When I can't see him I tell him I miss him. My father never said that so in the void I heard: "I prefer my work to you."

We are witnessing a return to the feminine in our culture, which is very valuable and very important, but it involves a loss of respect for the positive aspects of masculinity. There is a danger that the new caring fathers will become male mothers and smother their son's independence. There is a harder masculine side involving physical adventure that men encourage and women don't.

We've lost any form of initiation to mark the passage to manhood. In tribal societies the father is never responsible for initiating the boy into manhood, that is far too dangerous - they are both interested in the same woman. That is the job of a mentor, another older man. We've lost that idea and I think that is partly why we are so confused about masculinity.

I want my son to have the idea that you can trust men and that men can nurture you as well. But if boys' hearts have to be opened by women they think that only women have open hearts. Then the only relationship they can have with other men is competitive.

Some parents are easier to talk to when they are dead. I went through the stages of blaming my father for not being there and feeling anger at him and beyond that a sadness for both of us and finally an acceptance. His fame had given me so much grief that it has taken me a long time to honour his greatness. Now I feel closer to his spirit than when he was alive."