Parenting classes are all very well,but why do they so often meanmothers only? David Newnham joins a pioneering group of men who are learning, through role-play and shared experiences, how to be better fathers
They descend on their boy like a pair of hunting dogs. "Now I want you to isten very carefully," says Mum. "You're father's going to show you how to wire a plug." Dad is agitated. He thrusts the plug towards the 10-year-old but is careful not to let go of it. "Do you know how to wire a plug?" he barks, and the boy murmurs that of course he does, when of course he doesn't.
"Go on then. Show me how you do it. No! Don't grab it like that. What are you holding it like that for? I thought you said you knew how to do it. If you knew how to do it you wouldn't be hold-ing it like that."
Suddenly the boy marches off and takes the plug with him. "What do you need to go walking round the room for?" his father bellows. "Where are you going?" And from the circle of 12 chairs that encloses this fictitious family, a heckler calls out: "Down the pub!" As the laughter dies down, a soft voice with a Brooklyn accent says: "Okay. Well done." Meet Albert Ford, who at 54 has decided to spend his Monday evenings persuading this bunch of ordinary men to take a fresh look at fatherhood and how they relate to their children.
There's nothing like a bit of role-play to get people thinking, and later he will ask the three volunteers to improvise a second sketch in which Mum and Dad approach the wiring problem in a more positive way. But first he wants the men to talk. How did it feel to be the unfortunate child? What were the parents thinking of?
From time to time, Ford refers to a yellow book called What Can A Parent Do? This is the handbook for the Fives To Fifteens parenting programme around which these Monday night get-togethers in Oxford are structured.
The programme - there's a video, too, and any number of worksheets and questionnaires to be passed around - has been designed by the Family Caring Trust, a charity specialising in this work, so that anybody can organise parenting sessions like these. But there is something unusual - unique, even - about this particular group. It consists entirely of fathers.
There's an engineer and a probation officer, an economist and a furniture-maker. Two of the men describe themselves as house-husbands, and some are bringing up children alone. None considers himself particularly lacking in parenting skills, nor are their children especially difficult. "Am I so bad that you have to go on this course?" one girl asked her father the previous week. "Not at all," he told her. "I just want to be a better parent."
In Ford's experience it's usually women who go out of their way to become better parents. Women run the parenting courses and mothers attend them. "They are making great strides," he says. "But when I went on courses in Oxford I was the only father there. Yet dads don't know how powerful they are. They can crush a child with a look or a word, or build them into kings." Why were parenting groups not seeking out men? "I started to get very suspicious," he says. "Had I stumbled on some invisible barrier? Gender studies among facilitators and parents have shown that women feel powerful in this situtation and are reluctant to give up any of that power.
"So I began to wonder if that wasn't being reflected in the parenting organisations - not in a nasty or vicious way, but unconsciously."
He was so concerned that he decided to set up a group based on the Fives To Fifteens programme but aimed specifically at fathers. He applied for and got pound;1,900 of Millennium cash (it means individuals need only pay pound;1 per session), named the group "Man Enough", and stuck posters up all over Oxford saying "Calling all Dads", followed by a row of exclamation marks.
To say it has worked would be an understatement. On completing the 10-week programme, the first group of fathers declared they would carry on meeting. I'm visiting the second group, and already it's heading the same way, with at least one member eager to run a group of his own as soon as he's finished the course.
It's easy to see why. With nothing more than tea and coffee in the way of liquid fuel, the atmosphere is alive as the men talk openly and modestly about their experiences and - yes, it's true - listen to what others have to contribute.
The benefits are self-evident. In the past week, for example, these men have been finding out what can happen when they slacken the reins and allow their children to be more responsible for themselves. "On Saturday," says one, "my daughters wanted me to play cards with them. They're always fighting, those two. And they got into a big row about whether the tape-player should be on in the background.
"Normally I'd have got into the midst of it and ended up pulling my hair out. But this time I just said, 'You're well able to sort that out, so tell me when you've decided and then I'll come and play.' About half a second later, they'd sorted it out."
Another father let his 12-year-old cook the family meal (she always moans about his cooking, but ended up asking him for advice!) Another let his youngest clean the bathroom ("When I saw the state of him, I thought, 'Oh my God - what's the bathroom going to be like? But in fact he made a really good job of it.") "This is big stuff," says Albert, as they swap stories from the home front. Then it's time for a short burst of video - professional actors, this time, demonstrating that parents who constantly criticise their children's bad behaviour but never comment when they do something right are likely to achieve the opposite of what they desire, since "behaviour that's noticed increases".
Is encouragement always better than mere praise? A long discussion ensues. How should you comfort a child who is worried sick about exams? There is much debate about this, too - and about the nature and value of "success" and the need sometimes to balance the messages coming out of school.
Often the group can't be certain of what is right. Should this man let his 16-year-old go to the Canaries with friends? Should another stop giving his 10-year-old boy a hug when he picks him up from school? And what of the daughter who becomes stressed and anxious when Dad congratulates her older sister on passing her GCSEs?
"Be gentle on yourselves," Albert cautions. The strategies in the yellow book are only suggestions, he says. All children are different - it's the emotional relationship that's important.
When he invites the three "actors" to re-invent the plug-wiring sketch, everybody knows what to look out for this time around. Not that it's easy, this parenting game. Take our pretend mother and father here. For five minutes they've been in a huddle, plotting how they might encourage their son to learn without letting him blow up the happy home.
"It's taking you a bit longer this time, eh?" calls the heckler, and there's another round of laughter. It makes them think, though. The destructive approach, the quick and easy way - is that really what comes naturally to parents?
For more information on Man Enough, telephone 01865 863539.For details of the Fives To Fifteens parenting programme and copies of What Can A Parent Do? by Michael and Terri Quinn, write to the Family Caring Trust at 44 Rathfriland Rd, Newry, County Down, BT34 1LD, or phone 01693 64174 (fax 01693 69077).The Man Enough Programme is one of 25 projects granted cash last year under the Pre School Learning Alliance Family Learning Millennium Awards Scheme. They are part of a three-year rolling programme intended to reach 1,000 people. All projects encourage lifelong learning in the community.