FIFO Dads and Discipline – how to make it work

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

As I’ve said before, FIFO families face the same problems and issues as other families. It’s just that some of these issues are intensified in FIFO families.

Take parenting, for example. Mums and Dads all over Australia have disagreements about rules and discipline for their children. It is normal for one parent to be stricter than the other; for one parent to think that the other is “too tough” or “too soft”; for one parent to think that their way is the best way.

In a FIFO family, the practicalities around having one parent work away can result in these ‘normal’ disagreements becoming significant family issues. This can take some of the fun out of being a dad and can even make going home stressful.

The FIFO lifestyle can work well for kids. FIFO dads have a unique opportunity to be involved in their kid’s day-to-day life when they’re home. However, it is important to work through any parenting differences to get the most out of being a FIFO dad.

Here's how!

In my experience, there are three main areas of parenting that couples most often disagree about: Expectations, The Rules and Discipline.

‘Expectations’ refers to what is expected of the child. Day-to-day expectations relate to things like manners, toileting, and sleep. Broader expectations relate to things like schooling, success and relationships (with friends and family).

‘The Rules’ refers to what sorts of behaviours are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

‘Discipline’ refers to how ‘Expectations’ and ‘The Rules’ will be managed in the family. Discipline is not just about punishment after bad behaviour, but also encompasses clear rules, praise and encouragement, planned ignoring, and consequences.

Which of the three areas do you and your partner disagree on? Active parenting involves both parents working together to reach a point of agreement or common ground about each of the three areas. It won’t always be easy. And don’t worry if you don’t reach a point of total agreement. It’s not necessary, or even desirable for you and your partner to parent in exactly the same way. It is the basic underlying principals that matter.

Here are some tips for FIFO dads:

  • Take the time to have a think about the three areas of parenting for yourself. (Remember, they are Expectations, The Rules and Discipline). In what areas do you think you and your partner agree? What areas do you disagree? Can you think of reasons why you might disagree about this particular area? (Reflecting on your own upbringing and life experiences as well as those of your partner can help).
  • Make a time to discuss parenting with your partner. Give your partner time to have a think about the areas that you agree and disagree as well.
  • Together, work towards reaching some common ground about Expectations, The Rules and Discipline for your kids.
  • You and your partner might need some help coming up with plans and solutions for discipline. There are books available with different ideas for discipline. Read the ideas, think about them, talk about them.
  • Come up with a list of family rules. Depending on the age of your kids, involve them. Write them up and stick them to the fridge. Make it fun as well as practical. (One of our family rules is "everybody practice the moonwalk" – courtesy of my five-year-old daughter who loves Michael Jackson!) Re-visit your family rules at least every six months.
  • Remember the number one Golden Rule of FIFO families: The Rules apply all the time, whether you are home or not. Standard rules are very important for kids in FIFO families.
  • If possible, communicate with your partner while you are away so you know what the current issues of concern are. Catch up about 'what to expect' before coming home so you can hit the ground running with family rules and expectations.
  • Be guided by your partner when you first return. Trust each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt.

(Note: if you are a separated FIFO dad, most of these tips can still be useful, though the discussions will obviously need to be with your ex-partner and/or current partner. When a child lives in two different houses, different rules can apply in each of the homes, though if they are too different this can be confusing and unsettling for the kids).

I also want you to know that I am not suggesting that you let everything else in your life go just so you can focus all your attention on ‘being a dad’. Michael Grose makes an important point in his book A Man’s Guide to Raising Kids when he says that a parent’s financial and personal success and satisfaction are important for their child’s own future happiness and success. It’s fine to have a career and even to be focused on this. It’s fine to be a FIFO Dad. The point is not to let either of these things get in the way of you also being an involved, active and confident dad.

Check out Michael Grose’s website for the book mentioned above and other parenting tips and ideas.

My final note: Having written all this, I am very aware that I am neither a dad nor a FIFO worker. I encourage all you men reading this to take on board what I have said while also looking for advice and information from other men. 

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