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Little Boys Grow up to be Daddies.

Debbie Garvey

International Fathers Mental Health Day 2017 #INTFathersMHDay

I have recently had the exciting opportunity to write a new book about PSED (Personal, Social and Emotional Development) in early childhood, and I knew I wanted to explore the research around boys, and the men they grow up to be. I explored the importance of men in early childhood, in terms of men who work with young children, but also men in their role as Daddies. I looked at how the experiences children have in early childhood, influence their whole lives. I looked at over 400 research articles and books, of course, not all were directly about boys and men, but all were about early childhood, PSED and how this influence behaviours. However, much of the research was also about neuroscience, and the associated sciences of how the human brain and body grows and develops as well as, flourishes and thrives – which of course is important to boys and men too!

As part of the research, I came across ‘International Fathers Mental Health Day’ and got in touch with Mark. By the end of the conversation, I was delighted to have the opportunity to put something together, based on the research I had undertaken. I don’t want to just copy sections of the book, so in this article, I am going to pose some questions. As you read, you will have the opportunity to have a think about and consider, how the things we do as adults, effects the children around us, but additionally, to consider how the things children do when they are little, potentially effects how they behave as they grow up. Of course, with a short article, there is only so much we can cover, and these are just some questions, I am sure you could come up with many more, they are just intended as a starting point to help us consider the importance of International Fathers Mental Health, and how we potentially can help, by starting to think about some of this, with very little boys.

So, let’s start where my interest in this started: play! For over thirty years, I have watched fascinated as young children (boys, as well as girls) play out situations they have seen in the ‘real world’. Whether they have language skills or not, I have seen very young children ‘pretend’ to mend cars, go shopping, cook, look after a baby, visit the doctors and so on. Additionally, I have been amazed as young children practice and learn to compromise, develop negotiation skills, practice being leaders, take turns and support and care for each other, for example, all wrapped up in play experiences. In other words, they develop and test the life skills they will need as they grow up.

Q1) We know that children practice and copy what they see adults doing, so my question here is: How can we support boys to see grown-up men doing things that they will need to learn as they grow up?

Recently, I am excited to have witnessed personally, professionally and as a society, what appears to be a growing understanding of male PSED, in the family, in the workplace, in communities, and indeed across personal and professional adult relationships. There has been a rise in awareness regarding mental health in boys and men, and greater awareness of the understanding that wellbeing is seen as vital to human survival. And yet, the statistics are staggering:

Loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality (death) by 26%.

(Campaign to End Loneliness, 2017)

Q2) We know that loneliness is a factor in mental health and wellbeing, so my question here is:
How can we support boys to develop friendships, form relationships and make connections?

In terms of emotional experiences, all little children struggle with understanding and controlling their emotions at some point. If we think of the wonderful meltdowns many two-year-olds experience, that gives us an insight in to how difficult emotions are for young children to understand. But… science helps us to understand why this happens. When we are stressed, worried or frightened for example, we release a hormone called Cortisol. The hormone helps the brain to decide what to do: fight, flight or freeze. In other words, can I fight my way out of a situation, flight (run) away from the situation, or freeze, stay really still and quiet and hope not to be noticed.

For many young children, their brains and bodies are still trying to work out what is a safe reaction (fight, flight or freeze), so their brains become confused. Add in feeling a bit unwell, tired, hungry, too hot/cold for example – and it is easy to see why those wonderful meltdowns two-year-olds are so famous for happen. They are not temper-tantrums, the child cannot yet control the range of dizzying emotions.

Whether children come to view their emotions as threatening, something to be controlled, and something to enjoy and that can enhance relationships, or as a deterrent to rational thinking emerges from the way their families and the surrounding culture deal with emotion.

(Eisenberg et al. 1998, p.24)

Q3) We know that children need help to understand, talk about and develop control of their emotions, so my question here is:
How can we support boys to understand and develop the words and emotions needed to talk about how they feel and understand how others feel?

