Jim White: Oh father, where art thou?

Who got fathering right – the older generation with their emotional reserve and fear of intimacy, or the current breed of more accessible dads who risk smothering their offspring


The comedian Peter Kay has long defined supermarkets as places that British parents take their children to slap them. If that's the case, I'm convinced that the municipal park on a Sunday morning fulfils a similar function: this is the place that British dads take their sons in order to shout at them. Just pop down to your nearest playing fields any time this weekend and you will see the evidence: small people running around in pursuit of a ball surrounded by a group of larger people, red of face, jabby of finger, yelling at them – always yelling at them. Rarely do they yell anything coherent or of practical use, mind. Generally it is something along the lines of "Get stuck in" or "Clear it". Sometimes it is just a strangulated roar directed at no one in particular: "Grrrrrr." Occasionally, though, it can be something altogether more alarming.

One Sunday morning last season, my son and I arrived at a park pitch well before the kick-off in his under-15s match. A game was under way on a smaller pitch running alongside the one on which his team was due to play. As we watched, it quickly became clear this was a tense affair. The fathers lining the touchline were blanketing out the sunlight, their competitiveness crackling and sparking, their anxiety sucking the oxygen from the air. Alongside us as we stood watching was a man who was getting particularly exercised by what he saw.

"Bloody get up there, Callum," he spat at a boy who was standing alone in his half as play buzzed round the penalty area at the other end of the pitch.

"But dad, he told me to stay back," the boy replied, pointing at his coach standing on the other touchline.

"Sod that," growled his dad. "Get in there. You'll never score from there, will you?"

As the boy sheepishly headed forward, his coach spotted him and yelled from the far side:"Where the hell are you going, Callum? I told you to stay back."

The boy looked imploringly at his father, who narrowed his eyes and spat: "Yeah, but I told you to get forward."

A couple of moments later, entirely by coincidence, Callum happened to be in the right place at the right time. The ball landed at his feet. But he was not sure what to do with it, was easily dispossessed by an opponent and made only a thin effort to win it back, watching the boy who had taken it from him run off in the direction of the goal. Seeing him lose possession so tamely, his father stepped forward over the touchline on to the pitch and, grabbing the boy's shirtfront in his fist, hauled him up off his feet so that the kid's toes hung several inches above the turf.

"Do that again and you'll get it when you get home," he said, pressing his nose into his son's face.

When he let him go, the lad just stood there, miserable and humiliated, tears beginning to form in his eyes.

"Oh don't cry, you girl," hissed his dad. "Show me you're a man, for once."

This was, incidentally, an under-nines game. So the boy in question was eight years old.

No doubt, though, if I had queried the father on his attitude to parenthood he would have preened himself on the active interest he took in his son's pastimes. In all probability he would tell me he was there every week, sacrificing his free time to follow his son's fortunes on the pitch, driving him to training midweek too. Doubtless he will still be there every week for the next couple of years, or at least until the lad develops a mind of his own and refuses to participate anymore in something that has brought him nothing but embarrassment, pain and shame.

Like many a touchline dad, however, I cannot claim to occupy the moral high ground here. I too have got over-excited at a junior game, behaving as if what I was watching was the final of the Champions League and not a regular fixture in the Oxford Mail Boys League under-15s section. I too once yelled at my boy when he made a mistake, though in my defence I did sink into introspective shame the moment the words left my throat. I just couldn't help it, I told him afterwards by way of apology.

Somehow, watching my boys play just seems to matter more than any proper sporting event. Richard Dawkins would have a more elevated explanation, something to do with the selfish gene in action, but for me, all I can say is that seeing my own flesh and blood in competitive action is the most overwhelming and stimulating drug known to man.

Or at least it is to modern man. Men of my father's generation simply didn't do that sort of thing. My dad never watched me play sport. It wasn't just because I was crap – though that may have been part of it. It was just that in my youth, dads of his age did not get involved in their kids' lives beyond maybe an annual rites-of-passage fishing trip. After a game, they might have asked you how it went, and slipped a couple of bob into your pocket if you won something significant. But actually turn up on the touchline and get so emotionally wrapped up in things they end up abusing their own son? Never. Why would they? Unlike us they didn't spend time pursuing their son's interests, they didn't aspire to be mates with their offspring: they were just our fathers.

