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Book review. Updating timeless advice for fathers: Owen Connolly’s ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’

Review of Owen Connolly’s book ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – from Father to Dad’.

by Dr John Barry

In his book The Boy Crisis, Warren Farrell warned us about the dangers of ‘dad deprivation’. This is the phenomenon of boys who drop out of highschool, become unemployed, prone to imprisonment. Almost every mass shooter since Columbine has been a boy who grew up with minimal or no father involvement. So what has happened to fatherhood? Masculinity is often devalued (e.g. the recent controversial APA guidelines) and dads are portrayed as bumbling fools in the media.

Against this backdrop of boys who desperately need dads, and men who feel disenfranchised from the fathering role, what is a man to do? Well, consultant psychologist Owen Connolly may have some answers in his book ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – from Father to Dad’.

In a slim volume that avoids unecessary jargon, Connolly gives practical advice to men in a way that answers questions to the everyday problems of parenting. The giants on whose shoulders we stand are those generations of men who have lived before us, and through their struggles and survival have passed on instincts we can tune in to in order to sense that we are doing the right thing for our children. So a lot of the advice is about tuning into our own feelings and needs as well as those of our children and spouse. But it’s not all touchy – feely. For example, there is the Top 10 Discipline Tips which offers practical ways of dealing with your child when they are being unruly.

Connolly recognises that we all have strengths and weaknesses. He asks men to recognise this, and to play to their strengths. He understands that when men are distressed, they often want a practical step-by-step approach to solutions, so the simple Q&A format adopted in this book makes perfect sense, as is the practical advice.

An example of the Q&A format is the question: ‘Does a man’s childhood affect the way in which he will parent his own children?’ The advice given is: “When each of us reaches 16 or 17, we become our own person, and after that it’s important for all of us to have a look at our lives and value who we are and shed many of the labels that were put upon us. We have to start looking at the positive aspects of ourselves” (Connolly 2006, p. 14). This is based on the idea that if we don’t learn to love ourselves, our negativity will be a disadvantage to anyone around us. Such advice fits in very well with modern ideas around positive masculinity, and the book has many examples of timeless good advice.

The book has four sections: Men & Women, Parenting Small Children, The Teenager, and Parenting Today. There is also a workbook section at the back, with some questionnaires, as an aid to self-reflection and development. These add to the overall user-friendly feel of the book. Those who like an index at the back of the book and references supporting every single statement will feel a bit lost at times, but for those who simply want solid advice, such academic niceties are not needed.

One of the take-home messages of this book is ‘any man can be a father, but not everyone can be a dad’. The aim of this book is to help men to connect with parts of themselves that are beyond modern fads about masculinity, and understand how to be a dad.

 

Connolly, O. (2006). ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – from Father to Dad’. Dundrum: Nurture Press.

To purchase this book please email info@counsellor.ie 

 

About Owen Connolly

Owen Connolly is a consultant psychologist and marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dublin. As well as “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – From Father to Dad”, he is co-author of the book “Parenting for the Millennium”, a best-selling book on childcare. He completed his training in the UK, Ireland, and the USA. He lectures in childcare and parenting, and is Chairman of the Nurture Institute of Further Education for Parents, a not-for-profit organisation which runs parenting courses and day-long seminars on fatherhood throughout the greater Dublin area.

Owen is running a workshop on the subject of ‘fatherhood and being a good dad’ at the Male Psychology Conference at UCL in June 2019.

 

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Is there an alternative to the new APA guidelines for working with men and boys?

by Dr John Barry

The APA’s Division 51 (Men and Masculinities) recently released their guidelines for working with men and boys. While guidelines on this topic are much needed, the APA’s contribution leaves room for improvement. In this article I will outline issues with two of their 10 guidelines:

Guideline 1 of the APA guidelines suggests that “masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural and contextual norms”. However although it is true that masculinity is, in part, constructed, it is also partly innate.

What is the evidence that masculinity is, in part, innate? Well, sex differences in cognition and behaviour  are found worldwide, and their universality suggests something that transcends culture. Moreover, most of these clearly map onto masculinity. For example, the tendency to being more competitive, aggressive (physically), and interested in sports than women maps onto the male gender script of being a fighter and winner. The tendency to working longer hours, working in male-typical occupations, exploring the environment, more willing to take risks, maps onto the male gender script of being provider and protector.The tendency to show less fear, less crying, more inclined to substance abuse (self-medication) maps onto the male gender script of having mastery & control of one’s emotions.

The crucial point for therapy is that because some aspects of masculinity are innate, changing them is not a simple case of cognitive restructuring or behaviour change, any more than changing other deeply-held aspects of gender identity or sexual identity is straightforward or even desirable.

However we live in a culture steeped in the ‘gender similarities hypothesis’, telling us that there are ‘more similarities than differences’ between men and women. Of course this idea is not wholly untrue, but it typically deflects our attention away from the fact that it is the differences between men and women that ‘make all the difference’. Thus in many ways we are not encouraged to notice sex differences, and we might even experience cognitive dissonance if we are asked to focus on sex differences and consider the implications for, to take one example, treatment approaches in psychology.

