Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Fathers 'are too competitive to be playmates'
Sarah Womack

Children rate their fathers as among their least popular playmates because they are too competitive, according to research among more than 1,000 youngsters.

They "played to win", lacked imagination or were simply at a loss as to how to play games, said the Children's Play Council, which commissioned the survey with the Children's Society.

Children up to the age of 12 would rather play with their friends, their mother or their brothers and sisters.

Only one in 16 chose their fathers as their ideal companion. Dads were rated slightly above grandparents (one in 33). One in 50 children said they would rather play on their own.

Tim Gill, director of the Children's Play Council, said: "Dads have difficulty not being too competitive. Several fathers said they found it hard to get down to their children's level. And they don't find it easy to let children win.

"But children will get fed up if they lose all their time. It's frankly demoralising and not much fun."

The competitive dad was epitomised in the BBC comedy The Fast Show where the father torments his long-suffering children, Peter and Toby, with constant challenges they can never live up to.

Simon Day, the comedian who created the character Competitive Dad, said he was inspired by a father he saw once at a swimming pool.

"These two little kids said, 'do you want to race dad?' and he just tore off and beat them really easily and left them floundering in the pool - drowning while he waited at the other end, really proud of it."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, said: "Fathers are living through their children much more which means they lose sight of the line that distinguishes adult from child.

"It's also partly a power control issue. Fathers want to let their children know they are still 'players'."

But he said being competitive was not altogether unhealthy. "Almost every child I know who is good at sport has a mother or father who is physically active. The thing is not to be obsessive about it."

Mr Gill said not being competitive did not mean playing the loser day in, day out. "It doesn't mean dads having to wimp out constantly but they should avoid winning all the time."

The rise in divorce and separation also contributed to children not seeing their fathers as playmates, he said, as did the long hours culture.

Some fathers did not know how to entertain their kids but should think of the games they enjoyed as a child. "A lot of the games we played are still enjoyable - ball games outdoors, balloon games indoors, simple word games like '20 questions' or role playing where the child is the waiter and the parents are the customers," Mr Gill said.

One father of two, who declined to be named, told The Telegraph: "I don't think I am overly competitive but it is better my children learn to lose with someone who cares for them. You have got to get the balance right. Most children are very bad losers and I say to mine, 'you could say well done to me occasionally'."

The NOP poll of 600 parents and 1,200 children, to coincide with National Play Day today, found that most parents (72 per cent) claimed to play with their children daily but children said the reality was once a week or rarely.

Children said they did not play with their parents because their mothers and fathers were often too busy, too tired, too bossy or less fun than their friends.

One boy, aged seven, said: "I think it is sometimes a bit harder for older people to play because they lose their imagination."

A poll by the parents website,, found 60 per cent of parents admitted being competitive with their children against 40 per cent who said they were not.

Patricia Halliday from Essex, who has been a nursery nurse for over 30 years, said she had trouble finding time to play with her 11-year-old daughter.

"As a working mother I don't have time to play with her every day. Most of my friends would say the same. Kids are becoming independent at a younger age and it leaves less room for parents to get involved."

Mary McLeod, chief executive of the National Family and Parenting Institute, said parents needed to find ways to be actively involved in their children's lives. "Fathers tend to play computer games with their sons," she said.

"Even cuddling up on the couch and watching TV and talking about it afterwards is useful and intimate."

First published in the Telegraph, 4 August 2004