No one has explored this particular change in the parental landscape better than Blake Morrison. His book And When Did You Last See Your Father? – now a terrific movie starring Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth as the two ages of Morrison man – has been an enormous comfort to many men of his generation when they have lost their own dads. It certainly was to me.

In the book, Morrison points up the emotional gap between father and son, recalling the way in which his dad somehow regarded the boy's presence in the family as a challenge. The young Morrison rebelled against the cold front issuing from his father and for many years there was huge distance between them. It was a divide his dad – fumblingly, clumsily – tried to close when he began to reconcile himself to his own mortality. As Morrison senior succumbed to dementia, his son finally realised that his dad loved him with a passion. The trouble was that during his lifetime the old man just didn't have the tools to articulate it.

That was the thing about men of his age: their emotional kitbag had been shredded by experience. My own dad spent much of his early twenties in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Taiwan. Only once in the 35 years that I knew him did he give me a hint of what had happened. In my final year at university, he happened to be in town on my 21st birthday and took me out for dinner. As we sat with the coffees he said to me: "Well, lad, that's not quite how I celebrated my 21st birthday."

He then told me what he had had to eat that day: half a cup of bloody rice as usual. And that was all he said. There no complaint, no bitterness. Self-pity was simply not part of his make-up. It wasn't just with me that he suppressed everything, all that pain, all that fear, all that gut-grinding misery. When he died, my mum told me that, throughout their marriage, he was plagued by nightmares, awful, sweat-inducing night-time torments. But he never discussed them with her.

"You just didn't," she said. "Not a word. It's not something I'm proud of, the way we just expected these poor men to get on with it after what they had been through."

Looking back on my adolescence it was no wonder that when we would sit next to each other on the sofa watching telly, dad and I would – without mentioning it – position ourselves as far as possible from each other, perching on the two ends. We had to in order to escape the tension rising between us. It was a kind of fear. It was as if he was frightened lest any intimacy somehow compromise the ability to control his emotions that was his only way he knew of coping.

Even back then I resolved that, when the time came, I didn't want to be like that with my kids. I wanted to be in there, connected to them, I wanted to be their friend. When, a few years later, I returned home with the first of my children, I remember how bemused my dad looked at the way I went about the job of child-rearing, a job he didn't really regard as part of his portfolio. He seemed astonished, not just at the paraphernalia that accompanies babies in the modern world, but at the way I engaged in my kids' upbringing. Like most of his contemporaries he regarded childcare as a little more than an occasional duty. Now here were the next generation of his family down on the carpet playing full time.

"I take my hat off to you, lad," he said to me once as he watched me change a nappy with the same distanced, academic interest that bloke on Tribe might watch some Amazonian Indian gut a pig. "That's something I never once did."

To this day I'm not sure if the note in his voice was of pride or regret.

What is unarguable is this: the regular presence of a father bestows advantage on a child. Feminists may baulk, but the empirical evidence suggests that those who grow up in a household with a father remain longer in education, are physically healthier and are less likely to engage in criminal activity. You only have to look at those who succeed in our society to see the truth of this assertion. David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton and Amir Khan, the three biggest stars of British sport, have one thing in common: they have fathers who have been there at every step of their progress, sometimes to the sacrifice of their own career.

David Cameron, extolling the importance of the family last week, is himself the product of a strong father. His old man, born with a congenital disorder that stunted his legs, never once allowed his disability to affect what he did. He would take part in games of rugby and tennis as if he were fully limbed. It was a refusal to be cowed or admit defeat that formed much of Cameron's world view.

One question, though, remains as yet unanswered: given that we all need a dad, who got it right? Our fathers, many of us think, were too apart, too cool, too damaged by their own experience to become part of our lives. But have we positioned ourselves too close to our children? Have we, in our search for intimacy, mistaken friendship for control? In our keenness to be there for our kids, have we in fact smothered them?

In short, if you were an eight-year-old footballer involved in a match in the near future, which would you prefer: a dad whose over-wrought touchline presence suffocates everything within a 50 yard exclusion zone, or an old man who stays away, happy for you to explore your own space in your own way? Some might say there is a middle path. And it is one that each of us heading down to the municipal park this Sunday morning needs constantly to remind ourselves to follow.

'You'll Win Nothing With Kids: Father, Sons and Football' by Jim White, is published by Little, Brown

Further reading: 'And When Did You Last See Your Father?' by Blake Morrison (Granta, £7.99)

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