In terms of how children come to view their emotions, we can perhaps explore this a little further. The ability to understand and deal with emotions is called ‘self-regulation’, and the ability to cope and recover from stress, trauma, worries and so on, is called ‘resilience’. Again, science can help us, and there is a huge amount of research in this area:

Research shows that play has many benefits for children, families and the wider community, as well as improving health and quality of life. Recent research suggests that children’s access to good play provision can:

  • build resilience through risk taking and challenge, problem solving, and dealing with new and novel situations

(Play England, 2017)

In terms of young children, risk, challenge, problem solving and new situations, means being able to try out and test their own brains and bodies. Learning how to balance on a wall, what happens when you splash water, learning how to run, hop and jump, trying new foods or knocking over a pile of bricks to see what happens, are some examples. In fact, the majority of childhood experiences link to one of these areas in some way. The difficulty comes in when we as adults stop children from experiencing these things.

Q4) We know that risk taking and challenge help to develop self-regulation and resilience, so my question here is:
How can we support boys to experience appropriate play experiences?

Finally, we know, that having men involved in early childhood is good for both children and adults. Again, there is a huge amount of research in this area, for example, the Canadian organisation FIRA (Father Involvement Research Alliance) undertook a research study of all the available literature. Some of the things they found included, children of fathers who are involved in their care are more likely to:

  • be better able to handle strange situations
  • be more resilient in the face of stressful situations
  • be more curious and eager to explore the environment
  • be able to relate more maturely to strangers
  • be more trusting in branching out in their explorations
  • demonstrate a greater tolerance for stress and frustration
  • have superior problem solving and adaptive skills
  • be more playful, resourceful, skilful, and attentive when presented with a problem
  • be better able to manage their emotions and impulses

In addition, FIRA found many benefits for fathers too! Which included:

  • more likely to exhibit greater psychosocial [social factors and behaviour] maturity
  • be more satisfied with their lives
  • feel less psychological distress
  • be more able to understand themselves
  • be more able to empathically understand others
  • able to integrate their feelings in an ongoing way
  • report fewer accidental and premature deaths
  • less than average contact with the law
  • less substance abuse
  • fewer hospital admissions
  • a greater sense of wellbeing overall

(Allen & Daly, 2007)

This huge list of statistically-based benefits is impressive and helps us to see the importance of father-child relationships, and why fathers matter too. Although this research is based on fathers, I am sure grandfathers, uncles and other male relatives experiences similar benefits for having children in their lives. However, all of these relatives, are also men… and yet, for my early-years focussed world of work, so few men see my world as a valuable and rewarding career option. The current statistics are about 2% of the early years workforce is male, and 25% of primary schools have no male staff.

In my book, I considered the following:

This book is about PSED in very young children, and part of that is about the messages that children, and their parents, hear… my concern is that it is very easy to [see how we] inadvertently and unintentionally send messages... Therefore, if we are to truly address the issues… we need to consider how we, as parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents, as predominantly female early childhood practitioners, and as society as a whole, etc., tackle the wider issue of men in early childhood.

(Garvey, 2017)

So, therefore, we know men being involved in early childhood has positive benefits, so the next questions come from my book: 

  • Why is it important for men to be involved in early childhood?
  • Why is involving men in early childhood seen as difficult?
  • Why is early childhood mainly seen as a ‘women’s domain’, and what can we do to challenge that?

(Garvey, 2017)

So, what has all of this got to do with International Fathers Mental Health Day? Well, I suspect that what happens to us when we are little has a lot of influence on what happens to us when we get bigger. There is a growing body of research and evidence around adult wellbeing, self-regulation and resilience and so on, and the links to childhood experiences. Science, research and indeed our experiences, show us that friendships, relationships and connections are things that we all have to learn how to deal with, emotions have to be understood, risks and challenges, (no matter how big or small) have to be overcome in everyday life, and having men involved in early childhood is beneficial to all concerned.

However, the mental health and wellbeing of men in the UK is worrying. For example, suicide:

  • Is the most common cause of death for boys aged between 5-19 years (Wolfe et al 2014)
  • was the leading cause of death for men in the 20-34-year-old age bracket (ONS, 2015)
  • the highest suicide rate in the UK was for men aged 40–44. (Samaritans, 2017)

…and of course, many of the men affected by mental health concerns will be fathers.