Guideline 3 states that “in the aggregate, males experience a greater degree of social and economic power than girls and women in a patriarchal society”. This statement is an example of what we have identified as gamma bias in psychology, a type of cognitive distortion in which examples of male privilege are magnified and female privilege is ignored or explained away. Examples of male disadvantage are boys’ educational achievement and the high rates of male suicide. Examples of female advantage lighter prison sentences and gender quotas in science jobs. In fact recent evidence has found that men are disadvantaged in many countries worldwide, especially those with medium to high levels of development.

Therapists who believe that guideline 3 is true of their male clients might understandably struggle to find much empathy for them, and a male client might struggle to believe they will find much empathy from such therapists too.

As an alternative to guidelines 1 and 3, I would suggest that we recognise that masculinity is to some degree innate and potentially positive for mental health, and the vulnerabilities of male clients are more important to us, as therapists, than any hypothesised patriarchal power. We shouldn’t presume that the bad behaviour of the minority of men are representative of some underlying aspect of men in general, and we should recognise that negative views of men are a barrier to an appropriate level of therapeutic empathy.

I would encourage Division 51 to revise their guidelines to bring them in line with research evidence and common sense. I would also urge authors of any other guidelines relating to male mental health to make similar revisions. After all, men seek therapy less than women do even when suicidal, so we need to do what we can to make therapy more male-friendly.

Is there an alternative to the new APA guidelines for working with men and boys? Well the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health offers practical advice to therapists and a more positive theoretical perspective on men’s mental health and male psychology in general. Guidelines based on this handbook will be issued soon, and I hope the 32 chapters offer therapists and academics a realistic and useful way of understanding and working with men.

 

About the author

Dr John Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network and Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is one of the editors of, and contributors to, The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health

 

The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health will be released in April 2019.

From the back cover:

“This handbook brings together experts from across the world to discuss men’s mental health, from prenatal development, through childhood, adolescence, and fatherhood. Men and masculinity are explored from multiple perspectives including evolutionary, cross-cultural, cognitive, biological, developmental, and existential viewpoints, with a focus on practical suggestions and demonstrations of successful clinical work with men”.

https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1

 

 

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The yin of being looked at and the yang of looking

The “#MeToo” campaign, which was very prominent in 2018 and became a platform for women to complain about male behaviour, also reflects the tendency of society to polarise opposites and set them up in “boxing” mode against each other.  It also chooses to ignore the fact that women can also be abusive of men.  When I lived in Doncaster, South Yorkshire for example, I used to witness the effect of unwanted sexual advances on male friends of mine who were approached by female prostitutes who got into their cars at traffic lights. This kind of casual reverse sexist discrimination is what has inspired me to write a chapter for the new Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology (2019).

I think we should be celebrating male and female difference rather than setting up men and women in competition against one another. My belief is that the male and female are designed very differently because, as we have developed as humans, we have needed to take on different tasks to survive.  The male has been designed to “look”, not only at the female, but to “look out” for prey, for danger, and for ways to protect his family unit.  The woman, much to the surprise of some, still likes being “looked at” by the male, and will in fact go out of her way to make sure she is seen, unless of course, she dislikes the particular male who is “doing the looking”.

The unprecedented rise in the use of cosmetics and surgical enhancements proves that women feel the need to look good for as long as possible.  The use of botox is no longer confined to the ageing female – it is now used by young women in their 20s, and the number of women between 19 and 34 using botox has risen by 41% since 2011.  This is because the need to look good is “hard wired” into female genes.  It is rooted in mating behaviours which we see also in the animal kingdom.  In the avian kingdom, it is usually the males that display for the females, but for mammals, it is always the other way around.

The eastern concept of Yin and Yang is, I believe, a sensible way to view male and female complementarity.  The ancient Chinese world believed that the interlocking building blocks of the universe were Yin (the feminine) and Yang (masculine). “Yin” is negative, dark and feminine, and “yang” is positive, bright and masculine. Yin needs Yang and vice versa, and the two need to be in perfect balance for health and harmony in the body.

Because the male is “hard wired” to respond initially to what he can see visually, this is not something that he can “turn off” to avoid offending the modern female.  The female on the other hand, in a biological sense is designed to be especially attuned to touch because of regular reproductive cycles and physically nurturing the young from conception.  She therefore has tended, in an evolutionary sense to have a more internal frame of reference, but also needs to “be noticed” so that her primeval instincts can be satisfied.

The male will always need “to look” at the female and the female will always need “to be seen” by the male – even if she continues to re-define exactly how she is looked at and what she wants the male to see.

Looking and being looked at can be thought of as opposite forces interacting to form a dynamic system, in which the whole is greater than the parts.

 

About the author

Jennie Cummings-Knight, MA, MBACP, PGCE, FHEA

www.goldenleafcounselling.com

Jennie is an experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor of individuals and couples. She works privately near Cromer, Norfolk, as well as lecturing in London and online as a part time Associate of the Existential Academy.  She also runs regular workshops for counsellors in Norwich.  She has a particular interest in Male Psychology.

Jennie explores the topic of ‘the gaze’ in her chapter ‘The Gaze: The Male Need to Look vs the Female Need to Be Seen—An Evolutionary Perspective’, in the Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health (2019)  available for purchase here https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030043834#aboutBook  DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1

 

 

 

 

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