WONG Suen Kwong is a guy much in demand these days. Every so often, men come to him for advice on relationships - with their children, that is. With modern fatherhood being such a complicated issue these days, it seems that more men are shedding their Asian inhibitions and looking for help in what seems to be the most natural thing in the world - being a Dad.
Mr Wong is one of the founders of the Centre for Fathering, a support group for men formed in 2000 to promote responsible fatherhood. Although it's a Singapore-based group, he has been getting invitations to give talks and workshops on fatherhood in other parts of Asia from Malaysia to Taiwan. 'They somehow hear about us, through word of mouth, and they're keen to learn about what we have to share,' says Mr Wong.
Blame it on fast-developing economies in Asia, which is taking its toll on the family, says Edwin Choy, Mr Wong's co-founder. The father's role in the family is under threat - because of factors such as long work hours, frequent absences from the home because of work assignments overseas, the rising trend of nuclear families and so on.
The fact is, being a father in this day and age has gotten more challenging, with most men citing the lack of time to spend with their families.
Thanks to advocacy groups like Centre for Fathering and the newly launched Gems (which stands for Gender Equality Men of Singapore) set up under the auspices of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), men are slowly but surely finding 'tools' that will help them become sensitive new-age guys, and fathers. Why the focus on fathers, however? Because they do more than just bring home the dosh, as their involvement with their children has a profound impact on their children's development, says Mr Wong.
Psychologist and counsellor Adrian Lim Peng Ann, who's currently doing his doctorate on challenges faced by young fathers, says that there's a lot of research out there highlighting the importance of the father's role on a child's development.
An Oxford University study in 2002, for example, showed that close interaction between fathers and children at the age of seven predicted close relationships at the age of 16 and marital satisfaction and general psychological well-being at 33 years.
American researchers also say that a young adult's adjustment to life depends even more on the quality of the relationship he had as teenager with his father than with his mother.
Looking at the rise in divorces, child suicides and mental problems in faster-developed societies like Japan and Korea, Singapore has to make more effort to strengthen the family unit, feels Mr Choy, as that's the key to a strong community.
Reaching out to men at the workplace
Men don't intentionally set out to be 'bad' fathers, says Mr Wong, while pointing out how companies' human resource policies have direct impact on fathering. Because of that, most of the work done by the Centre is advocated through companies. 'We're also a small set-up, so we don't have millions to spend on national campaigns. We have to be targeted; so to reach men, we go to their workplace,' says Mr Wong.
Employees of companies which have partnered with the Centre will have seen posters advertising the Centre's recent campaign - Eat With Your Family Day. For those companies which subscribed to it, it required them to get managers to agree to let male employees who are fathers go home on time, if not early, so fathers could eat with their families.
'We understand that from a corporate point of view, this isn't easy - so we do appreciate that when they agree to work with us, it's a big commitment,' he says.
Eat with Your Family Day was meant for fathers to initiate dinner with their families. 'It was meant to create awareness, and to remind men to think about the reason why they're working so hard,' he adds.
Then there are other nationwide initiatives like Back to School with Dad - which over 200 schools and companies have participated in since 2007 - and 10,000 Fathers Reading, a joint project with the National Library Board.
If most projects seem to be activity-based, it's so that fathers find a platform to do meaningful activities and 'bond' with their children. 'If we held a workshop on parenting, majority who attend will be mothers!' says Mr Wong. Mr Choy points out that quality time with children isn't just about lecturing them on their grades, or sitting in front of the TV.
And work practices are also often brought into the family and social life. 'As Singaporean workers, we're often told to outsource our non-core competencies. If we can't do something well, we're used to paying someone else to do it!' he adds.
So children nowadays get sent to tuition, have maids to look after them - almost as if parenting can be 'outsourced'. By coming up with an activity-based programme, the Centre hopes to 'give a framework for what fathers can do with their children', says Mr Choy. Men tend to think that they're 'good fathers' when they provide for the family, says Mr Wong, 'But we're asking them them to rethink that definition. Ultimately fathering is a relationship.'
What do children want of their fathers, one wonders. 'The consistent feedback we hear from children is that they want their fathers to be less rushed and less impatient with them. And for them to be more approachable,' replies Mr Wong.
Modern challenges of parenting
There's much more that can be done for a more father-friendly culture, says Mr Wong. 'Both parents could be required to sign report cards, for instance; and in male-dominant companies or industries, there could also be creches set up - why should only women take responsibility for looking after children?' Male toilets could be more child-friendly as well, and there could be days when fathers are encouraged to bring their children to the office or workplace.
'The thing is, Asia has moved from an agrarian-based society to an industrialised one, so children who used to see their father working at home or in the field, and who used to work alongside their father, now have no concept of what their father does at the office,' points out Mr Choy. Men can tend to get so focused in their work, or so excited about clinching a deal, that they tend to neglect their family lives. It's no wonder then that when there are changes in their relationships with wives and children - men are usually the last to pick up on it.
'Let's face it, in the parenting partnership, men are usually lagging behind the women. Women do have better relationship skills whereas men are conditioned to be competitive from a young age,' says Mr Wong.
Psychologist Mr Lim also highlights the condition of the 'pseudo single parent' where fathers don't hold up their end of the parenting partnership. He says the men have to be convinced that for those whom fathering may not come naturally, it can be a learnt skill. 'Men sometimes need to be given factsheets - on what to do as a father!' he says.
'Men can also learn fatherhood by looking at positive models - if not from their own fathers, then it could be their peers or even a boss who's very family-centric,' he says.
What's the definition of a good father though? For all busy fathers out there, the psychologists and family life counsellors have this to say: that all your kid wants is to spend time with you.
A good father is also one who knows his children deeply, and one whom their children can approach no matter what happens, says Mr Choy.
Could fatherhood ever be given the same importance as motherhood? Mr Wong notes that while young children need more nurturing from mothers when they're young, the role of 'coaching' children and advising them about how to cope with life is a responsibility that lies with the father. And this 'coaching' becomes more important given the nuclear family setting these days, when young children may not have extended family members to model from.
Perhaps this is now the time to look at gender equality as it applies to men. A small group of men have been meeting monthly to talk about various issues - in their quest to find out what's there to gain for them in gender equality. 'We let our members bring up issues that trouble them by creating a conducive environment to talk - fatherhood could be one of the issues,' says organiser Bert Bjarland.
In Mr Choy's view, greater gender equality will happen when there's more importance placed on fatherhood. 'There needs to be a mindset change. And we'll see it when men can talk more freely about their family problems; when fathering is seen as equal to mothering in parenting,' he concludes.
This article was first published in The Business Times on June 16, 2008.