Groups such as Dads Rock, Andy Man Club, Heads Together, Dads Matter UK, Mantality, Men in Childcare, Rugby League Cares and Young Dads Collective, along with individuals such as Mark Williams (International Fathers Mental Health Day and Reaching Out) and David Wright (Mr Paint Pots) as well as many, many others are championing the role of men and supporting men to talk about issues and concerns, as well as celebrate the positives. 

As for me, well, me, and many, many others like me, such as Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, who kindly wrote the foreword for my book, are trying to raise awareness of the importance of understanding boys in their earliest of years, and how this can only increase the long-term benefits for both men and children – and therefore society as a whole. So, one final question:

Q) Why are the phrases “Big Boys Don’t Cry”, “Boys shouldn’t play with dolls” “Boys just fight all the time” or perhaps “Boys shouldn’t play in the home corner” often things we hear said about little boys in early childhood – when in actual fact, we need little boys to grow into men who can talk about and understand their own emotions, empathise with others, overcome challenges and understand the importance of being positively engaged with, and involved in, the lives of children?

Debbie Garvey: Stonegate Training, June 2017

Get Involved!
International Fathers Mental Health Day - 19th June 2017

References and Further Reading:

Allen, S. and Daly, K. (2007) Father’s Involvement Research Alliance: The Effects of Father Involvement: An Updated Research Summary of the Evidence. Canada: University of Guelph.

Andy’s Man Club: Any man who is going through a storm, been through a storm or just wants to come along and meet a good group of people with the aim of improving one another.

Campaign to End Loneliness: The Campaign to End Loneliness is a network of national, regional and local organisations and people working together through community action, good practice, research and policy to ensure that loneliness is acted upon as a public health priority at national and local levels.

Dads Rock: Exist to help all dads be the best they can, to spend time with their children, have a fun, positive and rocking experience! Dads and their children get invaluable 1:1 time, have the chance to make new friends and chat about what it means to be dad!

Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A. and Spinrad, T.L. (1998) ‘Parental socialization of emotion.’ Journal of Psychological Inquiry 9, 4, 241–273.

Garvey, D. (2017) Nurturing Personal, Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood: A Practical Guide to Understanding Brain Development and Young Children’s Behaviour. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.
(Due for publication Sept 2017 –

Heads Together: Work with partner charities who have achieved so much in tackling stigma, raising awareness, and providing vital help for people with mental health challenges. The team of charity partners working on Heads Together covers a wide range of mental health issues.

Literacy Trust (undated) Involving Dads – Literary Review.

Mantality: A media platform…which doesn’t shy away from publicising mental health or touching upon the hard parts of life that everyone can go through…is to inspire the everyday male to live a more comprehensive version of themselves; with their mind to be the first point of address.

Men in Childcare: Rolling out the recruitment and training of more men into childcare throughout Scotland.

ONS (Office for National Statistics) What are the top causes of death by age and gender?
27 February 2015

O’Sullivan, J and Chambers, S. (2012) Men Working in Childcare: Does it Matter to Children? What Do They Say? London: London Early Years Foundation (LEYF).

Play England: Vision is for England to be a country where everybody can fully enjoy their right to play throughout their childhood and teenage years, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 31 and the Charter for Children’s Play.

Rugby League Cares: Charity dedicated to supporting the Rugby League family and its local communities. Mission is to enhance and enrich people’s lives through the power and positive influence of Rugby League.

State of Mind: Established in 2011 with the aim of improving the mental health, wellbeing and working life of rugby league players and communities.

Samaritans (2017) The 2017 Suicide Statistics Report

Wolfe, I., Macfarlane, A., Donkin, A., Marmot, M. and Viner, R. (2014) Why Children Die: Deaths in Infants, Children and Young People in the UK. Part A. London: Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and National Children’s Bureau.

Young Minds: UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. Driven by their experiences Young Minds campaign, research and influence policy and practice.

Zeedyk, S. (